Yeah no etc.

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Shahin S. sent this Instagram link, and asked

"Is there a term for these affirmative/negative contradictions? I'd be delighted to learn about their history, similar cases elsewhere, or parallels in other languages."

I can certainly testify that this general sort of thing is neither recent nor specific to California.

Earlier LLOG coverage includes noting the catch phrase "Yeah but no but yeah but…" associated with the British fictional character Vicki Pollard (e.g. "Vicki Pollard's revenge", 1/2/2007); a BreakfastExperiment™ on "yeah no" in LDC transcripts of conversational telephone speech ("Yeah no", 4/3/2008); some discussion of the issue, including a link to a 2004 post about Australian usage on Language Hat's blog ("Yeah no mailbag", 4/3/2008); some further documentation from readers ("Yeah no in popular culture", 4/15/2008); and a 2017 #NewYorkersBeLike tweet that the Instagram "California English" post was apparently plagiarized from ("Yeah nah really?", 2/7/2017):

There's some insightful discussion in the comments on those various posts.

As for Shahin's questions about "a term for these affirmative/negative contradictions", or  "their history, similar cases elsewhere, or parallels in other languages"

  • I don't know a term for such expressions — maybe we should coin one?
  • I don't know any real evidence about the history. The fact that similar expressions are viewed as locally characteristic in New York, Australia, and California (at least) suggests that either they're an obvious move in conversational logic (as I put it back in 2008, "in all the cases that I looked at, the yeah and the no seem be independently appropriate in the context of use, even if the sequence seems surprising when viewed in merely semantic terms."), or that their shared history goes back a few centuries, or both.
  • I don't know about parallels in other languages.

So the floor is open for readers with relevant information.

 



36 Comments

  1. KENNETH LAKRITZ said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

    If there's no term for them yet, I suggest 'yeahgations.'

  2. chips mackinolty said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 9:26 pm

    "Yeahnotions"?

  3. Michael said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 9:44 pm

    Sicetnons?

    Noyes? (I once visited China in a the company of a Mrs Noyes [noiz], but the Chinese tour guide kept calling her Mrs. No-Yes.)

    Shakenods?

  4. JB said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 9:44 pm

    This reminds me of the joke about the double positive:

    An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. "In English," he said, "a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn't a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative."

    A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, right."

    [(myl) This anecdote was first (I think) associated with Sidney Morgenbesser — see "If P, so why not Q?", 8/5/2004, and this 2004 obituary item about him on NPR, which tells the story like so:

    Born in 1921, Morganbesser [sic] was famous for his wit. One well-remembered story about him regards an Oxford philosopher giving a speech at Columbia University 20 years ago. When the don said that in most languages two negatives make a positive, but in no language do two positives make a negative, Morganbesser refuted the point by waving his hand dismissively and saying, "Yeah, Yeah."

    ]

  5. martin schwartz said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 12:51 am

    Dear Mark Liberman and all,
    Since I'm not a regular Log blogger, I can't start a new blog, I'm told,
    but I do have an item for those who delight in atrocious misuses: Search: "Managing the risks of training with kettlebells" by Luke DelVecchio in the Journal of Health and Fitness. You'll find, at two paragraph heads, an incomperhensible contrast of "withstanding" and "notwithstanding". This article is meant to be studied by personal physical trainers (like mine, who brought it to me with loathing) for their recertification.
    As for Sidney Morgenbesser (not Morganbesser), I remember him from
    positively from CCNY, but alas didn't know him well enough.
    His optimistic name, which I often think of, impressed me.
    Martin Schwartz

  6. Brett said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 2:20 am

    Yeah no, I can't think of one.

  7. Cim said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 3:37 am

    Conversational Finnish does this, but only "yesno" for "no" ("Joo ei"), not "no-yes" for "yes", as far as I can remember.

    There's a similarly multi-syllable contemplative "yes", "No joo", which is more like "well… yes". Finnish normally doesn't use a simple "no" but conjugates it to the correct form of the verb e.g. I don't, you don't, they don't, we don't – perhaps this has some bearing on the way it is able to combine.

  8. Keith said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 4:08 am

    French has a very similar construction, but it is more transparently a declaration that something is true or that the person is in agreement, followed by a pre-emptive parry against a contradiction that has not yet been presented.

    Typically, it goes like this:
    As-tu rangé ta chambre ?
    Oui, non mais c'est vrai, quoi!

    In the comment embedded in the Instagram image, "no yeah this is soooo true!!" it looks like an initial rejection of the idea presented, followed by an enthusiastic acceptance.
    In Brett's "Yeah no, I can't think of one" it looks like an initial acceptance of the idea followed by an admission of not finding an example instance.
    In both cases, it is the second word that is the definitive acceptance or rejection or a presented idea, after an initial instinctive (knee-jerk) response.
    So it follows that cases of "no no" and "yeah yeah" should also exist, for respectively aninitial rejection followed by a considered rejection, and for an initial acceptance followed by a considered acceptance.

  9. Phillip Minden said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 5:07 am

    I'm not sure a name would be useful, as I think there are several phenomena that only look similar on the surface.

    A lot depends on the meaning or function of the first part: as an actual affirmation (and be it to an implied contradiction or the like, as I suggested here http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=18588#comment-1493718 ) or a particle similar to "well" (eg Suebian German "ha noi" rather than "ja noi" [Yes, the Hanoi joke has been made locally, I'm given to understand.]

    French has both functions covered by "mais (oui/non)".

    Then you have suprasegmental choices that make a difference of meaning. Especially in AmE, there is the ironic lengthening, pretending affirmation that then turns out to be a case of the use we're talking about here:
    – Hey, what do you think of my idea?
    – Yeeeeaah no.

    Anyway, how about "fortepiano affirmation" and "fortepiano negation", resp.?

  10. Phillip Minden said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 5:12 am

    In systematising, languages with a number of functionally differentiated affirmators and negators may be helpful (oui vs si, (j)a vs jo, yes vs yeah, all along different lines).

  11. Marinus Ferreira said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 5:55 am

    Afrikaans has a very well-established and perfectly standard phrase 'ja-nee' ('yes-no') which is used as an acknowledgement or affirmation of what the other party has said. This is used as far as I know by all Afrikaans speakers and for as far back as I know: for instance, my grandparents used it in just the same way people use it today.

  12. Marinus Ferreira said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 6:01 am

    I should also add that the other passport I hold, New Zealand, has something similar but much more a part of the vernacular and less settled, where 'yeah nah' and 'nah yeah' and also sometimes 'yeah nah yeah' is attested. I must admit, despite living in New Zealand for 12 years, I never entirely got my head around how this is meant to be used, but I heard it often enough. This construction is markedly casual in NZ English (and in Australian English, as far as I can tell). This looks similar to the California and New York and Vicki Pollard examples cited in the post.

  13. Brett Reynolds said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 6:11 am

    Japanese has うん、いや, which seems to me to be doing the same thing. Perhaps the opposite also happens, but it doesn't feel as familiar.

  14. Saurs said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 7:04 am

    I don't think the "no yeah" one is a Californian affectation so much as it is specific to the northern-ish half of the state. I've never heard it before.

  15. Jason M said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 9:29 am

    Russian, I thought pretty famously, likes these "Da-a-a nyet" or even "Da nyet da" if I remember, but I am pretty far removed from current colloquial Russian usage these days.

  16. Phillip Minden said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 9:52 am

    Da nyet is a good example where the firt part isn't the affirmative particle, just happens to coincide. This is why each language has to be looked at separately before classificatins are made.

  17. Ray said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 10:00 am

    let's call them Hell To The Yeahs!

  18. Sam Buggeln said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 10:14 am

    I also think we are seeing two different phenomena at work in the three examples provided. My sense of the subtext would be:

    No [I agree, the converse is false] yeah [your proposition is correct]

    Yeah [I'm (fake) thinking about it…] no […and the answer is no]

    Yeah [I'm (fake) thinking about it…] no […and I agree, the converse is false] for sure […because your proposition is totes amazeballs]

  19. Charles in Toronto said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 10:31 am

    All this reminds me of how many other languages have a designated version of "Yes" that specifically counters negative assertions (such as French "Si!" and German "Doch!") .

  20. The Other Mark P said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 11:44 am

    I must admit, despite living in New Zealand for 12 years, I never entirely got my head around how this is meant to be used, but I heard it often enough.

    It generally means, "no", but a polite no, rather than an outright no.

    It's such a common phenomenon that the The Crowd Goes Wild TV had a segment entitled "Yeah Nah". And there's this https://www.alcohol.org.nz/resources-research/campaigns/say-yeah-nah

    Tui Breweries have a long-running series of advertisements with the similar "Yeah, right", which in this case is an impolite sarcastic no.

  21. peterv said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

    @Marinus Ferreira:

    South African English has the very common, "Ja Well No Fine", which perhaps was borrowed from Afrikaans. As far as I could tell, it means, "Yes, but not with enthusiasm."

  22. Daan said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

    I have heard this construction used in Dutch to acknowledge someone else's point, similar to the way described by Marinus Ferreira for Afrikaans.

    To me it feels almost like a filled pause and I initially wasn't sure whether the way I use it carries any intrinsic meaning at all, but on reflection I think I would most likely use it when someone has corrected me or suggested an alternative viewpoint:

    "Ja, nee, dat is natuurlijk zo, maar…"
    "Well that might be the case, but…"

  23. Aaron Toivo said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

    What I don't see discussed much is that these phrases aren't just unitary expressions; they have internal syntax. In particular, the rightmost word in the phrase is always the one that carries the overall polarity. Everything to its left has some other purpose. With "yeah, no" the "yeah" is often there to make clear you are confirming, rather than negating, a (known or assumed) existing negation. In other cases, it can be to soften the impact of disagreeing with your interlocutor, as "no" by itself can sometimes be quite a curt response. In other cases still, with a different tone of voice, it is there to do the opposite: it acknowledges that you have heard and understood, making your disagreement even sharper.

  24. Marinus Ferreira said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 5:35 pm

    @Aaron Toivo
    >In particular, the rightmost word in the phrase is always the one that carries the overall polarity.

    This is not the case with the Afrikaans (and apparently Dutch) 'ja-nee' construction, which is affirmative but has the word for 'no' rightmost.

    @peterv
    >"Ja Well No Fine", which perhaps was borrowed from Afrikaans.

    'Ja wel' is ubiquitious in Afrikaans as well, which has the same conversational function as the English cognate does, and the phrases 'ja-nee wel' or 'ja wel dan' are common enough, meaning approximately the same. But the SA English phrase 'yes well no fine' won't be a direct borrowing from Afrikaans, because the borrowing goes the other way: Afrikaners frequently borrow the English 'fine' used as an interjection, especially to indicate resignation or accepting something only under protest.

    I should also add that the Afrikaans phrase is only 'ja-nee' and not 'nee-ja' or something else. It's a single set phrase, not a productive way to compound affirmations and denials.

  25. AntC said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 6:48 pm

    These phenomena are just a variation of tag questions, are they?

    In an assertion, the polarity alternates, doesn't it? Would you say?

    (And yes they're ubiquitous in NZ.)

  26. Steven Marzuola said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 12:29 am

    There's a Spanish expression that was used in Venezuela, not sure about the rest of Latin America (but I can ask colleagues): "Sí como no," Literally, "Yes like no", but actually a firm, "Yes, of course." If a speaker is saying it several times, they might shorten it to "como no", still retaining the meaning "of course".

  27. loonquawl said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 2:26 am

    Reducing the colloquialisms Yeah/for sure/nah to their core yes/no meaning yields:

    Yes No = No

    No Yes = Yes

    Yes No Yes = No Yes = Yes (this works only if reducing from the left)

    this is always the value of the rightmost word, and thus a little easy, as even the (fictuous) construction 'Yeah No Of course Nah Sure Nope' is an immediately obvious 'No' – it would be much cooler if this was some sort of one dimensional Conway's Game of Life or some such.

    German offers 'Ja, Nein' as 'No', but does not support the opposite construction.

  28. Phillip Minden said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 2:59 am

    German certainly has [,ne 'ja] = yes. ("Nein" isn't really used unless stressed.)
    As I said, it's important to look at the variants and their meaning – it's not just affirmative particle versus negating particle. (Upon which triviality a German would sarcastically ask ['ne: 'nə] or ['ne: 'nɛ].)

  29. Saurs said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 3:00 am

    @Aaron Toivo

    In other cases still, with a different tone of voice, it is there to do the opposite: it acknowledges that you have heard and understood, making your disagreement even sharper.

    I think you've parsed the three variations quite well, but I think this is the one most English speakers use most often ("I comprehend thoroughly, no need to repeat yourself, and you're still wrong"), although it's not always so forceful or tetchy as it seems. The "yeah" there sometimes has a perfunctory or dutiful ring to it, stretched out for the sake of politeness and in imitation of a thoughtful tone, like one is weighing out the opinion at hand. Sometimes it's judgmental, patronizing, and a little incredulous, suggesting that your interlocutor is a buffoon or has made a layperson's error.

    It's a little less adversarial than a "nope," though, which tends (by design) to drive most normal people mad.

  30. Mark Meckes said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 7:12 am

    I often hear (and sometimes use) these constructions in Ohio. (Though it may be relevant that I spent several years living in northern California and upstate New York, and spend much of my time interacting with people whose linguistic habits were mostly formed elsewhere.)

  31. Rodger C said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 11:58 am

    @Steven Marzuola: "Sí, cómo no" is general Spanish and is written as I just did. It's literal meaning is not "Yes like no" but "Yes, how not?"

  32. GH said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 12:10 pm

    Just a few days after this post, I came across this story of an extreme example (note also the folk analysis in the comments): https://notalwaysright.com/youre-surrounded-yes-no-men/110489/

  33. BZ said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

    The Russian "da nyet" is not properly translated as "yes no". The word "da" has many other meanings. In this case it's used to underline disagreement with a previous statement. Also, it's not exactly true that in Russian a double negative is used to make a negative statement. Basically, with every negative value sentence there will be exactly one "nyet" (no) or a "ne-" (not) prefix before a verb. Once you have that, certain classes of words require a "ni-" prefix. Of course some standalone single-word utterances can have a "ni-" prefix and be translated as a negative, such as "nichego" for "nothing", I feel it a mistake to say that "u menya nichego neyet" literally means "I don't have nothing". What it means, rather, is that negative polarity in Russian works differently and you can't translate polarity prefixes literally into English.

  34. ajay said,

    May 30, 2018 @ 4:11 am

    So it follows that cases of "no no" and "yeah yeah" should also exist, for respectively an initial rejection followed by a considered rejection, and for an initial acceptance followed by a considered acceptance.

    From "Office Space":

    PETER: Let me ask you something. When you come in on Monday and you're not feeling real well, does anyone ever say to you "Sounds like someone has a case of the Mondays?"

    LAWRENCE: No. …No, man. Shit, no, man.
    (pause)
    I believe you'd get your ass kicked sayin' something like that, man.

  35. Andii said,

    May 31, 2018 @ 2:49 pm

    In Basque, 'bai' is 'yes' and 'Ez' 'no'.
    Ezetz (basically 'ez ez' with variation) is emphatic 'no'.
    Baietz is emphatic 'yes'.
    I think though that this is something different to the case of English apparent translations. I find myself saying 'yes, no' or vice versa occasionally and wondering what I've said. Observations so far: often I'm affirming or agreeing with the sentiment of the person I'm conversing with but then explaining further. "Yes (subtext: I agree with you) No -it is truly horrible …"
    I wonder too whether it has something to do with those kinds of times where French uses 'si' rather than 'oui' -when there is a negative in the preceding bit of conversation and 'oui' might be ambiguous, in effect -are you affirming their negative or disagreeing?

  36. Martha said,

    June 2, 2018 @ 7:28 pm

    I believe I first became consciously aware of this when I was in college (in Oregon) talking to a Japanese classmate in my phonetics class. She asked if I was going to take some class or another the following term. My answer was "yeah no," and she was like, "Oh great, we'll have that together!" I was very confused until I realized she'd latched onto the "yeah" and not the "no." I clarified and felt bad!

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