How we communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in English
Dr Stephen Howe is a professor of English and linguistics at Fukuoka University in Japan. He was recently a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge University.
My study ‘Emphatic yes and no in Eastern English: jearse and dow’ appears in Southern English Varieties: Then and Now, ed. by Laura Wright, Berlin and Boston: de Gruyter Mouton, published 2018.
Where do these new old words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ come from? And why do we have so many ways of expressing ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in English?
The aim of my research is threefold: (1) to examine the origins and forms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in English, (2) based on this, to examine the conventionalisation of responses to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ particles in human language more generally, and (3) to investigate a fundamental and probably very old part of human language, namely why we communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’ trimodally — with language, vocalisation and gesture.
It might seem that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are simple. We use them hundreds of times every day. However, a moment’s reflection will bring to mind 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 more than a dozen ways — and three modalities — of communicating ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
To find out where ‘yes’ and ‘no’ come from, read on.
Gestures and vocalizations
‘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.
Nodding and shaking our heads
So why do we nod and shake our heads to communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’? Charles Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) on the origin of the gesture for ‘no’:
With infants, the first act of denial consists in refusing food; and I repeatedly noticed with my own infants, that they did so by withdrawing their heads laterally from the breast, or from anything offered them in a spoon.
In refusing food, children frequently move their heads several times from side to side, as we do in shaking our heads in negation … the mouth is closed, so that these movements might likewise come to serve as signs of negation.
On the origin of the gesture for ‘yes’, Darwin wrote:
In accepting food and taking it into their mouths, … [infants] incline their heads forwards.
However, Darwin realised that not all cultures gesture ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the same way. He wrote:
With respect to negation, if we admit that the shaking of the finger or hand from side to side is symbolic of the lateral movement of the head; and if we admit that the sudden backward movement of the head represents one of the actions often practised by young children in refusing food, then there is much uniformity throughout the world in the signs of negation, and we can see how they originated.
Nevertheless if we look to the various races of man, these signs are not so universally employed as I should have expected; yet they seem too general to be ranked as altogether conventional or artificial.
An alternative explanation for ‘yes’ is that a nod is a reduced, abbreviated bow. But what is a bow? It’s a gesture signifying that you are prepared to accept what another person is saying or asking – you reduce your height, avert your gaze and expose the back of your neck – that is, it’s a sign of submission.
Uh-huh and uh-uh
Elvis sings multimodal yes
What about vocalized ‘yes’ and ‘no’, uh huh and uh-uh?
John Lennon said:
I remember when Elvis did All Shook Up, it was the first time in my life that I had heard uh huh, oh yeah, and yeah, yeah, all sung in the same song.
Yes and no have interjectionality – a paralinguistic quality at the edge of language – with expressive vocalising and emotional emphasis more common than in ‘normal’ words.
So we can hear for example …
Triumphant yes and agonising no, as well as doubtful yes, dismissive yes, bored yes, sarcastic yes, definite no, angry no and surprised no, to name a few.
‘Yes’ and ‘no’ combine older interjections and newer language. In the brain, there is evidence of a difference between interjections and language. Interjections are associated with phylogenetically ancient subcortical circuitry linked with emotion; language proper is associated with phylogenetically more recent cortical structures (Wharton 2003). This suggests that our ancestors communicated ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by vocalisation before language.
Yep and nope
‘Yes’ and ‘no’ can also have sound symbolism, where the sounds are not arbitrary as usual in language, rather the sounds themselves have some meaning. In yep and nope the final p sound, termed a stop or plosive, represents an audible full stop or period. For example:
Will you vote for Trump?
We can find similar sound symbolism in plop, whop and thump.
Yea has the same origin as German or Swedish ja. But yes is not related to any word in any other language. So where does it come from? To answer that we need to talk about ways of answering yes/no questions in different languages.
If your partner asks you Don’t you love me anymore, your answer will depend not only on your heart but also on your language. In Japanese if you are unhappy you might answer yes, meaning that it’s true, I don’t love you. In English, on the other hand, you might answer no, meaning that I do not love you. Japanese is truth based, while English is polarity based. Thus, Japanese can reply yes and English no with the same (unhappy) meaning.
In polarity languages like English, yes alone in response to a negative question can be ambiguous:
Don’t you love me anymore?
Some languages have a special form of ‘yes’, such as French si or German doch, to answer a negative question in the positive. English had one, too (and in some varieties still does), namely yes.
So, the most recent explanation for the origin of yes (Wallage & van der Wurff 2013) is that it comes from earlier
‘yea’ + ‘is so’
That is, an unequivocal yea.
‘Yea’ + ‘is so’ merged into one word to form ‘yes’. Later we will see this same process of merger into one word – termed univerbation – in the origin of jearse and dow.
Particles and echoes
‘Yea’ and ‘is so’ are what we call particles and echoes. Particles and echoes are the two main ways of answering ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the world’s languages. A particle is a very short function word. An echo is a response that echoes the question.
For example, to the question Will you marry me, we can answer using a particle, yes or no:
Or we can answer with an echo. An example of such a response is the matrimonial I do, which echoes the question:
Do you take this man/woman to be your lawfully wedded husband/wife?
Abba’s echo yes
Some languages – such as Welsh – commonly respond with echoes rather than particles. And some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
Often, including in English, we combine a particle and echo together, as in Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan:
As you can see, we can even echo an unspoken question.
Aye and ayuh
Particles and echoes also help us explain the origin of another common word for ‘yes’, aye.
In the Survey of English Dialects, carried out in the 1950s, the most widespread form for ‘yes’ was not yea or yes, but aye. It was used not only in the North and Midlands, but also in areas of the South of England. It is a feature of Scottish English, too, and is used in government in many English-speaking countries. There’s also the aye-like ayuh in New England, familiar to readers of Stephen King.
Aye appears suddenly about 1575 and is very common around 1600. Surprisingly, it is first written I. For example, Shakespeare makes the following play on words in Romeo and Juliet (here in original spelling):
Hath Romeo slaine himselfe? say thou but I,
And that bare vowell I shall poyson more
Then the death-darting eye of Cockatrice,
I am not I, if there be such an I.
Or those eyes shot, that makes thee answere I:
If he be slaine say I, or if not, no.
Briefe, sounds, determine my weale or wo.
So where does aye come from, and why was it first written I? These two questions have intrigued scholars.
To answer the first question, aye likely comes from interjection + particle. As well as being interjectional, yes and no particles are often also augmented by interjections – oh yes, oh no and so on – and this was true in Shakespeare’s time, too:
ah + yea > aye
Like Elvis’ oh yeah.
Secondly, there was probably an overlap with the pronominal echo I. We can illustrate this with a simple example using Modern English:
Do you really love me?
Yes, I do
Yes, I is a particle + echo.
We can find the pronominal echo in earlier English. For example, in The Romaunt of the Rose, possibly in part by Chaucer:
Knowest hym ought?
Yhe, Dame, parde!
Know him at all?
Yea, Lady, by God!
The pronominal echo ‘I’ could overlap with ‘yes’, meaning that ‘ah + yea’ could be interpreted as ‘I’ by speakers. This is what’s termed folk etymology, reanalysis of a word’s origin (like hamburger, a meat patty from Hamburg, as ‘ham + burger’).
Around the same time, the pronunciation of ‘I’ was changing. The old form in English was consonantal ich, pronounced itch; the new vocalic form i was pronounced ee. However, in the Great Vowel Shift – a series of changes in pronunciation between Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s time – i came to be pronounced aye, meaning that ‘I’ and ‘aye’ became homophones.
Could New England ayuh be ‘aye’? Given the demographics of English emigration to New England between 1629 and 1640 and that aye is ‘exceedingly common’ in written records about 1600, and the use of aye, ei and ah in parts of eastern England today, it seems likely that New England ayuh is a variant of ‘aye’, or some kind of augmented form.
She loves you, yes, yes, yes
Another word that has become very popular is yeah. It is perhaps surprising, however, that the English Dialect Dictionary, completed in 1905, has no entry for ‘yeah’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary yeah is a colloquial, casual, originally US pronunciation of yes.
The OED’s earliest reference to yeah is from 1905. However, by the power of the Internet, we can antedate that by almost a century, from England in 1811:
Mrs Solus: We’ll live and love so tender!
Solus: You’ll mix my powders
Mrs Solus: ‘Hover round your bed, And bathe your temples, and bind up your head.’
Solus: Yeah! you fond gipsey.
It is probable that both British and American English had variants without -s, from either ‘yea’ or ‘yes’, and that the US form and particularly the spelling yeah have become widespread through popular culture.
On this note, Paul McCartney tells the story in Carpool Karaoke of when the Beatles wrote She Loves You. After finishing the song, Paul and John played it to McCartney’s father:
We say Dad, Dad, listen. Do you want to hear a song?
Paul’s father listened to the whole song and said:
That’s very nice, but son, there’s enough of these Americanisms around. Couldn’t you sing She loves you, yes, yes, yes?
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BBC Online. 2015. Stephen Howe’s mission from Japan: Is that a ‘jearse’ or a ‘dow’? 20 August 2015.
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Howe, Stephen. 2015a. Emphatic yes and no in East Anglian dialect: Jearse and dow. Paper presented at the Second Southern Englishes Workshop, University of Cambridge, 23 March 2015.
Howe, Stephen. 2015b. The origin and meaning of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Invited talk at the Fukuoka Linguistic Circle, Fukuoka University, 18 July 2015.
Howe, Stephen. 2015c. Interview on Sue Dougan Lunchtime Live. BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, 29 July 2015.
Howe, Stephen. 2015d. Studio guest on Lesley Dolphin Show. BBC Radio Suffolk, 17 August 2015.
Howe, Stephen. 2015e. Studio guest on Nicky Price Breakfast Show. BBC Radio Norfolk, 19 August 2015.
Howe, Stephen. 2015f. Studio guest on Melvyn in the Morning. BBC Radio Lincolnshire, 21 August 2015.
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