Thursday, June 2, 2011

Yes and No

Who'd have thought there's something to learn about 'yes' and 'no'? Certainly it doesn't get much simpler that those two words, does it?

Well, I've often heard lamentation about the lack of a word like the French 'si' or the German 'doch' in English. In honesty, the number of situations where ambiguity can occur, and where the ambiguity is not recognised and corrected by the speaker immediately, isn't all that great, it still is nice to have distinct ways to answer the questions, 'are you coming?' and 'aren't you coming?'

(A sidebar... there are some languages where the dialogue, "Aren't you coming?" "No.", means 'I am coming' (i.e. what you asked me is wrong) - a kind of double-negative-cancellation thing that is probably more logical than the current English tradition of saying 'yes' to mean 'my answer is expressed with a verb in the positive, regardless of how you asked me the question'. I mention this not only because i think it's cool but because it outlines the need for a word like 'si'.)

So here's the thing: it turns out that in Shakespeare's time, there was such a word: 'yes'. Before WTFing me too extensively, allow me to explain: in Shakespeare's time, the typical 'affirmative word' was 'yea'. In other words, the 'base' word, the one we normally use 'yes' for, was in Early Modern English a different word. In fact, unlike crappy little French and German, Early Modern English had not three but four words: yea and nay, yes and no.

If I asked you a grammatically negative question like 'don't you have a clue what I'm talking about?', you would answer 'yes' (I get it) or 'no' (what are you on about?). But if I asked you more normally, 'do you understand what I'm saying', you would answer 'yea' (I'm not a moron) or 'nay' (you're talking gibberish).

Not only is this quite cool, but it's amazing how I could have lived such a long life without ever knowing it.

What is also cool is that we have a convention in English that you can take one of any number of vowel or nasalised vowel sounds and use them to mean either 'yes' or 'no' depending on whether you cut the sound in two with a voiceless breath (which will mean 'yes') or a glottal stop (which will mean no). This is often written as, for example, 'uh-huh' vs. 'uh-uh'.

Also cool: Finnish has no words for 'yes' and 'no'. They merely answer the questions: "Did you hear?" "I heard". Cures any possible ambiguity issues.

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