I recently came across a great thread in Quora about the usage of the word “yes” in various languages. The thread is concerned with explaining why romance languages use almost the same word for “yes” (si [Spanish, Italian] and sim [Portuguese]) when there is no word for “yes” in Latin.
This last bit was news to me. It’s almost as strange as the lack of the verb “be” from Russian. A language without “yes”? How can that work?
And yet, it’s true. While English (and Greek) speakers use “yes” without a second thought, it turns out that many languages have no need for it.
Romance Languages and “yes”
Dante actually classified medieval Romance languages according to their different words for “yes”:
- “si” was found in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese – the major “southern” Romance languages. However, Portuguese doesn’t even use “sim” very often. It still clings to the Latin tradition of repeating verbs to say “yes”. Você está bem? (Are you alright?) Estou (I am)
- “oc” was found in the land of the troubadours – the south of France, stretching from the northern border with Spain to the northern border with Italy (the so-called “langue-d’oc”). Provençals, Occitans and Catalans used “hoc est!”, “so it is!” or simply hoc, “for this reason”. This observation gave those languages the name langues de oc – and the whole Southern France the name Languedoc – “language of oc” .
- The Northern French and Lowlanders said “hoc ille” or ‘’hoc illud’’ as affirmative, “this is it”, which shortened to oil, modern French oui. “Oui” or the older “oïl” was found in the many dialects of central and northern Francia (the so-called “langue d’oïl”).
Now “si” comes from Latin “sic” (“thus”) and “oc” and “oui” comes from Latin “hoc” (“this”) – although “oui” or earlier “oïl”is actually from a longer phrase “hoc illi”. The point is, all these words or phrases are affirming something: “this way”, “this thing”.
Southern, central, and northern Romance languages in the west use different words – and Romanian in the east is different again. This suggests a loose uniformity of practice in Latin times. After all, Latin evolved while spoken in different parts of the world. Perhaps common people did use “sic” and “hoc” in daily speech, without it being recorded – rather like we use “yep” and “nope” in colloquial speech but write in a more formal style.
Whatever the reason, Romance languages went their separate ways to some extent – they only use “sic” based terms for “yes” in the southern languages.
So What Did the Latins Do?
The Romans usually answered by replying with the original verb.
“Would you like to come to circus today?”
“I would like to”.
How About The Rest of the World?
How common is that Latin construct? Turns out, surprisingly so!
The Modern Hebrew word for yes is ken (כן) which is the Biblical Hebrew for “[It is] thus”. That’s why the phrase “lo ken” ( לא כן) is allowed. It literally means “no yes”, but it actually means “it isn’t so”.
Romanian has the same construct, but with the opposite meaning: Romanian uses the Slavic word “da” for yes and, besides the regular negative answer “nu”, it also has another somewhat archaic/regional/rarely used negation “ba”, both meaning no. However, if one says “ba da” (no yes), it is actually a stronger affirmation, typically used if the question assumed that the answer will be negative, when in fact it is positive. This is exactly the same usage as “si” in French (as opposed to merely “oui”). In English, it might be something like “oh, but yes!”.
Speakers of Hiberno-English (Irish English) often use the Latin construction, it being one of several grammatical borrowings from Irish. They don’t repeat the whole construction but rather the modal verb on its own: “Will you be in the pub tonight?” “I will [not].” “Do you want another cup of tea?” “I do [not]”.
Chinese follows the same construct as well, although Chinese has evolved to have a “yes” nowadays. However, “yes” in Chinese is the verb for is or “to be”, usually with an extra character to make it sound friendlier:
是 is “to be” or “is”
Questions are often phrased «verb / not-verb» and the reply is phrased as «verb» or «not-verb».
Brazilian Portuguese has three options, listed here in order of popularity:
- Reply with the same verb:
“Do you want this?” “I want.”
Você quer isto? Quero.
2. The verb to be (we have two, by the way. This is for permanent to be. We have a transient variation):
“Did he crash the car?” “Is”.
Ele bateu o carro? É.
3. And the word yes.
“Is it so?” “Yes.”
É isso mesmo? Sim.
However, sim is usually only used for emphasis and would be considered rude (or, at least, odd) to use it in another context.
Finally, the word “si” is used to say “yes” in French, but only in a specific context.
It is when someone assumes that you will agree to their negation but you actually don’t. So, instead of saying “oui” or “non,” you say “si” to convey that, on the contrary, you are positive about the thing the guy assumed you were negative about.
- Q : Tu n’aimes pas les croissants? A : Si je les aime! (You don’t like croissants? Yes, I do like them!)
- Q : Tu ne fais jamais le ménage?! A : Si je le fais! (You never do the housework ?! Yes, I do it!)
- Q : Tu ne comprends pas? A : Si je comprends (You don’t understand ? Yes, I understand.)
In each of these cases, had you answered with the traditional “oui,” it would have meant that you agree with the question/affirmation. Answering by “non” + an explanation is possible, but it is confusing on some level to use a negation to counter a negation.
So “si” is the word most French will use in that context.
Yes vs. Yes
Are you confused yet? If not, maybe this will help: a surprising number of languages that do use “yes” have not one but two versions. Usually, one of them is used as a simple “yes” and the other as “yes, indeed” (i.e. with added emphasis).
However, Swedish has ja and jo. Ja is an affirmative on a positive asked question. Jo is when you complain on a negatively asked question:
Is it raining. Yes it is. Regnar det? Ja (det gör det) (or No it isn’t. Nej (det gör det inte).)
It is not raining. You’re right. Nej (det gör det inte). Or You’re wrong. Jo (det gör det visst).
English used to have two words for yes also: “yes,” and “ya.” Ya being when the negative was assumed but it actually the positive was true, and yes being when the positive was assumed and the answer was positive (incidentally, it also had to versions of no: no and nay, nay being when the positive was assumed but the negative was the answer. Nay has survived today in legislative assemblies.)
Furthermore, “aye” is still used today in Scotland. A single aye is a simple “yes,” while a double aye means “I understand and will comply” (usually used in nautical parlance).
The Origins of Yes
If you’re wondering, the English word “yes” is of Germanic origin. It is thought to have come from a similar sort of root to “si”: “yes” is an evolution of Old English “gea + si” meaning “so be it”, while similarly “si” comes from “sic est” also meaning “so be it”.
The concept of a singleton affirmative word simply didn’t exist in either language tree from their earliest days – Latin OR Germanic, even though it did exist in Greek (“Ναι.”). It’s a word that evolved out of necessity in both trees, and from similar phrases.
But those singleton affirmative words are similar because they are simply shortenings of the same root multi-word affirmative phrases in their respective trees.
In other words, the concept of an affirmative reply pre-dated the development of the singleton version of it!
So… yes. Turns out, saying yes is no picnic! Now, I wonder where that expression comes from…
I have enjoyed all your articles and this one was no exception.
Yay! So glad to hear that! Thank you, Connie 🙂
Thoroughly enjoyed this. 🙂
Yay! Thank you, Debbie 🙂
Interesting research, and thanks for the excellent examples. I have often been confused by the answer yes to a negatively asked question. Did they mean ‘yes, I want to’ or ‘yes, I don’t want to?’ It’s great to know that the roots of American English once had clear answers and clear logic and that, like so many American habits, it has just fallen out of fashion in the simplification of local speech.
All language is a balance between clarity and speed, it seems 🙂
Fascinating stuff! Thank you 🙂
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
I find it harder to say no… but I’m learning.
The Hibernian phrasing struck a chord and will be used in my future fiction dialogue. I recognised the construction as soon as you pointed it out (‘it is’, ‘ I will’, ‘they are’, etc) and it will colour my Hibernian dialogue in future (I have an un-declared Irish character in mind as I write…).
Seriously though, an interesting article.
Thank you, Cathy! I’m particularly happy it inspired you to improve your Irish character 😀
A fascinating post!!
Thank you, Colin! I’m planning on sharing your amazing post on the phantom washerwomen in the near future, as it’s just the sort o thing that fascinates me (and, hopefully, my readers) 🙂