Why the heck do English speakers say 'yes' for the affirmative?

Why is it that the word for the affirmative in English is ‘yes’? In the other Germanic languages that I know of it is something more like Yah. (In Dutch for example yes and no sound like yah and nay.)

I imagine it is a mutation of a Germanic root because it doesn’t sound much like the affirmative in Romance languages (si, oui etc…), but it seems pretty far removed from the other Germanic languages. I’m trying to remember what exactly happened in the Great Vowel Shift and if this might account for the ‘ah’/‘eh’ difference. I’ll have to check my linguistics textbook to see if this is the case. It still wouldn’t account for the ‘s’ at the end though.

So how about it? Does anyone know the answer? Does Cecil know?

IANALinguist, but the OED says that “yes” existed in OE and is probably derived from yea + si (3 sing. pres. subj. of beon to be). In other words, “yes” actually means “yeah, it is”.

It notes these uses for the word:

  1. In an answer to a question not involving a negative
  1. In an answer to a question involving a negative

Because if we said “no”, like the Chinese do, we would just confuse each other? :slight_smile:

[sub]Ok, I promise to stay away.[/sub]

When I studied Manderin, the affirmative we learned was dui (pronounced dway) and various modifications thereof. I’ve never heard of an affirmative in Chinese that sounds like “no” but I was far from an expert in the language.

(I dig the grammar, though. Much simpler than English.)

English – especially the American version – is incredibly diverse in origin and monstrously irregular in structure. Until I studied Latin in high school – and NOW we’re talking some structure! – I never really had a grip on English grammar.

Who’s to say where the word “yes” came from? I like Terminus Est’s answer, but is it the right one? In the end, who cares? And who’s alive to testify one way or the other?

Feeling hopeless…

Friedo, it was supposed to be just a joke but since you insist: In English, if I ask the waiter “You don’t have corn flakes?” the correct answer is “NO” (we do not have cornflakes), whereas in Chinese the correct answer is “YES” (you are right in what you said, we do not have corn flakes).

So, when native Chinese speak English, they tend to say YES when they mean NO. This is a source of confusion and never ending source of jokes for comedians imitating Chinese waiters, not to mention my favorite character, Mrs. Swan of MAD TV. Westerners paint the chinese as stupid because, how much stupider can you get if you do not know the difference between yes and no?

I keep reminding my Chinese friends the should speak English, not Chinese with English words because they just confuse everybody.

This reminds me of a well known song from the 1920s which had the same theme of foreign grocers in New York and went something like:

So there you have it! We say yes because if we said no, like the Chinese, we would just confuse each other :slight_smile:

And then there is the Yesno family (as in yes no – a name given by the Europeans to replace their family’s native name). I kid you not. We have one of them as a client.

We nod our heads up and down to signify the affimative, but swing them left and right to indicate the negative.

Is there any culture where this is not the norm?

I have heard that this is the only true universal (or at least earthly) behavior that is common to all cultures.

That’s what I told the judge when I was accused of raping a Chinese woman: Your honor, I asked her “you don’t want to have sex with me?” and she said YES! :slight_smile:

Sailor, gotcha, that makes a lot of sense.


no, it’s not universal…

from http://www.erdtshare.org/usa/misc/culture-tips.htm:

In many cultures, including the United States, even toddlers know that shaking your head from side to side means “No.” However, this gesture is not universal. In many cultures, such as southern Italy, Bulgaria, and Sri Lanka, shaking your head from side to side means “Yes,” while nodding your head up and down means “No.”

I’ve also heard this is true in Greece.

Our Fearless Leader covered this in one of his columns Why do we nod our heads for “yes” and shake them for ‘no’?

He says it’s not completely universal, but it’s pretty wide spread.

*Not exactly. The affirmative (sort of) head gesture in Bulgaria and India (not just Sri Lanka, but India) is not identical with the straight horizontal side-to-side negative headshake. It’s a more complex motion as if the crown of the skull is describing a figure 8. It has a rounded motion combining the horizontal, vertical, and slanted in between. The impression you get is “maybe yes, maybe no, I’m not committing myself either way.”

The negative head gesture (at least in South India and southern Italy, two places I’ve been) is not the same as the affirmative up-and-down-and-up nod. It’s a single sharp jerk of the chin upwards, generally accompanied by a tongue click. This gesture is too abrupt to be polite. A more genteel, evasive way of conveying the negative is to lift the hands in a helpless little shrug. This is especially done in the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East where indirection is such an important part of getting along with others.

The odd thing, in the part of South India that Mrs. Mojo comes from, is how they say “uh-huh!” to mean “No way!” Could be very confusing to a non-Indian, taking it to mean the opposite.

In the miniscule bit of Chinese I’ve learned, the word that’s equivalent to “yes” is not the usual means of affirmation. Instead the question is posed this way: “X (not X)?” To affirm, you just repeat “X”. To negate you say “not X.” (Is this where symbolic logic came from?) Example: Ni dong le ma ‘You understand?’ or Ni dong le bu dong le ‘You understand / not understand’. To say “yes” you would answer dong le; to say “no” would be bu dong le.

How to give a clear unambiguous answer to a negative question? Languages other than English and Chinese are better equipped for this.

In French, to answer a negative question, you can’t use oui. If the answer is really negative, you say non. But if the answer is positive, contradicting the negative, you have to say si. Tu n’as pas compris? ‘Didn’t you understand’? If you really did understand, the answer is "si."

In Arabic, the regular word for ‘yes’ is na‘am. But the positive answer to a negative question is balâ. hal lâ tafham ‘don’t you understand?’ If you don’t understand, say ‘no’; if you do understand, say balâ ‘On the contrary, I sure do’. You also use balâ to contradict a negative statement. —hâdhihi al-tuffâhah laysat yâni‘ah ‘This apple isn’t ripe’. —balâ ‘Oh yes it is!’

As Terminus Est (can I call you Tetelestai?) noted above, English yes was once this very useful word to oppose a positive to a negative. To remove ambiguity from the usual yea. “Art thou in sooth he whom they call Wat Tyler?” “Yea, 'tis I.” A simple yea used to suffice with a positive question.

But: “How now, varlet, hast thou not swept the stables?” “YES, good my liege, nigh upon an hour ago.”

By losing the distinction, our speech now carries less information than it used to. Allowing for confusions like “Yes, we have no bananas” and Chinese mixups. In Navajo (which shares several similarities with Chinese) they likewise give a negative answer with “Yes.”

The simple Anglo-Saxon yea has not died out in the present day: people still say “yeah” but it’s considered substandard speech. Maybe while it survives there’s a chance that the distinction between the two affirmatives can be revived (but only if speakers feel a need to do so—maybe with more Chinese coming here…).

The name actually derives from the executioner’s sword in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.

In Czech, Yes is ‘Ano’ pronounced ‘ah-no’ and No is ‘ne’, pronounced ‘nay’. This is all fine and dandy until people start to speak quickly, and yes gets shortened to ‘-no’ to mean yeah, or yep.

So more often than not, people will say ‘no’, and mean yes. Also used with jo, for ‘no-jo’ communicating “yeah, whatever.”

In Turkey, tilting the head back/up while slowly blinking means no.


When I asked my father-in-law to be for his daughters hand in marriage, over the phone from the States reciting the sentence in Czech exactly like my wife wrote it phonetically, my heart sank into my stomach. He said ‘No’, and when I went silent, I could hear my sister-in-law to be in the background putting 2+2 together and yelling at him ‘AH-no! Ah-no!’, which he then said, and saved me from a mini-heart attack. :wink:


Albanians also do the nod head “no,” shake head “yes” gesture. I’ve been to Bulgaria, and the shake/nod thing is similar enough to be confusing. I’ll try to observe the finer points Jomo mentioned next time I’m down there. What makes it even MORE confusing is that most Bulgarians are aware that the signals are reversed in most other societies, so when they talk to someone who is so obviously foreign, they may revert to the “regular” nod/shake signs and confuse the hell out of everyone involved. Are they being Bulgarian? Are they being international? ARGH!!

Pure pedantry leads me to note that JM’s note here is strictly correct for formal Arabic (aka Modern Standard aka Classical), dialect gets a bit funkier. (e.g. Egyptian doesn’t have a question word which once you’ve gotten used to the dialects which retain the question word structure, sounds horribly rude.)

Thanks guys (and I’m using guys in the gender-neutral, all-inclusive sense here), you ansered my question. Terminus Est hit on the answer I was looking for, but the rest of you brought up some very interesting points about the whole yes/no subject. (I really should have just looked up the answer in the OED as Terminus Est did, but it was so much more satisfying to get the answer spoon-fed to me).

I thin that this thread probably has some life in it yet, so go ahead and bring in more yes/no issues! I look forward to new revelations about these underlooked concepts!

For example, what’s with Si and No in most Romance languages? How about the distinction between the langue d’oc and the langue d’oil in French? I know a bit about this, but does anyone have something to say about this? And now, as I’m thinking about it, is it true that Irish (Gaelic) speakers do not have a single word for ‘yes’ and ‘no’? (I seem to recall reading something about this somewhere.) Is it true that they have to say things like ‘it is so’ or ‘it is not so’? Now that I think about it some more I realize that this isn’t as crazy as I first thought.

I’m sure there are many more questions to discuss but I’ve exhausted my supply for the, moment.

A footnote to the “no for yes” sub-thread: in Polish, “no” does in fact mean “yes”, at least colloquially. You’ve just got to stay alert, especially with people who also know that “no” in English means, um,… “no”, and who aren’t averse to causing confusion just for fun. (Fortunately there is another word too, if you really need to iron out any ambiguities).

Polish is altogether a fun language with huge scope for injury to the organs of speech, containing for example the classic “chrzaszcz”: like someone once said on the radio, “What’s the problem - just rhyme it with “thrzaszcz”.”