The joyful unanimous cries of ‘aye, aye’ at the Langsoc AGM made me think of doing a post on words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’. In English there are informal and neutral / formal versions of both the affirmative and the negative, namely ‘yeah’ and ‘yes’, and ‘no’ and ‘na(h)’. There are also dialectal / archaic versions, ‘aye’ and ‘nay’, which you will still hear in Scotland and many other dialects, as well as in the House of Commons where ‘the ayes have it’ if the vote is passed. Another archaic / literary version of ‘yes’ is ‘yea’, which is especially associated with Biblical English as an emphatic word meaning roughly ‘indeed’.

This word ‘yea’ was brought to my attention the other day when I noticed a certain L2 English speaker of my acquaintance writing ‘yea’ in an e-mail or a blog or something. When I read this and said it in my head, it jarred strongly. What was the solemn, Biblical ‘yea’ doing in the middle of a modern, colloquial text? Maybe it was a deliberate idiosyncracy—after all, I occasionally thou people when I’m in an Early Modern English mood. But no, they used ‘yea’ consistently, in multiple places. Then it hit me: they meant ‘yeah’. There is a slight difference in pronunciation, ‘yea’ rhymes with ‘hay’ whereas ‘yeah’ has the vowel of ‘get’, but a massive difference in connotation and stylistic tone. I had never realized before then how close and yet how far apart these two words for ‘yes’ are in English. Moral of the story: silent h’s can be very important sometimes.

In English, there is a two-way distinction ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but in French and German there is a difference between a straight ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ to a negative (oui, si, non; ja, doch, nein) e.g. Tu ne nous accompagnes pas. Si! Du kommst nicht mit. Doch! You’re not coming with us! Yes I am! In English you have to add to add a pronoun and a verb to clarify what you mean. As I said in my last post, I think ‘si’ and ‘doch’ are awesome and wish we had them in English. But all of these languages lack this distinction for ‘no’. I have always thought it would be good if there were some way of identifying what we mean when we say ‘no’ in the following context: Aren’t you coming with us? No. Does this mean ‘no I’m not’, or ‘no, you’re wrong, I AM coming’. We have all experienced queries of the kind “Do you mean ‘no you’re not coming’ or ‘no you are coming’?”

The Celtic languages don’t have single words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at all. Instead, you repeat the verb of the question in an affirmative or negative way. This is a bit like in English saying. Are you going? I am. / I am not. except you leave out the pronouns and just say ‘Am’, ‘Am not’.

Examples from Scots Gaelic:

A bheil thu a’ dol? Tha. Chan eil. Notice the suppleted forms, tha and eil are both present tense forms of the verb to be.

And if there is no auxilliary, you repeat whatever verb it is:

Did you go? (Went you?) Went. Not went.

An deach thu? Chaidh. Cha deach. (Again, suppleted forms.)

This is observed without fail by native speakers, no matter how long the verb is.

So forget is notoriously long (especially the spelling) in Gaelic.

Did you forget. Yes (Forgot). No (Not forgot).

An do dhìochuimnich thu? Dhìochuimhnich. Cha do dhìochuimhnich. Note that ‘do’ is a past tense marker.

Tag questions and various other things are done similarly (e.g. I didn’t forget. Why not? would be I didn’t forget. Why not forgot? you can’t just say Why not?) but I’ll leave it there.

Apologies to the ‘yeah’ ‘yea’ person if they are reading this. I used this example in the interests of linguistics! Forgive me.

PS. ‘Thou’ is the correct English verb for ‘tutoyer’ or ‘dutzen’. OED 1603: All that Lord Cobham did was by thy instigation, thou viper; for I thou thee, thou Traitor! (i.e. I refer to thee with the pronoun ‘thou’ (accusative ‘thee’, genitive ‘thy’) to emphasize my contempt for thee.

3 comments on “Yea!

  1. I’m not sure about your transcriptions of yea and yeah. For me, I pronounce them this way: yea [yɛə], and yeah [yɛə]. They both have the epsilon. The has nothing to do with it – that’s an orthographical convention, not an approximation of the actual sound. I don’t think that the silent really has a uniform affect on the previous vowel, either.

  2. Christopher on said:

    I am aware that English orthographical conventions have no direct correlation with the actual sounds. But in this particular case, ‘yeah’ has the epsilon and ‘yea’ has a closer e as in ‘hay’. That is the standard pronunciation – look in any pronouncing dictionary (including the American Merriam-Webster). I have never heard anyone pronounce ‘yea’ as anything other than ‘yay’, distinctly different from ‘yeah’. Perhaps you have only ever read this word and never heard it pronounced. That happens a lot with literary words, cf. ‘banal’ in my last post.

    By the way, it is frustrating to have to write vaguely phonetic transcriptions (like ‘yay’) in English spelling – but IPA, such as in your comment, comes out as squiggles. Would this blog be better on something that supports unicode?

  3. This blog does support ut8, technically. It’s a problem with the MySQL thing. I’m looking into it – I got fed up with the squiggles last night and posted about it online. The issue currently is that if I convert it over, all of the apostrophes in the current posts get destroyed. Arg.

    More on this later.

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