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“Yes,” “No,” and Everything In-Between Posted by on Dec 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Yes” and “no” are not as simple as they might at first appear. Here are a few of the ways in which they can vary greatly across languages.

Itchy Feet: Not Incorrect

You’d think that there would be no simpler words in any language than “yes” and “no.” I mean, those are basically the first words we learn as kids. They can convey a nearly infinite amount of information, and are applicable in an incredible range of scenarios. So they should be universal, right? Well…yes and no.

Perhaps it’s the very fact that “yes” and “no” are so easily plugged into any language situation that they are deceptively complex. Or perhaps it’s just that since English is the current world’s lingua franca, it leaves most of us westerners unable to imagine a world without those words. Either way, “yes” and “no” are not only complex, they’re not even universal.

In English, as depicted in the comic above, “yes” and “no” are used whether the question asked is negative or positive. In German, for example, there isn’t just ja and nein, there’s also doch, which is “yes” in response to a negative question. “You didn’t take the trash out?” Doch – yes, I did. Similarly, French doesn’t have just oui and non, but also si, which serves the same purpose as doch. Apparently English used to have yea and nay for positively-framed questions, while yes and no were meant for negative ones, but they got buried under history.

Other languages have more complex relationships with “yes” and “no.” In Gailic, there are no words for “yes” and “no.” If you want to answer a question positively or negatively, you have to refer to the verb in the question itself. This unique property has found its way into the Irish English-speaking accent, as well: “Have you been to the pub?” “I haven’t.” “Did you see Seamus?” “I did.” In Thai, there isn’t really a word for “no.” But there is a word for “yes”: ใช่, or chai. The only way to say “no” is ไม่ใช่, or mai-chai. Basically: “not-yes” (it’s an oversimplification, but that’s the idea). In Greek, the word ναι (“ne”) means “yes,” where in Croatian and Serbian, the same word means “no.” And in Polish, confusingly, “no” means “yes.” That is, the word no is slang for a casual “yes,” like “yeah.” I can only imagine the linguistic and cultural misadventures that’s led to.

How about in the language you’re learning? Any yes-and-no oddities worth mentioning?

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About the Author:Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. ์NJ:

    I speak both Thai and English and end up finding myself being confused every time I find these negative questions…. So I always just repeat part of the questions to make sure I’m understood correctly…

  2. Helen:

    In Icelandic “yes” has two versions as in French and German, ie. “já” is the normal yes, but “jú” is the “yes” to a negative question like “si” in French.

  3. Reuben Kagan:

    In Russian, answering “yes” or “no” to the negative-framed question would mean exactly the same:
    You don’t want to eat, do you? Yes. (means “indeed, I do not want to eat”).
    You don’t want to eat, do you? No. (means “indeed, I do not want to eat”).
    You don’t want to eat, do you? I want (Now, that means “I do want to eat”).

    Actually, there are several other languages with this feature.

  4. Djino:

    In other languages, like in japanese, “yes” or “no” are used to validate or invalidate the sentence.

    I’m not pretty ➜ Yes = indeed, you are not pretty (validation)
    I’m not pretty ➜ No = you’re wrong, you are pretty (invalidation)

    Didn’t you eat? ➜ Yes = No, indeed (validation)
    Didn’t you eat? ➜ No = Yes I did (invalidation)

  5. Robin:

    In Russian there is a phrase “da, net, navernoe” (да, нет, наверное) which literally translates as “yes, no, probably” and means something like “more likely no than yes”.

  6. Bram:

    I hardly ever reply with just yes or no. Although in a new language it can be tricky to be clear and abundant at the same time, let alone make conversation.

  7. Maciej:

    Hi, I don’t think Polish ‘no’ (meaning – yeah) leads to any misunderstandings as it is prounounced differently than Polish ‘nie’ (meaning – no).
    Polish has it’s hardnesses for foreigners but that one defenitely isn’t any 😉


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