Tuesday, December 01, 2015

"No" means "yes" and "yes" means "no?"

What is happening to the meanings of "yes" and "no?" I asked someone last night if he and his companion were old friends, and he said, "No, yeah we've been friends for years." On The Daily Show, Noah Trevor asked Gloria Steinem if she thought the women's movement still existed as it used to and she said, "No, absolutely." Both these people were clearly trying to answer the question in the affirmative, but they started their responses with the word "no." The dialogue in a movie I recently watched had a woman responding to the question, "Did you call her yet?" with "Yeah. I don't even have her number." A few minutes later, she answered the question, "Are you okay?" with "No, I'm fine." Have these words lost that much meaning? Is this only happening in the U.S?

Two years ago when I first noticed the trend of people saying, "yeah, no," some people tried to tell me that was sarcasm. They said the "yeah" of  "yeah, no" was a sarcastic acknowledgment of the question, while the "no" part was the true answer. This formula led to people saying things like, "Yeah, no, I'm not going to that," and "Yeah, no, that's not a show I watch." 

Okay, that's possible. But what's going on when someone says "no" when they're clearly trying to say "yes?" Why answer the question "Are you old friends?" with "No, yeah we've been friends for years?" Seriously, what's going on here? Anyone?

Now that Welcome Dialogue is up and running, I'm teaching non-native English speakers many crazy things about American English, and I don't look forward to explaining this. Ugh.

This is what I say to people trying to untangle the way Americans talk: don't pay too much attention to whether they start a sentence with "yeah," "no," "yeah no" or "no yeah." You have to listen to the whole sentence to understand what that person is trying to say. You'd think words like "yes" and "no" would be some of the clearest, but with Americans they're just as confusing as anything else. Grrr...

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