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“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.
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?