LINGUIST List 7.1008

Wed Jul 10 1996

Sum: Yes/No

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Marina Yaguello, summary (yes/no)

Message 1: summary (yes/no)

Date: Wed, 10 Jul 1996 22:36:29 BST
From: Marina Yaguello <>
Subject: summary (yes/no)
Summary: yes/no

 Many thanks to Larry Rosenwald,Norval Smith,Johannes
Heinecke,Frederik Fouvry , Steve Nicolle,x.zhou,Caoimhin P.
ODonnaile,Thomas W. Powell,Ana von Klopp,Marc Picard,Ralf Grosserhode,Erica
Thrift,Gavin O Shea,Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy,Karen Davis, Rebecca Larche
Moreton,Lance Eccles, Steven Schaufele, Nicholas Ostler, Linda Shockey ,
Sxren Harder,Chris Miller,John E. Koontz,Scott Martens,Georges
Rebuschi,France Mugler, John Phillips,John Reighard, Anders Ahlqvist,Howard

 The friend on whose behalf I posted the query is a sociologist. The
question was raised at a dinner party, with several linguists present, and
this friend was extremely puzzled by the idea that a language could
function without such essential pragmatic tools as yes and no.In fact she
found it hard to believe and it took a lot of persuasion to have her accept
the theoretical possibilility. I came up with the examples of Latin and
Chinese but she requested more proof. I received an overwhelming amount of
responses. Here's the summary:
 Obviously the use of yes and no is primarily a pragmatic one and it
can take any kind of linguistic shape. In some languages speakers have to
establish an anaphoric link between an open question and a response, in
other words they resort to cohesion (in the hallidayan sense). In these
languages yes and no may not exist as independent lexemes. It is the case
of the Celtic languages(I've had examples from Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh,
Breton, Manx). In Latin and ancient Greek adverbs meaning "so" were used .
Outside the Indo-European family (where this is synchronically a minority
situation and can be considered as an archaic or recessive feature) we find
Swahili and the Bantu languages, Lao,Omaha-Ponca (a Siouan language spoken
in Nebraska and Oklahoma), Finnish. In Hungarian to say yes one repeats the
preverb (aspectual particle) used in the question.
 Other languages allow the use of all-purpose yes-no type
adverbials; this results in a lack of cohesion between questions and
answers. Of course yes/no words are not "words" in the usual sense since
they constitute full utterances and can rarely form phrases.
 But yes and no words are not necessarily devoid of anaphoric value.
In the Romance languages they substitute for complement clauses :fr. "Je
dis que oui", "je pense que non" / sp. "digo que no" it. "spero di si"
etc.. (In English so/not or an auxiliary are used in this case e.g. "I hope
not","I guess so" "I think he does" etc. ).
 It is safe to hypothesize that the second type (the yes/no type) is
derived from the first since the Romance languages have developped yes and
no words from Latin, which didn't have them . English itself is in an
intermediate category for although it does have yes and no, it makes a lot
of use of anaphoric (cohesive) replies. Indeed there are circumstances
(e.g. the wedding ceremony) where only "I do" is attested for a positive
answer.In Russian, although yes and no can be used in isolation, often the
main verb of the question is repeated instead.
 Portuguese differs from the other Romance languages:
>Brazilian Portuguese certainly HAS words for yes and no, but "yes" is
>expressed by >repeating the verb
>(Voce) quer sopa? Quero. Do you want soup? Yes.
>"no" seems to be more variable.
 For computer users the lack of yes/no is a challenge.This is how it
is dealt with in Chinese:
>Chinese also lacks a single word. Questions can often be answered with "shi"
>or "bu shi" The following is from the Lantra discussion on "yes."
>The most common way of expressing a positive answer to a yes/no question is
>to repeat the verb e.g. "Ni xi bu xihuan chi zhonguo cai" (you like not like
>eat Chinese food = Do you like to eat Chinese food?) "Xihuan" (like = yes).
>We might be able to make a case for "dui" (right) or "shi" (be), which often
>correspond to "yes" in many contexts, however these are not general enough
>and would be strange in some places. But coming back to the interface
>windows again, the possible answers to "yes/no/cancel" in the Chinese
>localized software I've seen do not use "dui" or "shi". I believe
>Microsoft's Chinese Windows has "queding" = certain as in You certain not
>certain want exit Windows? Certain = yes.

 Of course there is the additional problem of languages that
distinguish si/oui.This would require a prolonged discussion.

 Here are some more significant quotes:
>but Welsh has something similar to yes/no in the past tense:
> Welaist ti'r aderyn? do / naddo
> Did you see the bird? yes, I did/ no, I didn't

>Swahili, Gogo, and (probably) many other Bantu-languages have no
>yes/no. Instead, they use an "it is like that"/"it is not like
>that"-like construction. "no" has been borrowed from Arabic, but did
>not replace the other form, since this would often be too rude.

In short, a very stimulating exchange of information and food for further
Thanks again. Marina.

Marina Yaguello
Professor of linguistics
University of Paris 7-Denis Diderot
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue