Yes and No
‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are extraordinary because they have paralinguistic and extralinguistic equivalents. This trimodality — language, vocalisation and gesture — is quite exceptional, making ‘yes’ and ‘no’ potentially significant in understanding the origins of human communication.
One aim of my research is 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 just in English 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.
To find out where ‘yes’ and ‘no’ come from, read on.
Dr Stephen Howe is a professor of English and linguistics at Fukuoka University in Japan. In 2018, he was a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge University. His research on the origins of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.
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.
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.
In accepting food and taking it into their mouths, … [infants] incline their heads forwards.
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. This origin would explain why this gesture is common but not universal.
GreekPod101.com describes Greek ‘no’ as follows: ‘It includes raising the eyebrows and tilting the head backwards instantly. This gesture often includes the mouth and a subtle clicking of the tongue.’ Click below to watch a video of Greek gesture ‘noes’ – the question is Pame volta – Are we going for a stroll?
Greek gesture ‘noes’
Humorous headshakes from India
Elvis sings multimodal yes
Uh-huh and uh-uh
What about vocalized ‘yes’ and ‘no’, uh huh and uh-uh?
John Lennon said:
Dalby (1973) believes that ‘African usage can … explain the frequent use by Americans of the interjections uh-huh, for “yes,” and uh-uh for “no.” Similar forms, especially for “yes,” occur in scattered parts of the world, but nowhere as frequently and as regularly as in Africa.’
In other languages, we can find similar vocalisations: for example, ēn ‘yes’ in Chinese, and un ‘yes’ and uun ‘no’ in Japanese.
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.
In other cultures, a click can signify ‘no’. In English, of course, tsk signals disapproval.
‘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?
Yea has the same origin as German or Swedish ja. But English 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:
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’. We see this same process of merger into one word – termed univerbation – in the origin of jess 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:
Abba’s echo yes
Often, including in English, we combine a particle and echo together, as in Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan:
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’ in England 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):
So where does aye come from, and why was it first written I? These two questions have intrigued scholars.
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.
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:
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