YES and NO

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulze W.Schulze at LRZ.UNI-MUENCHEN.DE
Thu Apr 6 14:51:23 UTC 2006

Dear all,

here a little bit of brain storming, nothing more. Alex' wonderful 
presentation of the Oceanic data as well as Michael's remarks on East 
Caucasian remind me of a talk Theo Vennemann (Munich) once gave at our 
University. He talked abot the yes/no patterns in Europe dwelling upon 
the question whether the distribution of languages with yes/no-'words' 
(e.g. German) and those with positive/negative sentential echoes ('(s)he 
did/n't, it is/n't etc. with many variants) (e.g. Celtic with impacts on 
Old English etc.) is more than just coincidental. I do not want to go 
into the details here, but Theo's talk has raised the question whether 
a) yes/no-strategies are a universal of language at all, whether b) the 
lexicalization of yes/no-words has common pathways in the languages of 
the world. Naturally, the discussion did not come to any defnite 
conclusion, still it made me thinking of the following:

For methodological reasons, we should clearly distinguish between what 
Alex has called vocal gestures and yes/no-words or yes/no-constructions. 
Vocal gestures seem to be sound symbolic in nature, and it would be 
highly interesting to collect a larger typological sample of vocal 
yes/no-gestures to see whether they share common features (both for 
their semantics and their 'form'). For instance, I do not think that it 
is just coincidental that in Alex examples, [ô] has a falling contour 
tone (> 'yes'), whereas [óòó] ends with a final rise (> 'no'). This 
correlates with the general observation that a falling prosodic pattern 
is frequently associated with the expression of certainty, whereas a 
final rising pattern indicates uncertainty etc. (compare German [jà] 
'yes' (certain) vs. [já] 'is it really so? I doubt / am amazed, wonder' 
(uncertain). The natural outcome of 'uncertainty' in a communicative 
situation seems to be some kind of (graded) 'negation' (e.g. S1: I will 
go! S2: Do you? (I don't think so) > 'no') [by the way, this observation 
correponds to the well-known relationship between negation and 
interrogation]. This way, a vocal gesture indicatiing 'no' can at least 
in parts be derived from its 'positive' counterpart. On the other hand, 
the expression of 'no' does not seem to be an obligatory technique to 
negate the utterance of a speaker. We can also do without, compare: S1: 
I will go to the market. S2: You stay here! Here, negation emerges from 
the use of more or less antonymic expressions. A vocal gesture may then 
support and strengthen this antonymic expression, leading to some kind 
of negative assertion. Interestingliy enough, such vocal gestures seem 
to have their own formal patterns, as can be seen for instance from the 
paralinguistic usage of clicks (see WALS, map 142). For instance, some 
German speakers know the use of the dento-alveolar click in the sense of 
'no' only if it is reduplicated, whereas it expresses amazement when 
spoken out more than two times. Likewise in German, we have the 
combination ['m-'m] (' = glottal stop with nasalization) to indicate 
'no', but the simple form ['m] does not work at all. The same holds for 
German ['ä/n-'ä/n] (/n = slight nazalization). I am left with the 
impression that vocal gestures have their proper patterns which may be 
both universal and particularized in nature.

I do not know whether the same holds for vocal gestures expressing 
'yes'. In German, we have a form ['`m´m`m] ('m with high-low-high) which 
indicates some kind of 'yes' (and which clearly goes against what I have 
said above for the opposition [ô] vs. [óòó]), but that's another issue). 
Else, we sometimes see the combination of a laryngeal + vowel (often a 
back vowel), e.g. [ho] in Udi (East Caucasian) or Georgian. There are 
-as far as I can see - no such constraints on simple vs. reduplicated etc.

The lexical expression of yes/no may have sometimes evolved from vocal 
gestures, though I do not know of any language that has for instance 
lexicalized (and grammaticalized) the type of paralinguistic clicks 
mentioned above. Interestingly enough, yes-words seem to be much more 
transparent as for their etymology than no-words. This holds especially 
if the yes-word does not stem from a vocal gesture. Sources may be for 
instance modal deictic terms ('so', 'thus' etc.), terms related to 
'truth'-concepts and so on. No-words are often taken from or derived 
from a verbal negator, which makes me think that many no-words reflect 
older echoe-techniques mentioned above. But then we arrive at the 
question, where verbal negators stem from. In a number of languages, we 
can reconstruct a verbal negator for the protolanguage (e.g. IE *ne, 
Southern East Caucasian *t:e etc.) which illustrates that verbal 
negators often are rather old in form (contrary to yes/no-words, which 
are frequently borrowings). But it is difficult to relate such a 
reconstructed negator to another meaning (thus claiming that such a 
negator has come about via metonymy, metaphorization or the like). One 
option would be interrogative words/morphemes (e.g. is Turkish -mI- 
(negation and  mI = interrogation just coincidental?), see above for 
this assumption (I know that people usually derive certain interrogative 
markers from a negative construction, but must it be alwas this way?).




Alex Francois schrieb:

> (sorry this is going to be a bit long)
> Dear all,
> Let me mention here the situation in a few Oceanic languages from 
> north Vanuatu & eastern Solomons.   
>         [See my page for a 
> list and a map of these languages]
> YES and NO work as follows.
> Basically, we get a twofold strategy similar to that mentioned for 
> Caucasus languages by Michael Daniel and Stephen Hewitt:  that is, the 
> equivalent of YES and NO take both the form of a "vocal gesture" (if 
> this is the right term) and of lexical material  [see below]. There 
> are also facial gestures, which I won't describe here, but which of 
> course are worth of mention.
>     * In the affirmative, you generally combine the gesture with the
>       sentence repeated,
>       something like Did you go there?  -- Mmm! I went there.  In this
>       case, I guess we would say that the equivalent of YES is the
>       vocal gesture  (although this may be discussed).
>     * Things are less clearcut for NO, since we get both the gesture
>       and a specific single-word sentence used for negative
>       statements.  Both strategies (gestural and lexical) are used in
>       similar contexts for similar purposes [though there are slight
>       pragmatic nuances, which I won't detail here].
>       When they are combined, which is often the case, the gestural NO
>       comes first and the lexical second:  see in the Lemerig example
>       below "Óòó,  niv!". Incidentally, it would be interesting to
>       check if this is always the case in other languages (gestural NO
>       comes before lexical NO).
>       We may compare this twofold NO-sentence with a sequence "Unhun,
>       no!" in English, thus suggesting that the equivalent to NO is
>       really /niv/;  but we might as well point to the English
>       sequence "No, I didn't" -- thus suggesting /Óòó/ = NO and /niv/
>       = "I didn't" (and I agree with Michael that the latter
>       construction can be regarded as one of English 'NO's).
> Unless we come up with a stricter definition of what should be 
> understood as "equivalents to YES and NO", I see no strong reason for 
> deciding which one is the exact equivalent of English NO.  So let's 
> consider for the moment that both /Óòó/ and /niv/ equally constitute 
> equivalents to NO, as they both can form (whether separately or 
> combined) a well-formed utterance showing the speaker's disagreement 
> with the content of a preceding question / claim / presupposed 
> proposition, etc.
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Now, if we get back to the Oceanic forms:
> 1. The vocal gesture normally takes the form of a vowel with a 
> specific pitch contour. [no clicks]. 
> The vowel is /o/ in 17 languages, and schwa in the two languages 
> (Lo-Toga and Hiw) that possess schwa in their vowel inventory.
>     * YES will be a slightly elongated, though monosyllabic vowel,
>       with a falling prosodic contour of the type 4>1* --  this
>       roughly sounds the same as the fourth tone of Mandarin Chinese.
>       Taking a tonal analogy, one may transcribe this as [ô:].
>           (*I'm using here intuitively a scale from 1 = extra-low to 5
>         = extra-high.  Note that none of these languages is tonal.)
>     * Its negative counterpart takes the form of a longer vowel,
>       following a three-syllable pitch contour: a high plateau
>       followed by a low one and then a final rise: something like 4+1+3.
>       Taking a tonal analogy, one may roughly transcribe this as
>       [ó.ò.ó]. In the examples below, It will appear as /Óòó/.
> 2. As for the lexical equivalent to our NO: 
>     In all the languages of the area, the lexical form 'No' is the
>     same form as the negative existential predicate (henceforth
>     NegExist) -- Engl. 'There isn't [+Noun]' (or if the subject is
>     anaphoric, 'There's none'.)
>     Thus compare, for a language called Lemerig (3 speakers, Vanua Lava):
>         N-pé         niv.                  ~    Niv         pé.
>         Art-water    NegExist.                        NegExist    water
>         'There is no water.'
>         N-pé         pän?   --    Óòó,    (n-pé)         niv.
>         Art-water    Exist              (no)        (Art-water)   
>         NegExist
>         'Is there any water?    --        No, there isn't any.'
>         Näk  m-van       'i        lé           wongon?   --  Óòó,    niv.
>         2sg     Preter1-go   Pret2   Locative    beach              
>            (no)      NegExist
>         'Did you go to the beach? -- No, I didn't.'
>     Note the perfect parallels in Bislama (the English-lexifier pidgin
>     of Vanuatu), with Nogat  [<Eng. no + got  'have not']:
>         Wora    i          nogat.           ~    (I)       nogat    wora.
>         water      Pred      NegExist.                     Pred     
>         NegExist    water
>         'There is no water.'
>         Wora   i        gat?   --     Óòó,     (wora)   i          nogat.
>         water     Pred    Exist              (no)        (water)    
>         Pred      NegExist
>         'Is there any water?    --        No, there isn't any.'
>         Yu    bin      go    long        sanbij?   --   Óòó,    (*i)
>               nogat.
>         2sg    Preter    go       Locative    beach              
>         (no)       (*Pred)     NegExist
>         'Did you go to the beach? -- No, I didn't.'
>         In Solomon Pijin, the form is Nomoa  [<Eng. no + more 'not any 
> more'].
> Almost all of the Oceanic languages on which I have first-hand data 
> behave the same. In a way, they illustrate your query, since they have 
> a NO form that has its own meaning and syntax, apart from being a 
> sentential word.
> However, in almost all these languages, you can't really say that the 
> NO word is morphologically complex, since it consists essentially of a 
> single morpheme  (glossed here NegExist):  e.g. Teanu tae, Tanema eia, 
> Hiw tego, Mwotlap tateh, Lemerig niv, Vurës odiang, Vera'a gitag, 
> Mwesen eneng, Mota tagai, Nume/Dorig/Koro bek, Mwerlap tégé...
> In two languages, Olrat and Lakon, the word is morphologically 
> analysable as prefixed with a Stative aspect:  ga iv  /Stative/NegExist/.
> 3. More interestingly, two languages (other than Bislama and Pijin 
> mentioned earlier) show a morphologically complex form for 'No':
>     * In Araki,  'No = NegExist' is mo ce re, analysable as /mo/
>       '3rd.pers. Realis' + /ce/ 'Negation'  + /re/ 'Partitive' = 'not
>       any'.
>         [see p.65 of:  François, Alexandre. 2002. Araki: A
>         disappearing language of Vanuatu. Pacific Linguistics, 522.
>         Canberra: Australian National University.]
>     * In Lo-Toga,  'No' is tate-gë, analysable as /tate/ 'NegExist' +
>       /gë/ 'thing' = 'there is nothing'.
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Best regards,
> Alex.
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
>Alex François
>7 rue Guy Môquet
>F - 94801  Villejuif
>email  Alexandre.Francois at

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulze
Institut für Allgemeine und Typologische Sprachwissenschaft  (IATS)
[General Linguistics and Language Typology]
Department für Kommunikation und Sprachen / F 13.14
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 1
D-80539 München
Tel.:     ++49-(0)89-2180 2486 (secretary)
             ++49-(0)89-2180 5343 (office)
Fax:     ++49-(0)89-2180 5345
E-mail: W.Schulze at
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