yea/ yeah

Mark A. Mandel mamandel at LDC.UPENN.EDU
Thu May 3 15:46:12 UTC 2007

JL sez:
As I wrote some time ago, OED ought to reconsider its treatment of "yea" and
"yeah," as the two could not be any closer semantically or phonetically.

  One objection to a merger into a single article - with any appropriate 
cavets, of course - is that "yea" (as in "yeas and nays") seems to appear in 
ModE writing exclusively in formal contexts, while "yeah" (often spelled 
"yea" in the early 20th C.) is restricted to very informal contexts.  Yet 
the current entry for "yea" subsumes such uncommon phonetic forms as "yee" 
and "yoy."

  Under "yea," OED affords two Shakespearean exx. (1593 and 1599), but both 
are formal, followed inj each case by "my Lord."  Nevertheless, here is one 
rather familiar example that seems to me to be indistinguishable from 
current colloquial usage:

  1596-97 W. Shakespeare _Henry IV Pt.1_ V, i: _Falstaff_. What is that 
honour ?...Who hath it ? He that died on Wednesday. Doth he feel it ?  No. 
Doth he hear it ? No. 'Tis insensible then ? Yea, to the dead.

  Note the contrast with "no" rather than "nay." A dearth of similar "yeas" 
in print or manuscript between 1600 and 1900 would present something of 

I pronounce 
 - "yea" /jeI/ rhyming with "day". (So does OED.)
 - "yeah" as /jE@/ with a schwa offglide (likewise OED), rhyming with 
nothing else in my vocabulary. When I put on an r-less Boston accent and say 
"there", that's pretty close.

OED calls "yeah" "a casual pronunc. of YES". I disagree; it's a different 
word, like "nope".


A. adv. A word used to express affirmation or assent: now ordinarily 
replaced by YES.

    1. a. As simple affirmative, in answer to a question not involving a 
negative: = YES 1.
  For the distinction formerly observed between yea and yes, see NAY adv.1 1 
and YES 2. 

    Repr. a casual pronunc. of YES. 

  Freq. in representations of direct speech.

    A. adv.

    1. Now arch. or regional (chiefly Eng. regional (north.)).    a. = NO 
adv.2 1a; used to express negation, dissent, denial, or refusal, in answer 
to a statement, question, command, etc.
  In older usage nay was usually considered to be the proper negative reply 
to a question framed in the affirmative (yea would be the correct expression 
of a positive reply to the same). If the question was framed in the 
negative, then the proper negative reply would be no (with yes for a 
positive answer). This usage preserves the sense of nay as stemming from ne 
ay ‘not yes’. 

    A. adv. A word used to express an affirmative reply to a question, 
statement, command, etc.

    1. a. In answer to a question not involving a negative; standing for the 
affirmative sentence corresponding to the interrogative one constituting the 
question: = ‘It is so.’ Phr. to say yes: to assent, comply; spec. to accept 
a proposal of marriage.
  Formerly usually more emphatic than yea or ay; in later use taking the 
place of these as the ordinary affirmative particle: cf. 2 below.

m a m

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