April 03, 2008

Yeah no

Matt Hutson writes:

There's a phenomenon that has interested me for a while, and I noticed a extreme example last weekend. When people mean "yes" they sometimes say "no, yeah" or "yeah, no" and when they mean "no" they say "yeah, no" or "no, yeah" or even "no, yeah, no."

On Saturday I was sitting next to someone at a lunch, and I counted four consecutive times when she said "yeah no" in place of "yeah." For example: "Did you like Columbia?" "Yeah no I loved it." (In fact, once I started looking for it, I never heard her say a simple "yeah.") The "no" was almost imperceptible each time, as the meaning was clear, and adding it is a common practice in speech.

Do you have any insight into the practice? Patterns in gender or age or situation or setup?

Well, there's Vicky Pollard's catch phrase "yeah but no but yeah but ...". Unfortunately, I don't know how to evaluate British class caricatures.

So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I'll take a look at the use of "yeah no" in the LDC-Online (mostly American) English conversational speech transcripts, previously described here. (I'll leave the sequences "no yeah" and "no yeah no", which are significantly less frequent, for another morning.)

The sex and age part is easy, so let's do that first. There were 3,038 conversational sides where the speaker was a male between 20 and 39 years old, and the sequence "yeah no" occurred 711 times in that part of the corpus. Filling in the rest of the table, we get:

YNG (20-39)
MID (40-59)
OLD (60-69)

From this we can calculate the number of  times "yeah no" occurs per conversational side, on average:

  Male Female male/female ratio

Or in graphical form:

Since the conversational sides average about 900 words, this corresponds to frequencies of around 160 to 260 per million words, which makes "yeah no" roughly as common in conversation as words like seem, happy, look, rather.

It's clear that the rate of "yeah no" use decreases with age. I'm guessing that if we looked at teenagers, we'd see even higher "yeah no" rates, though I don't have any direct evidence.

It looks like men tend to use "yeah no" more than women -- but in these conversations, the men produce about 5-6% more words than the women do (as explained here), so the young men are using "yeah no" at about the same rate as the young women, if we count in words rather than in conversations. The "yeah no" gender gap among seniors seems to be real, however.

How about the context and meaning or function? This is harder to study within the time constraints of a Breakfast Experiment™. But the example that Matt quotes seems to be typical:

A: Did you like Columbia?
B: Yeah no I loved it.

Here both yeah and no are independently appropriate -- "yeah I loved it" because the basic answer to the question is positive, and "no I loved it" because love is being contrastively substituted for like.

An example from the conversational corpus where both yeah and no are independently appropriate, so that the combination is arguably just compositional:

A: yeah so what do you buy what are you looking for you look for an automatic you know you look for something with all the
B: yes i can't drive a standard
A: you can't drive a standard
B: no i can't drive a standard
A: yeah no i used to when i was when i was uh younger
B: uh-huh
A: you know but i've it's been long gone out of my system now i could just put it in home and let it go there and take me there and that's it i don't like any of that

Here it seems to me that in A's "yeah no", the yeah acknowledges B's contribution (and perhaps indicates sympathy or agreement with it), while the no answers the (unasked) question "how about you, can you drive a standard?".

Sometimes the functions of the yeah and no are more obscure, as in this passage from a different conversation, where A and B are engaged in some meta-conversation about why they signed up for the study:

B: it seems i know people in a
     like my sister does r- related research and that's why she forwarded it to me and i was like okay i'll      support the cause you know i uh
A: yeah no i think it's great and my my sister in the in her psych program is always like
     talking about all these studies that she's doing you know for all her friends who are doing like more
     like she's had like
     forty seven thousand m._r._i.'s because she has a lot of studies that are doing like

But in all the cases that I looked at, the yeah and the no seem be independently appropriate in the context of use, even if the sequence seems surprising when viewed in merely semantic terms.

In cases like the last one, "yeah no" covers all the interactional bases -- it acknowledges the interlocutor and (ambiguously) suggests agreement, while simultaneously (and ambiguously) indicating novelty in the form of divergence from (perhaps shared) presuppositions or expectations.

Maybe this protean little phrase is so useful that some people become addicted to it, and for them it becomes lexicalized as a unitary discourse marker  simply indicating that an opinion follows, or something of the sort. However, I didn't look to see whether there's a different pattern of usage among people who are especially fond of this sequence, as Matt suggests there might be.

[I should say that my search turns up some cases where the no is part of another construction, as in the common phase "yeah no kidding".

And sometimes, because the search process that I'm using scans each side of the conversation separately, it's combining an isolated back-channel yeah, across the interlocutor's next phrase, with no at the beginning of the next phrase.

As a result, the overall frequency in these transcripts of the phrase-initial interjection sequence "yeah no" is somewhat lower than the estimates given above.]

[A quick search on Google Scholar turns up K. Burridge and M. Florey, "''Yeah-no He's a Good Kid': A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-no in Australian English", Australian Journal of Linguistics, 22(2): 124-171, 2002. Here's the abstract:

Yeah-no in Australian English is a relatively new marker which serves a number of functions, including discourse cohesion, the pragmatic functions of hedging and face-saving, and assent and dissent. Drawing on a corpus of approximately 30 hours of both informal conversation and interviews, we analyse the interaction between intonation and turntaking, and the use of yeah-no by topic, conversational genre, and age and gender of speaker. The results indicate that the peak of yeah-no production occurs among speakers aged 35-49 years, and gender differences are not apparent in this preliminary analysis.

Unfortunately, Penn's library doesn't subscribe to this journal, and Routledge (a subsidiary of Taylor & Francis) wants $35.90 plus tax for a peek at the article, which is outside my breakfast budget. This is another good example why organizations like the Australian Linguistic Society should sponsor open-access journals, or at least insist on rational access prices -- and why authors should deposit copies of their articles in open-access archives.

Anthony Eagle sent along a link to another study: Erin Moore, "Yeah-No: A Discourse Marker in Australian English" Honours thesis, Department of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, The University of Melbourne, 2007.

Anthony writes that "Use of 'yeah no' as a discourse marker is one feature I think of as characteristic of Australian English (I believe on the basis of introspection that I certainly use it)."

I wonder, though, whether rates of use among Australians are really higher than they are among Americans. And if the age-grading indicates a change over time, as opposed to an interaction with life stages, it's interesting that the development in Australia and the U.S. might have been roughly synchronized. If so, by what mechanisms?]

[Update: more here and here]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 3, 2008 07:30 AM