From Daniel Sterman:
There’s an old joke about computer programmers (or mathematicians, or logicians). Ask them “Is X right or wrong?” and they’ll answer “Yes”. Because, indeed, either X is right or it is wrong.
Well, a few months ago, most of my team’s operations were transferred to a team based in Shanghai, and they seem to be doing something similar. Whenever I ask a question that offers two alternatives (“Is it A or is it B?”), they always answer with a single, solitary yes or no.
The occasional “no” responses prove that they’re not giving me the Mathematician’s Answer. But I of course have to ask each time, “Yes to which one?” or “No to which one?”. It drives me crazy.
I haven’t yet had the opportunity to analyze the responses I’ve been getting, but I theorize that there is something about the Chinese language (I assume Mandarin in this case) or about Chinese culture that leads to this phenomenon. Perhaps the structure of A-or-B questions, when translated into Chinese, implies something along the lines of “Tell me if it’s B, and if it’s not I will assume it’s A”, or vice versa. Or perhaps the Mandarin words for Yes and No strongly imply “…to that last thing you just said” rather than, as it is in English, “to all that you just said”.
Is my theory correct? If not, do you know of any linguistic or cultural influence that could be causing this?
I will let others speak for computer programming, mathematics, and logic, but we certainly do have yes-no questions in Sinitic languages. As for Sinitic, I will focus on Mandarin as representative.
Here are three example sets of yes-no questions in Mandarin with their affirmative and negative responses:
Q: 你要不要吃桔子？ Nǐ yào bú yào chī júzi? ("You want or not want eat orange?") — "Do you want (to eat) an orange?"
A: 要。 Yào. ("Want.") — "Yes." (I.e., "Yes, I want [to eat] an orange.")
N: 不要。 Bú yào. ("Not want.") — "No." (I.e., "No, I do not want [to eat] an orange.")
Q: 他在不在慢跑？ Tā zài bú zài màn pǎo? ("He is or not jog?") — "Is he jogging?"
A: 在（慢跑）。 zài （màn pǎo). ("Is (jog).") — "Yes." (I.e., "Yes, he is jogging.")
N: 不在（慢跑）。 Bu zài （màn pǎo) ("Not is (jog).") — "No." (I.e., "No, he is not jogging.")
In addition, yes-no questions are often formed by adding the particle "吗" (ma for "yes or no?") to the end of a sentence, in which case the answer can be "是的" (shì de for "is [so]") or "不是" (bu shì for "not is [so]"), or "对" (duì for "right") or "不对" (bu duì for "not right"):
Q: 你不上课吗？ Nǐ bu shàng kè ma? ("You not go-to class yes-or-no?") — "Don't you have a class?" OR "Aren't you going to class?"
A: 对。 Duì. ("Right.") or 是的。 Shì de. ("Is (so).") — "Right / yes." (I.e., "No, I do not have a class." OR "No, I am not going to class.")
N: 不对。 Bu duì. ("Not right.") or 不是。 "Bu shì. ("Not is (so).") — "Wrong / no." (I.e., "Right / Yes, I do have a class." OR "Right / yes, I am going to class.")
Source (VHM: the brief explanations following the dashes are by me; the rewordings inside the parentheses of the A and N answers convert the full answer to the English way of thinking.)
N.B.: In the last set of answers, duì 对 may also be thought of as "correct" and shì 是 has the meaning of "is so / thus / this way / as posited" — this is a very ancient use of shì 是; the opposite with which it is often paired is fēi 非 "is not so / thus / this way / as posited". Early Chinese philosophical discussions on shìfēi 是非 are about "right and wrong".
For many more examples of "Yes-no questions with 'ma'", see this article on Chinese Grammar Wiki.
Half a century after beginning the study of Mandarin, I still find the third type of q & a to be rather mind-boggling. I suppose that many Language Log readers feel as though their own mind is about to burst as they try to make sense of how "yes" and "no" play out in the Chinese responses.
The whole business is difficult even for native Chinese speakers, as is revealed by the fact that several of the informants who replied to my question about the grammar of the third set cautioned that it is "tricky". To show how the Chinese and English usage radically differ, I'll simply quote the following responses from native speakers of Mandarin who also know English well (the notes in square brackets are explanatory / clarifying additions by VHM):
1. A graduate student in Sinology:
2. From a senior language lecturer:
[1st answer:] — Correct. (i.e. “Correct, I do not have a class.” OR “ I am not going to class”)
[2nd answer:] I would never reply “不对/不是”for this question. I would say““不，我上课。” (“No, I do have a class.” OR “No, I am going to class”) Just a simple “不” is not clear enough.
3. From a senior language lecturer:
If you answered : 对 duì ("right.") or 是的 shì de ("is [so]"). It means 'No, I am NOT going to class.'
If you answered : 不对 bu duì ("not correct") or 不是 bu shì ("not [so]"). It means 'Yes, I NEED to go to class.'
4. From a senior language lecturer:
When the answer is 对 (Right!) or 是的 (Is so), the person is actually saying "your assumption is right. I don't have a class or I am not going to class."
On the contrary, when the answer is 不对 or 不是, the person is saying "your assumption is not right. I do have a class or I am going to class.
In other words, in Chinese, the answer YES or NO is not reflecting the fact the answerer is going to class or not but to the questioner's assumption when he/she asks the question. This is exactly opposite to English so we always have to remind students so that they won't get confused.
5. From a graduate student in cultural studies:
This is one of the most famous brain teasers that appears in English tests of Chinese high schools.
I think the English and Chinese modes of thinking in this case are fundamentally different.
When a Chinese is replying to the question "你不上课吗?", his/her answer is aimed at the whole sentence:
对／是／Yes is an affirmation of the speculation that "你不上课"（the replier is actually not going to class);
不对／不是／No is the negation of “你不上课”(the replier is going to class).
However, in the English language, the answer is only contingent on the key word "上课", no matter how the question is phrased:
If the replier does go to class, he/she answers 对／是／Yes.
If the replier does not go to class, he/she answers 不对／不是／No.
I can hardly tell which mode of thinking is more complex. It's just habit.
6. A graduate student in Egyptology:
I think the "yes" or "no" answer for the negative interrogative in Chinese is different from that in English. The Chinese answer "是" ["is so"] or "不" ["is not so"] is a reaction to the question itself, not the reality.
Question — 你不去上课吗？ Don't you have a class?
Positive answer — 对，我不去上课。 No [lit., "correct"] , I don't have a class.
Negative answer — 不，我去上课。Yes [lit., "no"]， I have a class.
I believe rhetorical and negative questions are the most difficult in any language. Ancient Egyptians sometimes used double negative rhetorical questions in literature, which are always chosen as grammar questions in our exams!
"Yes, we have no bananas!" I've seen suggested several places on the web that Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, who wrote a song with that as the title, heard this sentence of "broken English" in New York city in 1922 from a Greek immigrant greengrocer. Is there an underlying basis for this in Greek grammar?
[Thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Melvin Lee, Liwei Jiao, Fangyi Cheng, Yixue Yang, and Jing Wen]