April 03, 2008

"Yeah no" mailbag

I've gotten a number of interesting messages about this morning's "Yeah no" post, and I also found the time to transcribe and discuss one typically complex example that turned up among the 5,000-odd hits in the search I did on LDC Online. Details below...

Steve at Language Hat pointed out, in the nicest possible way, that he scooped me back on 6/13/2004 ("Yeah no"). His post cites an article in The Age, which quotes Kate Burridge:

Professor Burridge says the phrase falls into three main categories, each determined by context. The literal agrees before adding another point, the abstract defuses a comment and the textual lets the speaker go back to an earlier point.

The next time a footballer answers "yeah no", be aware that there is more to the reply than just an "um-ah" prefix. In this sporting context, Professor Burridge says "yeah no" is often used in its abstract context; as a way to defuse a compliment by a bashful footballer.

"You've got to downplay the compliment but you can't reject it because that seems ungracious. It's a complicated little thing."

There's lots of interesting stuff in the comments on his post, as usual.

Coreen Eaven Moore sent me a copy of Burridge et al. 2002, and I'll look at that and at Moore 2007 to try to figure out what the similarities and differences between the Australian and American usage in this area are.

Peggy Renwick writes:

I wonder if 'yeah no' helps indicate enthusiasm or emphasis on the part of the speaker.

Bryan Van de Ven writes:

I've recently noticed myself using "yeah no" quite often. I'm not actually sure where I picked it up (I'm 34 and male FWIW). However I seem to most commonly use it in situations like:

A: Do you want to go to XYZ?
B: Yeah, no I hate that place.

By which I evidently meant "Certainly not" or "Definitely no". As I said, I have no idea where I got this from!

Carl Carlson writes:

This is certainly a phrase that I (a 24 yr old male) use a good bit, and for me, it seems to be a clipped version of "Yeah, I know."

Tam writes:

I think when I use this, the "no" is there to indicate that the "yeah" might have been unexpected.

Q: Do you like sushi?
A: yeah no it's really good

But this is based on mostly useless introspection. Still, it's how I read some of your examples.

Jesse Bangs writes:

Reading your post this morning on LL reminded me of a similar Romanian construction using the word "ba". "Ba" usually means "no", especially in contexts of contradiction:

Gabi este frumos. Ba, este urât.    ("Gabi is pretty. No, he's ugly.")

However, the word is often paired with "da" ("yes") where no contradiction is implied, merely to strengthen the affirmation:

Vrei îngheţată? Ba da!    ("Do you want ice cream? Yes!" )

This is just one example, but it makes me wonder whether there isn't a cross-linguistic tendency for negatives to become intensives.

But PF commented on Language Hat's site:

Да нет, on the other hand, means extra no. Odd.

And Bryn LaFollette writes in with some scholarly analysis, complete with quotations from the classics:

I found your post this morning on "Yeah no" in English pretty interesting, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts on its usage. This construction is definitely a very natural part of my own ideolect, and from what I've observed it's a well ensconced usage of the broader urban California dialect area (e.g. I've noticed its use throughout LA, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Sacramento, to name a few places).

Anyhow, my personal impressions as a speaker of a "Yeah no"-dialect is that it seems to serve at least two discourse functions: the first is that of answering in agreement to a negative question, and the second is that of answering in agreement to a question (positive or negative) but with a contrastive substitution.

Some examples of these, respectively:

A:"You're not going to Black Rock this year?"
B:"Yeah, no, I just can't afford it."

A:"Did you like the movie?"
B:"Yeah, no, it was great!"

The former usage caught my attention at one point because it reminded me of using "si" in French as an answer to a question (as opposed to "oui" or "non"), although in that case it's sort of the opposite, answering in disagreement to negative question with its positive. My intuition is also that the former situation is the only one in which "No, yeah ..." is really possible, though counterexamples may just not be occurring to me at the moment, and I'm not sure but "yeah" in this case may be more of an interjection. As for the latter use, I think it's probably the most prevalent, and I could see how the meaning could be confused with some sort of blanket replacement of "Yeah" or "No" by someone not familiar with the usage, although they're all pretty clearly contrastive to me. Further, I don't think "Yeah no" in my thinking of it is a fixed phrase, but rather the sequencial usage of "Yeah" and then "No" (which introduces the modified statement).

There's a great example of discourse play using this construction in the film "Knocked Up" in which one character is looking for another's approval about their new haircut. This isn't exactly accurate, but the exchange goes something like this:

Jay: So, do you think my haircut looks ok?
Jonah: Yeah, no, it's great.
Jay: You really think so?
Jonah: Yeah, no, it totally looks horrible.
Jay: What? You think it looks horrible?
Jonah: No. Yeah. Yeah, no, it's great. I really think it looks aweful.
Jay: You're messing with me!
Jonah: Yeah, no, it sucks.

There are other more conventional examples in the film of 'Yeah, no', like the following:

Ben: "Last night was great, what I remember of it."
Alison: "Right, yeah. Yeah, no, it was fun. We had a great time."

Overall, I find this a pretty natural construction and although Mr. Hutson sees it as a replacement of normal usage of "Yeah" or "No" (which gives me the impression he's fishing for a validation of a "Downfall-of-English" ambiguity claim), I would disagree and say that it has a specific and distinct function in discourse.

I'm afraid this copy of the script (probably not the final one) has no "yeah, no" instances in it at all, so it remains for future scholars to determine who had the idea to introduce this idiom into the dialogue.

Here's a more-or-less random "yeah no" passage from one of the conversations in the LDC collection, which may help to illustrate some of the points in the emails above, but also makes another one.

The two participants in this highly interlaced conversation sprinkle their speech liberally with uptake markers of various sorts -- 6 yeah, 4 no, 2 mm-hm, 1 exactly, 1 "I totally agree" in about 150 words, about 10% of their total word count. And they sometimes produce them in spurts: "yeah yeah no I totally agree", "yeah no no I-", "mm-hm yeah no I-". It's often difficult to decide whether two such markers in sequence are independent contributions or parts of a single communicative gesture.

These spurts do seem to be more emphatic or enthusiastic than individual uptake markers are.

It's also true that when I listened carefully to one sequence transcribed as "yeah yeah no I totally agree" (the second clip listed below), I had a hard time deciding whether it was really "yeah yeah no" or "yeah yeah ((I)) know". The point is, in this particular context, it's not only hard to tell what was said, but in fact either choice would be pragmatically appropriate. I don't believe that "yeah I know" is overall an adequate source for instances of "yeah no", but it's easy to see how someone who is a not a core "yeah no" speaker might come to that conclusion.

A: so uh-
B: yeah I think it's kind of- it's kind of sad in a way, ev- even though I see what you # mean
A: mm-hm
B: but # it's kind of sad in a way when something like that brings you back to-
     even though I think it's a good thing,  you # know what I mean?

A: yeah yeah no I totally ...
B: yes
A: ...  agree and-
B: that sometimes I think it takes something to get-
     you know, to kind of wake you up and I don't know ((it's been the same way-))

A: # yeah. no no I-
B: ... same in our family
     kind of wake you up and spend time together and, # you know- ((and so))

A: mm-hm. # yeah, no I- it's-
     it's definitely kind of like a contradiction, because I mean-
     it's not that before that-
     you know we weren't tight ...

B: exactly
A: and that we didn't # see each other, it's was just kind of like [breath]
     not as intense, and now it's # like "oh!"

B: probably more haphazard than
A: yeah
B: ... in the ...

The null hypothesis, I think, would be that yeah, yes, no, oh, etc. each has its own function, and speakers emit instances of such words randomly as functionally appropriate, sometimes more than one in a row. This is probably false, if only because the various different orders of pairs are typically very different in frequency: "yeah yeah" and "no no" are about equally common, but "yeah no" is about five times commoner than "no yeah".

So then the challenge becomes to describe and explain the stochatic grammar of these little spurts of uptake markers. Can we provide a plausible account based only transition probabilities among the basic words, and a compositional pragmatics with each contributing its invariant mite? Or do we need lexicalized sequences, or the equivalent? A bit more data: "yeah I" is about 5 times commoner than "no I"; "oh yeah" is about seven times commoner than "oh no"; "yeah yeah" and "no no", equally common, are both about sixteen times commoner than "yeah no". No problems so far -- but there are a lot of pairs to consider.

A few more emails...

Mae Sander writes:

I was sure that your post this morning was the first time I heard of the "yeah/no" thing. At noon I attended a very pedantic academic lecture on the University of Michigan campus. In answer to the first question, the speaker (a postdoc with a very recent PhD from Berkeley) started her answer "yeah, no."

The Recency Effect in action!

Rich Gerber writes:

It's not a "Yeah no" thing, but your Language Log post this morning reminded me of the time my mechanic once said to me in conversation:

"You know, you never know, you know."

Unfortunately now I actually don't know what exactly he was referencing at the time—which maybe just goes to prove his point.

That had to be ten years ago and I still can't help but chuckle when I think of it. He obviously didn't even have any idea of having said it just that way.

I, on the other hand, know the exact source and context of this little gem (previously cited here). This also has nothing to do with "yeah no", but as long as we've drifted off topic into found epistemic poetry...

It's like I mean
I just didn't know.

You know everyone tells you
you don't know,
  you don't know,
    you don't know.
And the thing is, you don't know.
So you don't even know that you don't know,
you know what I mean?

It's like-

I don't know.

To listen:

[Update -- Lynne Murphy writes:

My South African English books are at the office (and I'm not) so I can't give you all the details, but putting contradictory yes-no things at the beginning of sentences has long been happening in South African English, where the Afrikaans ja-nee is used or calqued.

The phrase that's most often commented upon is 'ja well no fine'. It's not the same as the yeah-no thing you've been talking about, but kinda interesting anyhow. Grant Barrett has it in his double-tongued dictionary.

Also here: "The common informal phrase ja well no fine (yes well no fine) has been adopted in solid written form as an affectionate expression of ridicule (jawellnofine) for broad SAfrE usage, and has served to name a South African television programme."


[Justin Levitt writes:

I'm a grad student in political science and frequent reader of Language Log. I just wanted to add my observations. I've heard the expression used in two different ways:

1. As a sarcastic way of saying "no", generally toward questions where even the speaker knows the answer is "no". i.e.:
"Will you let me drive your new BMW?"
"Yeah, no"
Sometimes the "yeah" is drawn out slightly nasally, so it becomes more like "yeeeeeah, no".

2. As a hedge implying complexity to the answer: it answers a statement implying either a yes or no answer but where your answer is neither simply yes or no, but one of the following:
A. More intense:
"Do you like pizza?"
"Yeah, no, I love it!"
"You don't like sushi, right?"
"Yeah, no, I hate it."

B. Added information (true example from two nights ago):
"President Bush is such a moron!"
"Yeah, no, but he believes that what he's doing is right"
"Did you like the pizza place we went last night?"
"Yeah, no, it was good, but I think I like the one we went last week better."

C. Shift the topic to something related but different to avoid a direct answer:
"You like that movie we went to Saturday?"
"Yeah, no, I like romantic comedies."
"Do you drink?"
"Yeah, no, I'm not a big fan of getting drunk."

I'll just end by noting that I hear "I mean" following "yeah, no" a whole lot. Maybe this indicates people are aware of the ambiguity? I certainly say "yeah, no, I mean I liked it, but..." pretty often :)

I hope that Justin finds a way to apply to political science his interest in linguistic analysis...]

[Kaushik Janardhanan writes:

One version of the "Yeah-No" syndrome is very prevalent in India. I think it has its roots ion the vernacular and has moved on to English. But reading your interesting series on this, it looks like it could have been imported as well.

This version conveys the meaning of "Yes. Wasn't it so?" as in

X: "I watched the match last night"
Y: "Me too. Classy batting by Sehwag"
X: "Yeah no"

Another related usage; to convey an expression of comprehension - "Yes. Isn't it so?" to mean "Yes. So it is!". Something akin to 'mea culpa'. But this happens more (always?) with "Yes-No" rather than "Yeah-No".

X: "Why did you tell him about it?"
Y: "Well, because.."
X: "But, don't you know that he will tell everyone now about it?"
Y: "Yes, no!"


[More here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 3, 2008 04:29 PM