Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Irish has no word for 'yes'

Geoff Pullum over at Language Log gets a little impatient here (read the comments, they are interesting and fun) with people who make assumptions about the culture underlying the society of speakers of a language purely from some linguistic accident (real or imagined). In the post he mentions a man who seems to think that Gaelic has no way of saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’. This is, of course, nonsense. It is surely impossible for any language not to have a means of negation and confirmation, and Irish most certainly has such means.

That indispensable work “A grammar of the Irish language Published for the use of the senior classes in the College of St. Columba”, by John O'Donovan, informs us that “We have no words in the modern Irish language corresponding with the English yes or no but in the ancient language naco nicho and ace are frequently used without a verb to give a negative answer… In the modern language in answering a question the same verb used in the question must be repeated in the answer as ap laBaip did he speak answer laBaip or niop laBaip he spoke or he spoke not. But if the question be asked by an whether without any verb the negative answer will be by ni and the positive by ip as an piop pm ip piop ni pfop Is that true It is true/it is not true.” Unquestionably there is a way of doing what ‘yes’ and ‘no’ do in English (and there would even appear to be negative and affirmative complements, if not actual particles, both in modern and old Irish.) This is presumably why in Ireland you sometimes hear things like ‘I cannot’, in response to the question ‘Can you lend me a fiver?’

The reason I find this interesting is that, in response to a similar piece of nonsense I saw a couple of years ago, I began to wonder what ‘yes’ and ‘no’ actually mean. It is not as obvious as it at first appears.

The negative particle is an essential element of any language and has a series of clearly defined and comprehensible functions. Declaratives and interrogatives are concerned primarily with what is; what is not is considered as one of the possible attributes of what is, or might be. In English and most IE languages (not Greek, ‘ou’ comes from ‘ud’, although ‘me’ is indeed from the PIE) the negative particle is from ‘ne’ and has few variations or complications since there is no need for them.

In English, the word ‘not’ to negate a verb structure or other type of phrase is- obviously- not the same form as the ‘no’ used in response to a mooted idea to indicate that it is not so. Nor is this ‘no’ the same as the adjectival ‘no’ used to indicate the absence of something, but they are all compounded from the PIE negative particle. To my knowledge, other languages similarly have a range of words which negate the idea of the rest of the structure, based on one or two particles. (This is certainly true of Basque, Japanese, Arabic and Chinese; I should be interested to hear of any language in which negation is not performed in this way)

‘Yes’ is an entirely different matter, as it is not a simple, nor a single, concept. The English word ‘yes’ does a number of jobs (performs a number of functions) which need not intuitively be done by the same word. In many languages they are not. There is no ‘affirmative particle’, equivalent to ‘ne’.

Starting from the English ‘yes’, for no particular reason (it may not be a good place to start), let us consider what it does:

It affirms

It confirms

It asserts

It clarifies

It determines

It contradicts

It insists

It accedes

It concedes

It agrees

Some of these overlap, of course. The point is that there is no need of a particle explicitly to say that an idea is to be understood in the affirmative, unless it is for some reason in question. It is assumed that an idea is, by default, discussed as existing, rather than as not existing.

Perhaps the commonest and clearest purpose is to confirm, in response to a question, or a doubt, or an assertion to the contrary, that something is so. There are variations of strength because of the need at times to stress the subjective nature of truth. Yes can state authoritatively, uncontestedly, it can also set out an opinion as though it were the same thing. The primary function of yes, and more generally, of affirmative structures, seems to be to state that what is under consideration is so. Thus in many languages (English, Spanish, Russian, Lithuanian, German, Mandarin, French sometimes) the affirmative particle derives from a demonstrative adverb meaning ‘so’, ‘thus’. Nevertheless, in others (Greek, French usually, it comes from a demonstrative pronoun). And some (Latin, Sanskrit) use an adjectival or nominal form meaning ‘this is true’. (Modern) Irish, as seen above, has no affirmative particle, but rather restates explicitly that which is held to be in question. (English, of course frequently does the same thing.) This leads us to the important qualification: Yes, and the affirmative structures in question, does not make an assertion, they affirm the truth of an assertion which is in question. They specifically refer to the concept of the truth of the assertion, not to the information contained in the assertion. This requires that there be a question of truth to be addressed, either because a question has explicitly been asked, or because doubt has been cast on the factual truth or the possibility of something.

It seems that all the languages I have looked at (a couple of dozen, from various language families) express affirmation by a word or phrase that is essentially this/that is so/true/right. The difference would appear to be one of emphasis, in that some languages stress the idea being considered (Greek nai ad. enim (this); French oui ad. hoc ille (this one here)), others that it is as stated (English yes ad. gea + si (so + be); Spanish sí ad. sic (thus)) and others stress that what is said is true (Latin iter vero (this (is) true); Sanskrit satya ((this is) true)). It is even possible to stress the copula, and by extension the verb (English- Are you the the Hickory Wind? I am; Irish- see Mr O’Donovan in the second paragraph.)

A few examples of the things that ‘yes’ does in English, roughly as the earlier list:

‘Are you Peter?’ ‘Yes, I am.’

‘You aren’t Peter.’ ‘Yes, I am.’

‘You can’t be Peter.’ ‘Yes, I am.’

‘Jones scores.’ ‘Yes!’

‘Can/will you give me a lift?’ ‘Yes/Of course/Ok.’

‘You can’t do that.’ ‘Yes, I can.’

‘Do you want sugar?’ ‘Yes, please.’

A couple of final points. One, in English it is common to draw attention to the negative intent of an utterance by stressing the negative:

- ‘You may not borrow my car tonight.’

whereas there is no equivalent affirmative particle. Instead we stress the (auxiliary) verb:

- ‘But it is raining, I tell you; look out of the window?’

Many languages do use an adverb or some particle here, it is true, but that is only one way of stressing affirmativeness.

Two, ‘no’ is on the Swadesh list; ‘yes’ is not. It should now be clear why this is so.

In tomorrow’s post, how to avoiding embedding parentheses, polysyndeton and other matters of style.

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