When "yes" and "no" become complex

"Yes" and "no" seem like fairly clear-cut words that refer distinctly to affirmative and negative responses, respectively, but the concepts of "yes" and "no," at least as modern English speakers understand them, are far from universal even within a mostly related European context

While Modern English has the two-form "yes" and "no" system, English, as recently as Early Modern English, had a four-form system with "yes' and "yea" corresponding to the modern "yes," with the modern "no" being covered by "no" and "nay." Wikipedia states that "The answers to positively framed questions ("Will he go?") were yea and nay, whilst the answers to negatively framed questions ("Will he not go?") were yes and no. (see Wikipedia entry) Interestingly, "yes" is derived from the Old English adverbs for "surely" and "so," while "no" stems from an Old English adverb that means "never."

Some languages, such as Romanian, continue to use four-form systems. Three-form systems also exist, such as in French, which as"oui" (an affirmative answer to a positive question), "non" (no), and "si" (an affirmative answer to a negative question). Other languages that currently use three-form systems are the Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic) and German.

In addition, there are languages that use "echo responses" to answer affirmatively or negatively. With an "echo response," the verb mentioned in the question is repeated with or without a subject and without the use of "yes" or "no." For instance, in English, you would be using an echo response if you answered "Is he happy?" with "He is." Latin, Finnish and Welsh, as well as Manx, are languages that primarily use echo responses instead of "yes" and "no." I remember that during my brief study of Manx, being particularly mystified by answering questions almost entirely this way, with "yes" being replaced by such answers as "she will be," "she is," or "she was," and I used to joke "how odd that Manx has past and future tenses of yes."

Incidentally, Latin, unlike modern Romance languages, has no distinct words for "yes" and "no." Modern Romance have developed these words, especially "yes," in interesting ways. At least one of the words for "yes" in Romanian ("da") is borrowed from the Slavic languages in the region. In Western Romance languages, there are generally "si"-type languages (e.g. Spanish and Italian, as well as the Portuguese "sim"), "oïl" (or "oui")- type languages (such as Modern French), and "òc"-type languages (Occitan, spoken in southern France). Wikipedia gives this explanation:

"The name Occitan comes from lenga d'òc (i.e. òc language), which comes from òc, the Occitan word for yes. The Italian medieval poet Dante was the first to have recorded the term lingua d'oc. In his De vulgari eloquentia he wrote in Latin: "nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero dicunt oil" ("some say òc, others say sì, others say oïl"), thereby highlighting three major Romance literary languages which were well known in Italy, based on each language's word for "yes", the òc language (Occitan), the oïl language (French), and the sì language (Italian). This was not, of course, the only defining character of each group.

The word òc came from Vulgar Latin hoc ("this"), while oïl originated from Latin hoc illud ("this [is] it"). In old Catalan and nowadays in Catalan of Northern Catalonia (France, Catalunya Nord) is hoc (òc) too. Other Romance languages derive their word for yes from the Latin sic, "thus [it is], [it was done], etc.", such as Spanish sí, Modern Catalan sí, Western Lombard sé, Italian sì, or Portuguese sim." (see Wikipedia entry)

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


Anonymous said...

Hey there,

I thought that I would leave a comment, so here it is. In Mandarin Chinese there are no words for “yes” or “no”. So, you have to use the verb in the negative or positive to indicate “no” or “yes” respectively. Interesting piece Silas.


Silas said...

Thank you, J., for your post and for your kind comment. It's funny how things, such as "yes" and "no," that many English-speakers take for granted as "universal" simply are not. Please keep reading! :)

Unknown said...

I spent June in Brazil, a country where echo responses are commonplace and it's never customary to respond with solely "sim" (further complicated by the fact that "sim" is often replaced with "é", it is so, or "isso", that's right). The strange thing about Portuguese echo responses in Brazil, of course, is that the subject can often be discerned from the verb's conjugation, e.g.:

Q: Vocês vão pra praia? (Are you all going to the beach?)
A: Vamos. (We are going.)

Very intriguing post -- never knew about the old complexity of affirmation in English!

Silas said...

Thanks a lot for your post, Preston. Very interesting, and I hope that you enjoyed your stay in Brazil. I also read Portuguese, and I've noticed precisely what you've commented on. I think that it's comparable to flexible alternatives to "Yes" and "No" that we sometimes use in English, such as "That's right," which you mentioned, "Exactly!" or "Not bloody likely!" which can be understood as affirmative or negative responses on their own. Furthermore, echo responses, such as the "He is." example mentioned in the original post, do have a place in English, even if they're used less frequently than in Brazilian Portuguese. What is especially curious, in my opinion, are languages with only an echo-response system and no separate "Yes/No" option whatsoever.

Thanks again, Preston, and keep reading and commenting on the Metrolingua blog!