German ‘ohne’ and English ‘without’ as not-with

Does the German word ohne (‘without’) correspond to a single mental concept? A recent paper argues that it does not. Instead, it has 2 components. One component corresponds to what the paper calls the cum concept (English with). The other corresponds to a negation or antonymity concept, which the paper calls anti.

The paper also argues that German-speaking children:

  • already conceptualise ohne as having 2 components by the age of two and a half; and
  • for a short period they sometimes produce both forms as mit ohne (‘with without), though they more often produce the adult form ohne by itself. From around their 3rd birthday, they produce only the adult form.

The paper The cum-sine Pattern in German Child Language: An Argument for Antonym Decomposition by Uli Sauerland, Marie-Christine Meyer and Kazuko Yatsushiro is available from The cum-sine pattern in German child language: an argument for antonym decomposition – lingbuzz/007336 It has apparently not (yet?) appeared in a per-reviewed journal.

A word on the paper’s title: cum is the Latin word for ‘with’ and sine is the Latin word for ‘without’.

Meaning First

The authors develop their analysis using the ‘Meaning First’ approach of Sauerland and Alexiadou (2020). The components of that approach are a conceptual representation generated outside of gramma and a linguistic system that then packages that conceptual representation for communication. The approach argues that:

  • conceptual representations are primary, and are separate from language.
  • conceptual representations do not vary across speakers of different languages.
  • a process called compression maps concepts (conceptual representations) to language (linguistic representations) in the form of morphemes (lexical realisation) placed in a linear order (linearization).
  • the linguistic representation does not have to express a concept explicitly if the concept can be reconstructed from context.  

Analysing German ‘ohne’ and English ‘without’

Applying the Meaning First approach, the authors analyse German word ohne and its English equivalent without as follows:

  • German mit and its English equivalent with are based on primitive concepts, symbolised as cum. (Cum is the Latin word meaning ‘with’).
    The authors do not comment on whether cum is a primitive concept or has a complex internal structure.
  • conceptual representations meaning without (and its equivalent German ohne and Latin equivalent sine) are not primitive concepts. Instead, they are a complex concept [cum anti] made up of 2 components, symbolised as cum (‘with’) and anti (conveying negation or antonymity).
    Conceptual representations do not have a linear order, so [cum anti] could also be written as [anti cum].
  • in English, it is not possible to express [cum anti] simply as out. That is because out can also be the antonym of in. If English expressed [cum anti] simply as out, the listener might not know whether the intended meaning is [in anti] or [cum anti]. Thus, in English without, compression leads to both components [cum anti] appearing transparently on the surface (with-out).
  • in German, the 2 components [cum anti] are ‘compressed’ into a single surface linguistic form (‘ohne’), which does not express the 2 concepts separately. This is possible because ohne occurs only in [cum anti] contexts. For example, the antonym of in is aus, and therefore the two monomorphemic expressions aus and ohne suffice to distinguish the two complex concepts [in anti] and [cum anti]. Consequently, the cum concept is redundant in such contexts and the linguistic representation in German does not need to express this concept explicitly.

Mit ohne in adult German

Adult speakers of German almost always express the complex concept [cum anti] as mit, without also expressing ohne overtly.

To confirm that fact, the authors reviewed 3 corpora. They found that ohne was preceded by mit in under 1 instance in 3,000 in one corpus of written German and in under 1 instance in 5,000 in 2 corpora of spoken German. The written corpus is of books published in German since 1800 and digitised by Google. The spoken corpora are of spoken language (gesprochene Sprache) and of film subtitles (Filmuntertitel), both at the Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache

A transparent (but redundant) way to express the complex concept [cum anti] in German would be mit ohne. They authors say that adults only do this for rhetorical effect—for example in imitating how young children speak, or as a jocular response to alternative questions that contrast with and without as illustrated in (1):

(1) Möchtest Du den Kaffee mit oder ohne Zucker? Mit ohne Zucker bitte.
want you the coffee with or without sugar? With without sugar please
Do you want your coffee with or without sugar? Without sugar, please.

I’m inclined not to view that (probably joking) sequence ‘with without sugar’ as containing a sequence with-without. I think the person is asking for a coffee with a particular type of ingredient: without-sugar. So I see the structure as [with [without-sugar]], not as [with-without sugar]].

Mit ohne in child German

Applying their analysis to how children learn German as a first language, the authors argue that:

  • the concept anti is a version of negation, and might be either innate or acquired early on.
  • concepts negated by anti are in most cases not innate, and in many cases not even a primitive. Therefore, the concept anti is generally present in a child’s mind before the cum concept.
  • the ability to compose concepts into complex concepts is innate, so children do not have to learn it. Therefore, children can (and do) form the complex concept [anti cum] as soon as they learn the concept cum. They form a complex mental representation of the meaning of ohne as [anti cum], even though the only form they hear adults produce is ohne as a single morpheme.
  • until children discover that the compression of [cum anti] into the single morpheme ohne is obligatory, they sometimes express both concepts [cum anti] explicitly as mit ohne—though on many other occasions at the same age they also produce the adult simple form mit.


The authors report data on German-speaking children’s use of ohne from CHILDES, a database of child language. They found:

  • 306 instances of ohne used alone;
  • 52 instances of mit ohne;
  • 4 instances of ohne mit (including 2 instances in the same sentence); and
  • 3 other cases (ohne kein; nicht ohne).

The stage when children sometimes produce a non-adult form is short. Of the 52 instances of mit ohne, 47 were by children between the ages of 27 months and 33 months. And the peak production of a non-adult form was from 26 to 29 months, when 41% (29 of 70) of all utterances of ohne were non-adult.

Example (2) is one instance of a child’s production of the form mit ohne, spoken by a child aged 31 months.

(2) schmeckt mir nicht mit ohne Butter
to-me tastes not with without butter
‘I don’t like it without butter.’

Results: other comments

The authors comment on 3 other aspects of the child data:

  • The results show a U-shaped pattern, with an initial adult-like ohne-stage up to age 2, then a six-month stage when mit ohne is produced, followed by the adult-like stage starting from age 3. The authors say this U-shaped pattern is surprising, and deserves further scrutiny.
  • the children studied almost always used the order mit ohne, rather than the inverse order mit ohne. The authors speculate that the order observed might arise if children analyse mit as being in a structurally higher position than ohne. They might do this because, for example, in the adult language mit can occur as a pre-verbal particle (for example, mitarbeiten–‘co-work’, mitteilen–‘co-share’, ‘communicate’), whereas ohne cannot appear there.
  • the data seems to imply that children view ohne as representing the concept anti, rather than the concept cum. The authors suggest this might be because in some contexts, ohne can express negative subordination, but mit cannot do this. In example (3), ohne expresses a negation of the concept eating and mit cannot occur as the antonym of ohne.

(3) Sie ist ohne zu essen 42 km gelaufen
she is without to eat 42 km
‘She ran 42 km without eating.’

Case marking and ohne

Ohne is one of the few German prepositions that requires the noun they govern to be in the accusative case. For a list, please see Mnemonics in language learning – Language Miscellany The authors don’t explain how this can arise in the structure they propose. A noun governed by mit is always in the dative case. There seem to be 2 possibilities:

  • the overt conceptual component anti (expressed as ohne) itself is what requires the following noun to be in the accusative case, and the unexpressed conceptual component cum does not require the dative case normally required by the preposition mit.
    This possible explanation doesn’t seem plausible. The component anti does not resemble the concepts typically expressed by prepositions, so why it would it directly dictate any particular grammatical case?  
  • the overt conceptual component anti interacts with the covert (unexpressed) conceptual component cum, converting the requirement for the dative case into a requirement for the accusative case.
    Perhaps one precedent for this type of construction is the way Russian (and other Slavonic languages) use the genitive case in some contexts involving negation although the corresponding context without negation would use the accusative case. However, that switch from accusative to genitive is a pervasive feature of those languages. In contrast, if this switch from dative to accusative occurs for only a handful of items in German —maybe even only a single lexical item ohne–then the explanation seems rather ad hoc.     

In summary, I do not find the authors’ analysis totally convincing with no explanation for how ohne comes to require the accusative case.

A parallel in Hungarian?

Reading the analysis of German ohne and English without made me think of the equivalent Hungarian postposition nelkül. Is nelkül made up of one component or two?

Hegedűs (2014) suggests that this postposition originated as a case ending (-nél/ -nál) suffixed to a noun, followed by an adverbial kűl (‘outside). The case ending expresses the adessive case, an ‘external case’ denoting rest beside (at) something. How many cases are there in Hungarian and Finnish? (2) – Language Miscellany

So, originally this combination meant something like ‘outside at/beside [noun]’. Later, the case ending fused with kül, the case ending became invariant as nél– and the fused form became a postposition meaning ‘without’.

Many Hungarian words start with kül- meaning ‘outside. Examples include külső (exterior), külföldi (‘foreign’) and külváros (‘suburb’). I presume that modern Hungarians:

  • perceive the syllable kül in nelkül as a separate component, still meaning outside; and
  • may also perceive the syllable nél- as related to the adessive case suffix (-nél/ -nál). But in modern Hungarian the meaning with is expressed by the instrumental case suffix -val /-val, or in a few instances by the comitative case suffix –stul /-stül /–ostul /-estül /-östül. How many cases are there in Hungarian and Finnish (3)? – Language Miscellany

Overall, it might be reasonable to regard Hungarian nelkül as having 2 components, of which one clearly means ‘outside’. On the other hand, the literal meaning of the other component is something like ‘alongside’, not ‘with’, though it might not be a huge stretch to see it as having a meaning close to ‘with’.

So, the form of nelkül seems to be alongside-out, rather than with-out. It is a little hard to see how compression would derive alongside-out from a conceptional representation [cum anti]. Anti could clearly map to –kül, but the mapping from cum (‘with’) to nel- seems less straightforward.


U. Sauerland and A. Alexiadou. Generative grammar: A meaning first approach. Frontiers in Psychology, 11:3104 (2020). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.571295

The cyclical development of Ps in Hungarian, Veronika Hegedűs, in The Evolution of Functional Left Peripheries in Hungarian, edited by Katalin É. Kiss (2014)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *