I noticed there's a thread on this already here: The meaning of "ne serait-ce que"? but the answers don't seem to apply to the sentence where I encountered ne serait-ce que.

aucun de nous ne parlait un ne serait-ce qu'un mot de la langue

It seems most commonly it translates to the equivalent of 'even if only' but here that wouldn't work. The only way it might work is as 'not even' or just 'even' but I don't see why it would mean that. From the whole sentence its clear that that's what it does mean but not sure why.

I guess it might be trying to say something like "none of us spoke even one word of the language".

EDIT: This is not a duplicate because I stated explicitly that I'd already read the other post at the start of my post, and hence it had not solved my problem. This is a double negative which is never used in my native language of English, this whole concept was not discussed at all in the other thread, thus did not aid me. Language is a complex thing and I wouldn't be surprised if we need even more threads just on this one phrase since it is a little odd.

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    Good on you for checking the other thread, but I disagree that the answer doesn't apply. What Laure says there addresses this use very well: Ne serait-ce que is used to introduce a narrowing down of the fact that's been stated. ... Note that in a negative context, meaning differs slightly. It is synonym of même pas ("not even"). This aligns with your reading, though the double negative has to be removed in English: "None of us spoke even one word of the language." – Luke Sawczak Sep 22 '17 at 12:26
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    "A narrowing down" is pretty vague. Also I obviously wouldn't have guessed it was a double negative and there's nothing about that in the other thread. I did read the other thread first, so if it WAS clear then I obviously wouldn't have needed to post this. You can't disagree that it wasn't clear for me reading the other thread first since it doesn't apply to you. – Hasen Sep 22 '17 at 13:11
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    "narrowing down" is vague because it's the general case; "synonym of même pas" is the specific case. The missing step is that since the sentence has the negative aucun, you remove the pas. « Aucun de nous ne parlait même un mot de la langue. » Nothing else separates this case from the one in the other thread. I understand that it was harder to connect the two because of that, but please understand that it's grammatical "noise" that I don't see as affecting the essence of the question. There are many ways every sentence could have minor differences from a given example. – Luke Sawczak Sep 22 '17 at 14:00
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    BTW I think you wrote "un" one more time than needed. As it is your sentence is incorrect. – Anne Aunyme Sep 22 '17 at 15:35
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    I agree w/OP that the phrase as used here is different enough from those in the earlier question to justify reopening this one (regardless, imo the question isn't worthy of being down-voted [& certainly not vindictively in response to the OP’s tenacious defense of it]). Beside the “double negative” issue, this use, in light of the extra “un” (which could be correct, although, imo, there should be commas or parenthesis following it), could be a case where the phrase is a parenthetical (“[not] even just one”) added for emphasis, ie, “... ne parlait un (ne serait-ce qu'un [seul]) mot ..." – Papa Poule Sep 22 '17 at 17:41

Your question is based on the incorrect assumption that this French sentence contains a double negative while it doesn't.

There is only a single negation "aucun xxx ne xxx" and no negation but a restriction in "ne xxx que". A restriction is limiting a magnitude, it doesn't reverse anything.

A real double negative might have been:

Aucun ne parlait même pas un simple mot de mandarin.

but this sentence is confusing and incorrect in French too.

You also dropped several ellipses present in the original sentence which reads:

Ludovic : Ah oui, je me souviens… je me souviens aussi des cours de chinois, j’ai un petit… j’ai notamment un souvenir… donc pareil, on avait un… un journal de bord. Ou on était peut-être plus… enfin dans mes souvenirs, on était plus focalisés par exemple sur ce que nous on ressentait mais après… enfin, on regardait aussi un petit peu la technique de… de l’enseignante puisque donc tout… le cours en entier se faisait en chinois, enfin en mandarin.

Jessica : Ouais.

Ludovic : Et le… le problème c’est que… bah forcément aucun de nous ne parlait un… ne serait-ce qu’un mot de… de mandarin.

Jessica : Hm hm.

So the originally intended sentence was:

aucun de nous ne parlait un mot de mandarin

i.e. none of us spoke one word of Mandarin.

but in the middle of the sentence, the stuttering speaker replaced it by:

aucun de nous ne parlait ne serait-ce qu'un mot de mandarin

Here, an intensifier idiom has been inserted into the sentence (it is an incise). It says ne serait-ce qu'un mot, i.e. should it be just one word / not even a single word so the full sentence might be translated to:

None of us spoke one… even a single word of… of Mandarin.

Another fact that might be confusing is that the first ne is not per se a negative mark but part of the split negative aucun ... ne. There is no extra negative here so

Aucun de nous ne parlait...

really means, as already stated:

None of us spoke...

and not

None of us didn't spoke...

Moreover, the second ne is part of fixed French formal adverbial phrase ne serais-ce que which technically just means even1 so as already stated, there is no double negative either (i.e. a combination of negations that lead to a logically positive sentence, like I don't know nothing about grammar), and even less a triple negative.

The sentence can then simply be rephrased as:

None of us spoke Mandarin, even a single word of it.

1gabrielwiler.com states: On pourrait aussi dire que « neseraiske » est un adverbe de perspective proche de même.

  • No that would make it come out as "aucun de nous ne parlait ne serait-ce qu'un mot de mandarin". The elipses showed that he started to just say 'un' and then changed it to 'ne serait-ce qu’un. – Hasen Apr 7 '18 at 2:14
  • @Hasen That doesn't affect my point.The added phrase wasn't added to change the meaning but to reinforce it. – jlliagre Apr 7 '18 at 7:18
  • You said the main issue was that the ellipses were missing but all that did was remove the 'un'. The main difficulty of the phrase for the double negative in addition to the ne serait-ce que structure. Your point about 'aucun ne' was unknown to me and adds to the difficulty in understanding the sentence as a whole. Hence the ellipses missing made a difference but only a very small one. – Hasen Apr 8 '18 at 7:39
  • You didn't remove any un. Removing the ellipses made a big difference as far as French grammar is concerned. You might have replaced them by commas. aucun de nous ne parlait un, ne serait-ce qu'un, mot de la langue. I believe your issue is you still believe there is a double negative in this sentence, while there is not as my last translation shows. – jlliagre Apr 8 '18 at 7:52
  • I know I didn't remove the first 'un', what I'm saying is that the ellipses showed that the first 'un' should not be there. Which is something but only a small issue. You translation doesn't show there is no double negative, because it's a different language, one where you can't use double negatives. Often much has to be changed when translated into another language but that doesn't mean they weren't in the original sentence. Hence the well known phrase 'lost in translation'. – Hasen Apr 9 '18 at 9:33

I'll try my go at an answer, mostly to try and distribute the comments a little and have more space to clarify my point.

First thing, as Jlliagre said, your sentence is not correct. Maybe it was said orally with exactly these words, but you can't write it that way with no punctuation. At least maybe you should mention somewhere that it's from an oral conversation?

What do you mean by No, that is the correct amount of 'un's? The first one should just not be there.

From now on I'll assume the sentence is as follow:

Aucun de nous ne parlait ne serait-ce qu'un mot de la langue.

Obviously your question is not about the meaning (you guessed it right and you said that it's clear what it means from context), but about why it means what it means.

The answer to the linked question said "in a negative context, meaning differs slightly. It is synonym of même pas ("not even")", and I don't entirely agree with this. I think it's misleading.

To me the meaning is more or less the same, it's just that is translate differently. You can replace it with "juste" in practically every sentence and still convey the same meaning (slightly less extreme though):

(It sounds a little awkward but the meaning is there so it's not that different from a context to another.)

J'ai du mal à faire confiance aux étrangers, juste à cause de ces histoires d'intrus.

= This "intruders thing" is enough to make it hard for me to trust strangers

Vous allez accepter, de toute façon, juste pour l'or que vous rapportera cette mission.

= Just for the gold, you're going to accept this mission anyway.

Ces gens vendraient leur âme pour avoir juste une bribe d'information sur l'incident.

= These people would sell their soul to have even one tiny piece of information about the incident

Aucun de nous ne parlait juste un mot de la langue

= None of us spoke a single word of the language

If you're worried about the double negative, the meaning is exactly the same with full positive:

J'aimerais parler juste un mot de la langue

= I wish I spoke just a single word of the language

If it's still not clear feel free to ask any question you have, at least I can edit the answer.

  • Ok that's interesting. The sentences with juste are a lot easier but "ne serait-ce que" normally means roughly 'not even' when translated so it's a bit different. With "ne serait-ce que" it would mean more like "None of us spoke not even a single word of the language". That's not good English but that's what it really should be translated like if you want to understand it. I left out the 'not' in front of 'spoke' otherwise it would be just too weird in English. But that's what made the sentence hard in the first place! – Hasen Apr 10 '18 at 13:21
  • Maybe you should add underneath the example sentences the same sentences but with ne serait-ce que for comparison. – Hasen Apr 10 '18 at 13:21
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    "ne serait-ce que" is closer to "even" than to "not even"! I'm not 100% sure but I think the "ne" in it is explétif, which means it doesn't indicate a negation. – Teleporting Goat Apr 10 '18 at 13:28
  • @Hasen "ne serait-ce que" isn't a negation by itself. To me the meaning is more or less close to "even" (veeeery losely); and when the sentence is negative, it naturally translates to "not even". (See sentence 3. It's a little harder to use "even" in sentences 1 and 2 but I think it'd be possible) – Teleporting Goat Apr 10 '18 at 13:44
  • It may not be a negation but it's negative and so adds to the number of negatives in the sentence. It can mean 'not even' without any other negatives so it must be negative. At least in some contexts. It's not a phrase with an obvious meaning at all in fact. Each sentence has to be analysed on it's own until you get used to all the variations. Which is exactly why deleting it as a duplicate was such a bad idea. You answer is overall pretty good though. – Hasen Apr 11 '18 at 15:04

Actually this is the same meaning as in the question you referenced. More precisely it is the same as the third sentence:

Ces gens vendraient leur âme pour avoir ne serait-ce qu'une bribe d'information sur l'incident.

Your sentence is slightly more complicated because it is already in the negative form, but it still works the same.

  • Like I said already, I already viewed that thread and it didn't help. That example is not a double negative so really quite different. I did state clearly at the start of my post that I'd already viewed that thread, clearly it didn't solve my problem or I wouldn't have posted my question. – Hasen Sep 22 '17 at 13:42
  • The duplicate thread avoidance is designed to avoid people posting the same question twice when they haven't checked for similar threads, not for people who have viewed the similar thread already, not found their answer and felt the need to post their question. – Hasen Sep 22 '17 at 13:43
  • In the example you refer to explains "ne serait-ce que" as meaning 'not even' in that example which obviously doesn't make sense to me at all in the sentence I gave since it has to be a double negative. Therefore I needed to post this question and surely others will benefit from this since they will encounter the same problem. You say yourself it is more complicated in my example so hence the need for this question to aid myself and others. – Hasen Sep 22 '17 at 13:50
  • Someone recently explained to me the use of "duplicate": How it's supposed to work, is 1) someone searches and fails to find our canonical question on their problem, 2) they post a new question with different wording, 3) we close it as a duplicate, thereby creating a link between that different wording and our canonical question for future searchers. The next time someone has the same problem and uses similar wording, they are more likely to find the canonical question and not post a new question. – Anne Aunyme Sep 22 '17 at 15:12
  • Here you didn't fail to find the canonical question, but you didn't see how it answered your problem (Even if it does, apparently it does but not the way you are expecting it). The way you talk about the other question seem to indicate you didn't really understood the answer as it wasn't "it means 'not even'" but "it depends, sometimes it means this, sometimes that..." with a part about your precise case (you would have learned that in your case you can translate it by "not even") – Anne Aunyme Sep 22 '17 at 15:17

'Not even' is the closest translation in this context.

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    Can you perhaps add sources or more details to your answer ? In its current form, it does not add anything that is not in the other answers. – Evpok Nov 24 '17 at 13:10

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