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Many modern languages have single words for "yes" and "no" (e.g. English), and some have more than a simple pair (e.g. French), while others have no word for "yes" or "no" (e.g. Latin and Irish).

Both "yes" and "no" have at least two meanings:

  • yes, you are correct
  • yes, the positive of what you said
  • no, you are incorrect
  • no, the negative of what you said

E.g.

That's not your dog, is it?

Yes, it is. (Oui in French)

No, it is. (Si in French)

No, it isn't. (Non in French)

Other languages also have a word for "You are correct, the negative of what you said", i.e. "Yes, it isn't".

The simplest form in Irish is to repeat the verb in either the positive or negative:

That's not your dog, is it?

It is.

It isn't.

I'm interested that all languages I know of have at least an opposite pair of "yes/no" or none at all. Are there any languages with a word for "yes" but not "no" or vice versa?

  • 5
    My understanding is that "no" is more common than "yes". In Biblical Hebrew there is only "no". To reply to a question in the affirmative, you repeat a key phrase. For example, at one point Joseph asks about his uncle Laban: "His well-being? (Is he well?)" They reply: "Well-being." This is translated "yes". Another time Ahab says to Elijah, "Have you found me, my enemy?" Elijah replies: "I have found." This too is translated "yes". In Modern Hebrew, there is a word for "yes" that grew out of the word for "thus" — exactly as "si" did in Romance languages like Spanish and French. – Luke Sawczak Jul 30 '18 at 14:03
  • Also "si" here – Luke Sawczak Jul 30 '18 at 14:05
5

Finnish has particle words for "yes": "Kyllä" (formal) and "joo", "juu", "jep" (very colloquial), but no such words for "no".

However, one generally responds to questions with an echo response (as in Irish, Latin, Chinese and Japanese).

For negative responses, the negation verb en/et/ei/enme/ette/eivät is used (conjugated for person and number).

e.g.

Positive response to question:

"Tuletteko kaupungista?" ("Are you coming from town?")

"Tulemme." ("We are coming.") / "Kyllä." ("Yes") / "Joo." ("Yes")

Negative response to question:

"Tunnetteko herra Lehdon?" ("Do you know Mr Lehto?")

"En tunne." ("I don't know.") / "En." ("I don't.")

For example, the response to "Does she know Mr Lehto?" would be conjugated "Ei.".


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yes_and_no#Related_words_in_other_languages_and_translation_problems

| improve this answer | |
  • does kyllä end with the case ending -lla/-llä? – OmarL Jul 30 '18 at 20:16
  • Of course, just wondering if there's some kind of element ky which has -llä ("on") attached. Like pöydällä. – OmarL Jul 30 '18 at 20:49
  • @Wilson ah, I'm not sure of its etymology. It appears to have cognates in North Sami gal'le, Estonian küll, Livonian ki’l, Veps külläine (full stomach, eaten) – brazofuerte Jul 30 '18 at 20:58
  • Could you give another example where the negative verb is different? At the moment it looks like "En" can be used for "No". Or perhaps if there's no other verb that is used this way, use another person (e.g. third person plural) to show how "en" is conjugated but "kyllä"/"joo", etc. aren't? – CJ Dennis Jul 31 '18 at 23:22
  • @CJDennis Yep, it would be for example "Ei." for "She doesn't." instead of "I don't." Will add an example to the answer. – brazofuerte Aug 1 '18 at 4:51

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