Antedating of "yeah"

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Fri Jun 9 19:11:19 UTC 2006

A caution (or, for most, a reminder)--

I don’t know how many of y'all use EEBO ("Early English
Books Online"), which has been available only a few
months.   It's really wonderful--a complete searchable
typescript of all books printed in England or in English
from Caxton to 1700, together with photographs of all the
actual pages.  It's produced by Chadwyk-Healey.

Anyhow, I was all excited yesterday:  I entered "yeah" as
the search-term, and I got a HIT in a text from 1602!
Pretty clearly, though, the form did not correspond with the
present-day colloquial affirmative.  Rather it stood
for "yea" (paralleling the word "yea" in the preceding
sentence, in a rather formal, elevated register of prose).

Well, I said to myself, the OED doesn't give "yeah" as a
historical spelling for "yea"; so this finding might be a
little bit interesting (especially in light of the possible
derivation of colloquial "yeah" from "yea").  Then:  I
checked the photo of the appropriate page, and the 1602 text
actually says "yea."

The caution is, Never assume (if you can help it) that a
transcript of a text is accurate!

Just for fun, then, I entered "yeah" as a search-term for
the older Chadwyk-Healey LION ("Literature on line") data
base.  I got a hit in a poem from 1612--which, if it had
been "valid," should have showed up in my EEBO search.
There, also, "yeah" is simply a typo for "yea."

We could surmise that the keyboarder, in each case, knew the
word "yeah" better than "yea" and so unconsciously made
the "correction" (sort of the way MSWord if forever trying
to correct our quoted old spellings!).  Legend has it,
though, that the LION keyboarders were Filipino women
(working in an electronic sweatshop) who did not speak
English; can that be TRUE?


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list