No, totally

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Kathryn Schulz, "What part of 'No, totally' don't you understand?", The New Yorker 4/7/2015:

Not long ago, I walked into a friend's kitchen and found her opening one of those evil, impossible-to-breach plastic blister packages with a can opener. This worked, and struck me as brilliant, but I mention it only to illustrate a characteristic that I admire in our species: given almost any entity, we will find a way to use it for something other than its intended purpose. We commandeer cafeteria trays to go sledding, "The Power Broker" to prop open the door, the Internet to look at kittens. We do this with words as well—time was, spam was just Spam—but, lately, we have gone in for a particularly dramatic appropriation. In certain situations, it seems, we have started using "no" to mean "yes."

Schulz starts with this example:

MARON: They can look at any painting and go, "Eh." They can look at a Rothko and go, "Hey, three colors." And then you want to hit them.
DUNHAM: No, totally.

She then presents some real linguistic analysis, which starts by referencing the old four-form system of affirmation and negation that we used to have in English. As of 500 years ago, "yes" was used only for an affirmative response to a negative question or statement, with "yea" being the affirmative response to a positive question or statement. Thus the OED entry for "yes" has

2.a. In answer to a question involving a negative. Formerly regularly used thus (and as in b) in distinction from yea (see yea adv. 1); the distinction became obsolete soon after 1600, and since then yes has been the ordinary affirmative response word in reply to any question positive or negative, and yea has become archaic. The distinction was still observed in the Bible of 1611, in which yes occurs four times (all in N.T.), always after a negative question or statement; the Revisers of 1881, apparently in ignorance of the usage, altered it in all these instances to yea.

And the entry for "nay" tell us that

In older usage nay was usually considered to be the proper negative reply to a question framed in the affirmative (yea would be the correct expression of a positive reply to the same). If the question was framed in the negative, then the proper negative reply would be no (with yes for a positive answer). This usage preserves the sense of nay as stemming from ne ay 'not yes'. The distinction is explained by Thomas More:

1532   T. More Confut. Tyndales Answere iii. p. clxxxi,   No answereth the questyon framede by the affyrmatyue..yf a man sholde aske..is an heretyke mete to translate holy scrypture into englyshe..he muste answere nay and not no. But and yf the questyon be asked..Is not an heretyque mete to translate holy scripture into englysh. To this questyon..he muste answere no & not nay.

Schulz quotes Jesse Sheidlower on "the extensive 'yeah, no' literature", and refers her readers to some LLOG posts from 2008 on that topic:

"Yeah no", 4/3/2008
"'Yeah no' mailbag", 4/3/2008
"Yet another 'yeah no' note", 4/4/2008
"'Yeah no' in popular culture", 4/15/2008

She argues that "No, totally" is different, because it can be used to respond to a phrase containing no negation. But even in those 2008 posts, there were several examples where "Yeah no" responds to a positive statement, e.g.

B: it seems i know people in a-    like my sister does r- related research and that's why she forwarded it to me and i was like okay i'll support the cause you know i uh
A: yeah no i think it's great and my my sister in the in her psych program is always like  talking about all these studies that she's doing you know for all her friends who are doing like more  like she's had like  forty seven thousand m._r._i.'s because she has a lot of studies that are doing like

Or

X: "I watched the match last night"
Y: "Me too. Classy batting by Sehwag"
X: "Yeah no"

Victor Mair suggests that "I think the sentiment is often like 'I couldn't agree more'", or maybe "like 'Kě bùshì ma? 可不是嗎' ('Can it not be right?'), which I hear Chinese people saying all the time, meaning you can say that again; absolutely; that's very true."

In the end, Schulz decides to leave the question open:

I don't mean to suggest that animated agreement singlehandedly explains all instances of "No, totally," or that the negation theory is wrong. The way we use language is so variable and versatile that Occam's razor does not apply; both explanations might easily be correct, and several others as well. In some cases, the expression might simply function as a conversational hinge—"No, totally, but what I was going to say was…"—akin to the empty but rudder-like "no" in that phrase comedians love to deploy immediately after jokes: "No, but seriously, folks." Or maybe—and this is the theory I like best, but can least substantiate—"No, totally" is really a contraction of "I know, totally." That is linguistically improbable; I know of no instance in the English language where a homophonic slippage of this sort has taken place. But I like the theory anyway, because it captures what is often the semantic intent of "No, totally" with uncanny precision: I understand, and I am fully in accord.

In discussions of this kind, the journey may be more important than the destination.

I suspect that a careful examination of "No, totally" usage, in the context of "no" usage and "totally" usage on a large scale, would help determine whether the "multiple simultaneous explanations" theory is correct. But anyhow, it's great to see a journalist's serious attempt at linguistic analysis in a mass-circulation magazine.

Update — You might also want to take a look at "Vicky Pollard's revenge", 1/2/2007.



37 Comments

  1. Matthew E said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 10:58 am

    What it feels like to me when I say that, or things like it, is that the person I am responding to has implicitly left room for me to disagree with him/her, and my "no" is my explicit nonacceptance of the disagreement option, followed by "totally" as I instead agree with him or her wholeheartedly.

  2. Michael said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 11:10 am

    Could that No (before Totally), mean "You don't say", especially if said with the proper doubting intonation?

  3. George said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    Following on previous commenters, I think the 'no' in these types of constructions functions much like 'innit' (a wonderful invention, so much more economical than all those isn't its and aren't theys, finally bringing the versatility of n'est-ce pas and its various cognates to the English language).

  4. Phillip Minden said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 11:45 am

    I suggest the underlying idea is simply "no, I'm not exaggerating/joking."

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    I don't know why the OED bothers to use the Bible of 1611 as a reference. The "King James" Bible was deliberately written in the language of the time of James's great-granduncle Henry VIII, its basis being Tyndale and the Book of Common Prayer. It was probably what British Protestants by that time thought was a Church-appropriate style. Elsewhere the OED says that by 1600 "you" was the usual 2nd-person singular pronoun, but it's found in only one place in the Bible (in Ruth), probably a slip-up that wasn't caught.

  6. cameron said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

    How did the Northern/Scots "aye" work? Did it correspond to "yea" or "yes" and what was the contrasting term? I'm guessing it corresponded to yea.

  7. A. F. said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 1:06 pm

    There's the same in French, with "Ouais nan" (imo "ouais" can be "oui but "nan" can't be "non"). "Nan ouais" might be used too, but i'm not sure. "Nan mais ouais" is definitely used, but might be a bit different in meaning (not too sure about that either, but it's seems to be to put emphasis). You can even do "Nan mais ouais nan [c'est pas possible]" ("yeah no [that's no possible]") or "Nan mais ouais complètement" ("yeah no totally").

    It's really interesting, because i feel like each of those can be used for both agreement and disagreement depending on what's put behind. It seems to have a different meaning than agreement or disagreement.

    Is there an explanation for the fact that the same structures appear in different languages seemingly independently like that ?

  8. A. F. said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

    Just to clarify my previous comment (is there an edit option ?), "Ouais nan" would correspond to "Yeah no" and "Nan mais ouais" to "No totally", even though i'm not completely sure if the meaning are exactly the same.

  9. kevinm said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

    To my ear, it has the connotation of sweeping aside any presumed objections to what the person just said; you and I are united against the hypothetical doubters. Like "no duh," or "no joke."

    In the Dunham example, negation also feels right because Maron has just described a type of person, but disapprovingly. Dunham isn't saying she disagrees (i.e., that she doesn't want to hit them). She is using "no" to express solidarity with Maron's generally negative opinion.

  10. peterv said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 4:04 pm

    And what of the South African response, "Ja well no fine" (with "Ja" pronounced "Ya", as in Afrikaans) to express reluctant or indifferent agreement to a request?

  11. Modaca said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 5:00 pm

    What about the commentators on tv who often say, "No, Yes, he's said that before …?"

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

    My former brother-in-law, no matter whether he was agreeing with you or not, would preface many of his replies in conversation with, "no, no, no, no, no, no…."

    I've also known Chinese speakers who would lead off their responses with "bù bù bù bù bù bù 不不不不不不" ("no, no, no, no, no, no…").

    In both cases, these staccato bursts of no/bu 不-bullets amount to little more than verbal tics, but — judging from the personalities of the people I know who are prone to them — they do evince something about their general negativity.

  13. Ngamudgi said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 8:36 pm

    Is "no, totally" an American expression only? I haven't heard it in Australia.

  14. Eric P Smith said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

    Then there's Jim Trott's catch-phrase on The Vicar of Dibley:
    "No no no no yes."

  15. Tim Finin said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

    Like Jim Trott says in the BBC's Vicar of Dibley TV series: "No no no no, yes".
    (http://bit.ly/nonoyes)

  16. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 9:36 pm

    @Eric P Smith and @Tim Finin

    Wow! You both found that at about the same moment.

    That's what my brother-in-law sounded like!

  17. John Rohsenow said,

    April 9, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

    However it's used, it's better than "Whatever", or the equally meaningless
    "Really."
    PS: on one rare occasion on the BBC comedy Vicar of Dibley, we met
    Jim's wife, who said:'Yes, yes, yes, no."!

  18. Viseguy said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 12:14 am

    What Matthew E said.

  19. Rubrick said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 1:32 am

    One friend of mine routinely extends it to "yeah, no, totally".

  20. Sarah said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 1:46 am

    @Ngamudgi

    Used in UK as well as US

  21. Old Gobbo said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 4:05 am

    @ngamudji
    cf. near the end of:
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005523.html
    (Updates – if required – when I see my Oz cousins next month.)

  22. narmitaj said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 4:27 am

    I noticed that Rebecca Adlington, young double Beijing Olympic gold swimmer and now BBC TV pundit, often said "yeah, no, definitely" in answer to a question from sportscaster Clare Balding during the Commonwealth Games.

    I can't find direct video evidence of her saying that, but a commenter half-way down the page here says 'Is it me or does Rebecca Adlington respond to every question with, "Yeah, no, definitely"?', to which the next commenter answers "Yeah, no, definitely".

    While googling the phrase, I found there was a 2007 movie with the title Yeah, No, Definitely – "about a young man unable to express himself, and the danger he poses when his long-seething emotions finally explode" according to IMDb.

  23. Bean said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 6:27 am

    I feel like all those long responses (no, totally / yeah, no / yeah, no, totally / no, no, no, yeah) are buying time for the responder to think a little more about what they're agreeing to, before agreeing again with gusto. At least when I hear them in person that's the impression that I get.

  24. Caroline said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 6:50 am

    I agree with Matthew F. There's some implied apology, self-doubt, or self-criticism in the statement being responded to, and the "no" is a reassuring disagreement with the self-criticism, essentially meaning "don't apologize, don't worry."

    An explicit version of such an exchange, as I see it, would look like this:

    "This sounds awful, but I kind of want to hit people who don't appreciate art."
    "No, it's not awful. Those people are frustrating."

    Often, the "this sounds awful, but" is implied only by tone of voice or facial expression.

  25. Rodger C said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 7:02 am

    @peterv: Having never encountered the expression before, my immediate guess is to parse it as "yes–well, no–oh well, yes."

  26. Phillip Minden said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 7:42 am

    I still think the underlying idea is simply "no, I'm not exaggerating/joking."

  27. Gunnar H said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 8:23 am

    Ah, very interesting! The topic of different versions of yes and no to respond to positive and negative statements and questions came up in the comments on this article. I didn't realize English once had a four-form system.

  28. popegrutch said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 10:27 am

    In the Sony-produced American version of "Godzilla," Hank Azaria plays a stereotypical Brooklynite. For me, one of his most memorable lines, at a point where he has just said something that upsets his female companions is, "No. Yeah, no." As a Manhattanite who briefly lived in Brooklyn, I feel like I've heard entire conversations consisting of little more than "No. Yeah, no. But, no, really yeah." What does it all mean? That would probably take years of anthropological research.

  29. Jeff W said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

    I think Matthew E. has it right as one explanation.

    In addition, it seems to me that the person making the statement is stating something that he or she doesn't necessarily endorse (or is being ironic in endorsing it) or is criticizing, and the person saying "Yeah, no, totally" is, in essence saying a) Yes, I agree with your statement (or understands the sentiment), b) no, I wouldn't endorse it, either/I would criticize it also, and c) "totally" means I agree wholeheartedly or understand fully. If you omit "Yeah" then "totally" indicates the agreement.

    So, in the "classy batting" example, the "Yeah no" response means, in essence, "I agree with you" and "The batting is not classy."

    In the Dunham/Maron example, "no" indicates that Maron doesn't endorse or is criticizing the situation that Dunham is describing and "totally" means he agrees with/gets her statement.

  30. Jeff W said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 3:48 pm

    In certain situations, it seems, we have started using "no" to mean "yes."

    Given the way our two-form system of affirmation/negation works (or doesn't) in English, sometimes "no" does mean "yes."

    Q: Don't you want X?

    A: No, I don't. or
    A: No, I do.

    As a native speaker of English, I've never understood it and tend to answer such questions as "Yes, I don't," which my dad says I was doing at around the age of 5. (In Cantonese, the two-form affirmation/negation system works, logically, in just that way.)

  31. John Rohsenow said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

    A native French spkg Sinolinguist colleague (w/ a US PhD in Linguistics)
    replies from Paris:
    "Never heard "nan mais ouais completement » nor « nan maiq ouais nan".
    For me 'ouais' is spoken 'oui' and 'nan' is 'non'.
    As for 'ke bu shi ma?' it means 'pas vrai?', 'isn't it true.?'"

  32. John Swindle said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

    Is there disagreement about what "No, totally" means?

    "No, totally" means "No, I totally agree with you." It's not ambiguous or equivocal. The question is why the word "no" appears. I agree with Matthew E and others that it's an explicit refusal to entertain an imputed invitation to disagree.

  33. saurabh said,

    April 10, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

    The "Yeah no" of the Sehwag example is common in India. There's usually a question mark at the end. The meaning is simply, "Yes, isn't it so?"

  34. Asher B. said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 3:01 am

    I'm not a linguist. I'm an interested amateur, and a mental health professional. I wonder if there already exists a subfield of linguistics that addresses meta-meanings in such phrases as the one under investigation here. I mean that "Yeah, no," appears well analyzed in comments preceding mine in terms of linguistic evolution. But to me the phrase might also express something else: emotional ambivalence that the speaker might not be aware of, or might be chagrined to learn is evident. This is akin to crossing one's arms and saying, "I really do care, Irene." The nonverbal communication betrays the verbal. A phrase like "yeah, no, totally" to my ears sounds like a declaration of a passive willingness to consider any and every angle, since the speaker's self-confidence is too low to merely assert either yes or no. (Fans of the U.S. version of "The Office" might remember that Jim often used this construction when engaged in anxious banter with Pam.)

  35. Alan Palmer said,

    April 13, 2015 @ 10:02 am

    cameron's mention of 'aye' bring to mind the usage of the British Royal Navy: 'aye' is used when a simple affirmation is intended, and 'aye-aye' to acknowledge receipt of an order (and that it will be carried out).

    For instance,
    OFFICER: Nice day, isn't it, Jones?
    JONES: Aye, Sir.

    OFFICER: Ten degrees to port, Jones
    JONES: Aye-aye, Sir. Ten degrees to port it is.
    (Note that Jones repeats the order to make sure he's heard it correctly.)

  36. david said,

    April 15, 2015 @ 10:20 pm

    Perhaps, in "no, totally" the "no" is short for "no way".

  37. Russell said,

    April 17, 2015 @ 5:57 pm

    I'm not sure who Maron is, but in this segment, he or she sounds like a jerk. Maybe Lena has negative feelings about violence to people who don't like fine art (as has been suggested here), and "totally" is actually a non-committal pass on it. It wouldn't help her to seem like an art Nazi.

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