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There is already a negation included in ничего, in the statement "Я ничего не понимaю". I cannot figure out why instead of using "Я ничего понимaю" one uses that expression that apparently contains a double negation (is the particle не emphasizing that one does not understand absolutely nothing).

  • Is "Я ничего понимaю" understandable?

  • Does this construction ничего/никого... не + глагол apply for any verb? (I've heard "Я ничего не вижу" итд.)

  • Do there exist examples where this apparent double negation actually means something affirmative?

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It should be "Я ничего не вижу". –  texnic Dec 26 '12 at 14:19
    
thanks, I corrected that. –  c.p. Dec 26 '12 at 19:04
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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted
  1. No, in Russian, the phrase "Я ничего понимаю" is 100% incorrect, in all cases and under all circumstances. The phrases like "ничего не" are called, as you'vе already mentioned, double negation (двойное отрицание), and this linguistic phenomena exists in other Slavic languages, as well as in many other languages, both IE and non-IE. For example, in Polish, which is mentioned in the Wikipedia article, the likewise single negation is also inappropriate. Moreover, in English, double negation is also used in some niche cases.

  2. This is, surprisingly, the most difficult part of the question. To my knowledge, you can use it with any verb which can be answer the question: "Чего не [verb]?", "Кого не [verb]?" - not a big surprise, though)

  3. Sure, there are some examples. A classic example is, for instance, не мог не + verb, which means that the action indicated by the verb actually took place: "Я не мог не заметить", "Она не могла не влюбиться в него".

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Intersing: specially the examples in the third point. –  c.p. Dec 25 '12 at 1:56
    
You write in item 1 that я ничего понимаю is called double negation, so you probably meant to write я ничего не понимаю. –  KCd Dec 25 '12 at 3:34
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Modern English negation with "not" developed from the Old English double negation. –  Yellow Sky Dec 25 '12 at 3:39
    
Also the grammatically incorrect phrase "Я понимаю ничего" can be interpreted by a Russian native as "I understand quite well" which is actually opposite to "I understand nothing". –  Serg Dec 25 '12 at 12:07
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@Serg, I disagree with such claim, such interpretation will be very untypical. –  shabunc Dec 25 '12 at 19:49
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The answer of shabunc is absolutely right. I just want to dwell more on the internal logic of the phenomenon.

First, let's clarify/establish the scope and the terminology.

Scope: We are only talking here about the negations of a pattern: [verb] + [negative adverb]. Adverbs like nowhere, never, nobody.

Double negations of other patterns in Russian are mostly the same as in Boolean algebra. For example, in colloquial speech it is possible to say "Я не не-согласен" to the meaning "I agree" when you deny somebody's statement that you "не согласны".

Terminology: As far as I understood from the wikipedia article, there are two possibilities:

  1. double negation - when, like in Boolean algebra, the second negation cancels the first.
  2. negative concord - when further negations add emphasis to the first one.

We have already established that Russian language belongs to the "negative concord" group. Let's look at other European languages (source: the same wikipedia article):

English      dbl.neg.
German       dbl.neg.
French       concord
Spanish      concord
Portuguese   concord
Welsh        concord
Greek        concord
Slavic       concord
(Polish, Serbian, Belorussian, Ukranian, Russian, etc.)
Latvian      concord
Lithuanian   concord
Hungarian    concord
Finnish      concord

As we can see, most languages prefer negative concord. Why is that? Let's look at the following phrases. (Sorry for some "strictly mathematical" approach :-). Imagine you say these phrases one after another to a girlfriend or boyfriend without changing the word order to make obvious the evolution of the phrase:

- Я не хочу идти с тобой на ярмарку после 6 вечера.
- Я не хочу идти с тобой на ярмарку никогда.
- Я не хочу идти с тобой никуда и никогда.

You are consistently widening your negative message here. In English, following the rule of double negation, as soon as you put the negation in at least one of the adverbs you should remove the negation from the verb.

I do not want to go with you to the fair after 6 p.m.
I want to go with you to the fair never.
I want to go with you nowhere and never. 

Of course, you wouldn't torture your [ex-]boy/girl-friend like that. You would say something like "I do not want to go with you ever" or "I will never want to go with you to the fair" but formally the phrases which I have just presented are correct and are allowed by the language. There is an episode in the Borat movie where he indirectly makes fun of this feature of English (or rather the Old English).

So, the problem with double negation is that sometimes you do not know the gist of the phrase until you hear the very end of the phrase. I think, the Germanic languages (English is a Germanic language, too) have an old tradition of placing negation at the very end of the sentence. For example, "Er hatte das Buch nicht" - He did not have the book. Thereby this small peculiarity of double negation is not a problem for Germanic languages because the people are already patient enough to wait till the end of the sentence. :-)

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In English, while formal would be I do not understand a thing (anything, it at all) or I understand nothing it is possible to use the negative concord as well, if colloquially, as in I don’t understand nothing. –  theUg Feb 2 '13 at 23:10
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You have indeed a double negation in russian.

Я не могу не разговаривать

I can't (what can't i?) (NEGATION) speaking, means "I can't remain silent"

However, in case of any question words used with prefix "ни", those enhance the negation effect (it is called "усиление отрицания"). The list includes:

Нигде, никогда, ниоткуда, никак, нисколько etc.

So, f.e.:

Я никогда не был доволен

Я нигде не побывал

Я нисколько не расстроен

Pay attention to the other case, when question words are written separately with 'ни' and the sentence has overall a different meaning.

Я не знаю ни где он был, ни когда, ни зачем он туда отправился.

Here you state: "Я не знаю" (I don't know) and then you enumerate, which information do you miss:

где он был

когда [он там был]

зачем он туда отправился

All three "ни" are optional here and you can omit them. They mark out, that neither of those facts is known to you.

If you omit them, the sentence sounds very formal and emotionally detached:

Я не знаю где он был, когда, зачем он туда отправился.

Keeping them is what a native speaker usually does.

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I am not fully agree with the previous replies. The phrase Я ничего не понимаю is not a double negation. Double negation means that the final meaning of the phrase becomes positive.

(Example: Я не смогла не думать об этом (I didn't manage not to think about it) = Я подумала (I thought about it). This is double negation)

If Я ничего не понимаю (I understand nothing) was a double negation, it would mean Я понимаю (I understand), which is not the case.

Here we have a normal negation, the trick is with the word ничего (the negative pronounce). This word, and other pronounces starting with "ни-" (никто, никого, ничто, ничего) when used together with negations, add more emphasis to the negative sentences.

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