This is something that's bothered me since learning Latin in high school a decade or so ago--it seems like the concepts of "yes" and "no" that I, as a native speaker of English, consider extremely basic, simply didn't exist in at least a few major ancient languages.

Examples I'm aware of:

  • Latin generally had the verb repeated in the reply, and I was taught in school that the closest translations to plain "yes" and "no" were "ita vero" (something along the lines of "it is truly so") and "minime" (which I understand means something more like "absolutely not!") (though I suspect these may not have been terribly idiomatic)
  • In accordance with the above, many (all?) Romance languages appear to get their words for yes from unrelated Latin words, such as Spanish from Latin sic ("thus", "so"), or French oui from Latin hoc ille ("this one", I think?) (note that the words for no seem to usually come from the negation particle non, though I'm not sure when this came to mean no in Latin)
  • The word "yes" in English apparently originates from something in Old English that means more literally "so be it"

Is the idea of having words dedicated to expressing affirmation or denial a comparatively new concept to Indo-European languages? Or is my sample merely too small (it is only two really separate cases), and there were actually dedicated words for such in other branches of Indo-European, just not in Latin or Old English?

  • 6
    There are still plenty of languages in existence that don’t have basic words for yes and/or no. For example, Finnish has no simple ‘no’ (though it does have a special verb used for negation, which is also used for ‘no’), Chinese has no simple ‘yes’, and most of the remaining Celtic languages have neither. Some languages have more than two (most commonly distinguishing ‘yes [to a positive question]’ and ‘no [to a negative question]’), including French (oui/si); English used to make the positive/negative distinction in both yes and no and so had four words: pos. yea, nay; neg. yes, no. Nov 28, 2021 at 11:02
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    Because a language doesn't have a word for something does not mean speakers do not have the concept. It just means the language uses a different way to express the concept. Nov 29, 2021 at 5:40
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    @GastonÜmlaut I'm not arguing that. The only place I mentioned having a concept was asking if the idea of having words for yes and no is new. The concept of having words for them, not the concepts themselves.
    – Hearth
    Nov 29, 2021 at 6:13
  • Have a look here: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/1592/…
    – fdb
    Dec 3, 2021 at 12:02


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