How do you say “no”?

Words index  Vivian Cook

‘Yes’ and ‘No’ seem to have quite clearly distinct meanings. To English speakers this seems quite straightforward; you answer “Yes” or “No” according to whether you agree or disagree; you don’t pay attention to the form of the question, i.e. whether it is negative ( ‘n’t/not”). Translating them into other languages should be no problem; they must be universal meanings.

However it is not quite as simple as that. There are four possibilities in English, two of which have the answer “Yes”, two the answer “No”.

“Do you like beer?”       “Yes I do.”    The question is positive: the listener agrees à “Yes”

“Don’t you like beer? ”  “Yes I do.”    The question is negative: the listener agrees à “Yes”

“Do you like beer?”      “No I don’t.” The question is positive: the listener disagrees à “No”

“Don’t you like beer? ”  “ No I don’t.  The question is negative: the listener disagrees à “No”

 

But languages vary in how they handle these possibilities as the table shows.

 

positive/
negative
question

listener agrees/
disagrees

English

French

Japanese

Did you? I did

+

+

yes

oui

hai

Didn’t you? I did

-

+

si

iie

Did you? I didn’t

+

-

no

non

Didn’t you? I didn’t

-

-

hai

 

If you’re French, to agree with a positive question you say “Oui”, to agree with a negative question you answer “Si” – two ways of saying yes where English has one.

For Japanese, to agree with a positive question or to disagree with a negative question you say “Hai”; to agree with a negative question or to disagree with a negative question you say ‘Iie” – hard for an English speaker to get right.

In Latin the emphasis shifts to the form of the question. ‘ne’ asks an open question that can be answered with “yes” or “no”; “num” implies a “no” answer; “nonne” a “yes” answer.

An English equivalent are so-called tag-questions, where tags are added to statements in conversation. Here we have to add the extra piece of information about whether the voice goes up and down:

Big Brother is boring, isn’t it?    Falling pitch expects the answer “yes”

Big Brother isn’t boring, is it?    Falling pitch expects the answer “no”

Big Brother is boring, isn’t it?    Rising pitch expects either “yes” or “no”

Big Brother isn’t boring, is it?    Rising pitch expects “yes” or “no”

This complicated system gives rise to many everyday problems for learners of English. If ‘You’re coming tonight aren’t you?” gets the answer “No”, the speaker will be surprised. As English sentences must have a pronoun, dummy subjects it and there get added in where other languages don’t need them:

            It is snowing hard (what is it? Added to obey the non-pro-drop rule)

            There is a man in the moon (What is there? Added to provide a subject)

English pronouns then have 3 persons, 2 numbers and 3 cases and is non-pro-drop; Old English had 3 persons, 3 numbers X cases and was non-pro-drop; German is non-pro-drop. Other languages make still more distinctions such as gender; Thai has a first person pronoun only used by women when speaking to the king kramòm. Even the humble pronoun shows the diversity of the ways in which human beings relate to the world around them.