Language, vocalisation and gesture: How humans communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’

It might seem that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are simple. We use them hundreds of times every day. However, just in English we have the standard yes and no, informal yeah and nah, and regional aye, ayuh and nay. We also have political yea and triumphant yay. We can say yep and nope. We can vocalise ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as uh huh and uh-uh, and gesture them by nodding and shaking our heads. And, of course, there are significant differences between languages and cultures in what ‘yes’ and ‘no’ can signify. So we have many ways — and three modalities — of communicating ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are extraordinary because they have paralinguistic and extralinguistic equivalents: in addition to verbal yes and no, we have vocalised uh huh and uh-uh, and the gestures of nodding and shaking our heads. The trimodality — language, vocalisation and gesture — of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is quite exceptional, making them a potentially significant area of research in understanding the origins of human communication.

I would like to know how you communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in your language. To take part in the survey, click here.

I am also researching jearse/jess and dow, dialectal words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in England and America. To read more about how we communicate yes and no in English, click here. And to read more about jearse/jess and dow, click here.