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In Italian, one forms the negative imperative in the second person singular by using the particle "non" with the infinitive: non fare, non parlare etc.

This always baffled me, because the use of the infinitive as imperative is a thing in Russian as well, but it's extremely rude, and it's very niche: military commands, dog commands, impersonal language in safety signs and so on. I realize that it doesn't work like this in Italian, but I just can't help feeing a little bit uneasy every time I use it.

To my knowledge, Italian (with its regional varieties) is the only Romance language where the infinitive is used as an imperative.

What is the origin of this pattern?

My guess it came from Latin noli + imperative (like in noli me tangere), which, as far as I understand, literally means "you don't want to touch me" and as such is actually a more polite form. But I couldn't find anything to confirm or disprove this theory.

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  • Well, using the infinitive as imperative (not negative imperative) is either quite rude or quite impersonal in Italian too: “Scendere dalla porta centrale”, “Muoversi!” and the like. The negative form is indeed quite more polite.
    – DaG
    Commented Jul 31, 2023 at 21:39
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    whoever downvoted this, could you please elaborate your concerns about the question in a comment? thank you!
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jul 31, 2023 at 22:01
  • In Russian "Прошу не звонить мне раньше 6 утра, если есть такая возможность" (Please don't call me before 6,am if you can help it) sounds adequately polite to me. I do not know Italian, but may be it has some parallel forms to the above, which would make more comfortable usage for you? Apologies if this is not helpful. Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 2:23
  • @AndrewSavinykh: it's not that I don't know or can't use this construct, but to a Russian ear it sounds weird enough to have triggered my curiosity. A most innocuous phrase like "don't get up, I'll answer the door" in Italian would be a similarly innocuous non alzarti, apro io which is perfectly polite as it is, without prego or anything. In Russian, translated literally, that would be не вставать, я сам открою — not the way you talk to people. The question was why it worked like that, etymologically.
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 2:52

1 Answer 1

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I don't have time to write a proper answer, and in the next days I won't have access to my books, but I think it is worth reporting what Rohlfs says about this form in his Grammatica storica della lingua italiana e i suoi dialetti, §611 (my translation)

It is hard to say if this prohibitive form, which is used as well in Romanian, Romansch and Ancient French (ne dire, n’err mener mie marr cheva) was a creation of neo-Latin (or vulgar Latin) where the infinitive was used as a rough informal form (cf. the French ne pas murmurer, en finir avec ces provocation!), or if it rather connects to a Latin noli timere or ne cantari < cantaveris. Either way, the form of the type non dare, non edere is already documented in the late Latine expressions and in the «Mulomedicina Chironis»

Therefore the form was already common in late Latin and in fact it is present in other Romance languages, like Romanian. The modern French forms are the late development, and not the other way round!

I don't know if the Iberian Romance languages also had this form archaically, but if not they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Note that the Iberian languages form the negative imperative using the subjunctive, which is one of the possible sources for the Italian form (the ne cantaveris version).

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