Still more to know about ‘yeah, no’

Did you know that English used to have not just two but four words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’?

John Terhune/Journal & Courier/AP
Dave Buck plays Sonata in C major by Mozart in the hall of Morton Community Center in West Lafayette, Ind.

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

There’s nothing like a few lines from Walt Whitman to try to explain the “yeah, no” phenomenon touched on last week in this space.

Maybe you’ve heard it, too.

It’s perhaps most noticeable when you’re overhearing half of a telephone conversation. After the initial pleasantries, the caller asks the question that has prompted the call, and the callee responds with an initial “yeah, no.”

This may leave the eavesdropping bystander thinking, “Yeah? No? Well, which is it?” It may be both. It may correspond to “Yeah, I hear you on this topic, but no, I haven’t solved the problem yet, or whatever. Let me explain.”

Several posters at the do-it-yourself lexicon Urban Dictionary are not happy with “yeah, no.” They define it variously as an intensifier for a flat-out “no,” or simply as a verbal tic: a variant of “um, ah.”

Some sources point to Australia as the source of the phrase.

The Age of Melbourne (a great newspaper name, by the way) reported in 2004 on the research of two Monash University linguists who produced a paper titled “Yeah-no he’s a good kid: A discourse analysis of yeah-no in Australian English.”

“Like it or loathe it, linguists say ‘yeah no’ is a surprisingly effective communication tool,” The Age wrote, going on to quote Kate Burridge, linguistics chair at Monash and one of the authors: “All of these little markers have a very important role in conversation. They have roles in showing the relationship between speaker and hearer and this one has a linking function as well.”

Other languages apparently have similar phrases. Germans say “ja nein.” And South Africans say “ya nay.”

One intriguing thought is that “yeah, no” is a holdover from the days when English used what linguists call a “four-form system” of affirmation and negation.

If you remember your high school French, you know that while non means “no,” and oui mean “yes,” there’s a third word, si, used for “yes” in response to a question framed negatively. (“Tu ne viens pas?” “Si, j’arrive.” You aren’t coming? Yes, I’ll be right there.)

Well, there was a time when English had not two, not three, but four words for “yes” and “no”: yea and nay for questions in the affirmative, and yes and no for “negative” questions. It’s interesting that the “negative” forms are the ones that remain.

It may be, though, that “yeah, no” and suchlike arise when a given question may be positive or negative grammatically but with an underlying emotional tone that is the reverse. 

“Are you coming with us?” is positively framed, but the (unasked) question behind it may be negative: “You aren’t going to miss another one of our children’s piano recitals, are you?” In which case the right answer may indeed be, “Yeah, no – I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

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