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


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?

  • 6
    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. Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 14:03
  • Also "si" here Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 14:05

2 Answers 2


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/emme/ette/eivät is used (conjugated for person and number).


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.".


  • does kyllä end with the case ending -lla/-llä? Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 20:16
  • Of course, just wondering if there's some kind of element ky which has -llä ("on") attached. Like pöydällä. Commented Jul 30, 2018 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)
    – iacobo
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 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
    Commented Jul 31, 2018 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.
    – iacobo
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 4:51

Mandarin has an unambiguous simplex 不 which means ‘no’ on its own, but no equivalent simplex that means ‘yes’.

不 does double duty as the negating particle for non-past verbs, so it’s not only used as a standalone ‘no’, but it is used thus. With past verbs (i.e., with the perfective-like particle 了 le), the negator is instead 没(有) méi(yǒu), which is also used to reply in the negative; as a reply, the second syllable/character is never omitted.

When commenting or answering questions in the affirmative, it is most common to use 对 duì ‘correct’, or in some cases to repeat the verb, especially if the verb is a ‘core’ verb like 是 shì ‘be [copular]’, 在 zài ‘be [located]’, 有 yǒu ‘have’, modal verbs, etc. Repeating the verb, negated, can of course also be used for negative replies.

There is an affirmative grunt, often written 嗯 ǹ(g), èn(g) (but commonly pronounced [ɔ˦˨ ~ ɔ˧]), which is similar to ‘uh-huh’ in English, but that’s not really a lexeme as such, and like its English equivalent, it is used more on its own to encourage the speaker to continue than to give an actual affirmative reply.

In 1996, a famous Chinese manifesto was published entitled China Can Say No or The China That Can Say No. Its Chinese title is 中国可以说不 Zhōngguó kěyǐ shuō bù, showing that 不 works as an abstract nominal form of expressing a negative reaction, like English ‘no’.

The manifesto was in turn based on a Japanese essay from 1989 entitled The Japan That Can Say No with similar goals and contents. The Japanese title of this essay, 「NO」と言える日本 ‘NO’ to ieru Nihon, is interesting because it shows that the Japanese word for no, いいえ īe, does not work in the same way, using instead the English word. (This is also because the essay is critic of and wants Japan to distance itself from the US, but いいえ would not have worked as well in the context.)

If the titles had been reversed, Mandarin also would not really have had a straightforward way to express things. Beyond using the affirmative grunt or a semantically different verb like 同意 tóngyì ‘agree’, there isn’t really an obvious way to say, “China can say yes”.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.