I have been told that, in Chinese, terms for "yes" and "no" used as answers for questions are not needed because one answers yes-no questions by either repeating the verb in the question or adding a negative word to the repetition of the verb in the question. So the answer to a question meaning "Did the thief take the gold" could be either "take" (the affirmative answer) or "not take" (the negative answer). I am told that this type of answer to yes-no questions is also found in other languages.

It seems to me that this strategy makes for less ambiguity than we have in English, as we see here:

Q: Did he NOT COME to the party?

A1: Yes. (affirming that he did not come to the party)

A2: Yes. (affirming that he did come to the party)

A3: No. (denying that that he came to the party)

A4: No. (denying that he did not come to the party)

Of course, we English speakers can disambiguate such answers in a number of ways, including a tag to the answer. "Yes, he did." "Yes, he didn't," ... etc.

But aside from answering with a verb vs. a negated verb, or using tags as in English, what other grammatical or lexical strategies are commonly used in natural languages to avoid ambiguous answers to negative yes-no questions?

  • 4
    This doesn't merit an answer, but French has si, an affirmative word felicitous only to answer negative questions. Q:Est-ce qu'il n'est pas venu à la soirée? A:Si (he did come) A:Oui (Yes he didn't come).
    – Olivier
    Jan 15 '14 at 9:01

Note, you have mentioned two strategies, not one:

  1. An action verb with an optional negative particle;
  2. A supplemental verb (as in do-support in English) with an optional negative particle.
    This one is wide spread in analytical languages, e.g. Thai:

    เขา  เป็น  คน     ไทย  [ใช่]   ไหม
    he  is   person Thai   is   interrogative particle
    ไม่  ใช่
    not is

    Note that "is" in the interrogative sentence is optional, but it is always used in the positive answer and often used for negative answer.
    Other supplemental verbs can be used, e.g. to be located, to do, etc.

  3. Early English had a four-form system, where yes and no were used to answer negatively phrased questions ("did he not?") while yea and nay were used to answer positively phrased questions ("did he?"). See corresponding question at English.SE.

In fact, the Wikipedia article on Yes and No describes several more systems, including three-form systems (with two forms for "yes" or two forms for "no") and systems where there were no special particles for "yes" and "no", e.g. Latin where intensifiers like "certainly" were used.

  • French has a three-form system : oui, non, si.
    – Typhon
    Jan 31 '14 at 11:38

In Swedish you use "Ja" to positively answer a positive question and "Jo" to positively answer a negative question. Nej is used otherwise.


  • 1
    The German equivalents are Ja, Doch, and Nein respectively. Doch can also be used as a particle. Du machst nie deine Hausaufgaben! (implied: das) Mache ich doch! You never do your homework! In fact, I do do it.
    – Ledda
    Jan 17 '14 at 10:52
  • @Ledda Dock in Swedish means However/Yet.
    – Baz
    Jan 17 '14 at 13:17
  • Wow, I was just about to ask this question, since in Bavarian we have "iá" to positively answer a positive question and "io" to positively answer a negative question; "na" otherwise. "doh" is same as Swedish. Aug 30 '16 at 6:52

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