Yes no, no yes. Is this the death of the English language? This makes no sense.
“Yeah, no this does make sense!”
“Nah, yeah I get it.”
“Yeeeah, no, I mean… don’t yes and no cancel out?”
How do we explain such flat out contradictory language? Plenty of ideas are out there:
- The yes acknowledges the speaker, the no shoots them down. “Damn I look good in this dress!” “Yeah, no, you should stop cross-dressing dude.”
- Defusing a comment. “You’re amazing! You saved that child’s life!” “Yeah, no, I mean, it was my own kid anyway. But thanks.”
- Shifting the topic without really commenting. “Dogs are great.” “Yeah, no, now chickens, that’s where it’s at.”
- Agreement then addition. “Pizza is yum!” “Yeah, nah, but I’m getting too fat for pizza.”
- As an intensifier. “I hate clowns.” “Yeah, no, clowns freak me out too!”
- Sarcasm. “Can I drive your car?” “Yeeeah, no.”
- To introduce an unexpected idea. “I hear you’re dying of cancer.” “Yeah, no, I made that one up.”
- Answering yes to a negative question. “You don’t know Kung Fu do you?” “Yeah, no, I know him.”
- Answering yes to a question, but contrasting your answer with how the question was asked. “Do you like Billy?” “Yeah, no, I love Billy!”
Yeah, nah, okay we get it. Yes-no makes sense. But why use it? Why use a phrase that is so obviously ambiguous?
Because we are cuddly.
Yes-no has been described as a form of verbal cuddling. It lets you preface a smack down insult with a life affirming ‘Yes!’ The blow of ‘no’ is padded with all the heartwarming fluffiness of ‘yeah’. Yes-no and no-yes are an expression of an indirect communication style. Squishy-squashy vagueness can be useful.
Some cultures prefer direct communication. Get to the point! Cut to the chase! Say it like you mean it! Other cultures go in for indirect methods. Get to a related point! Cut to a tangent! Say it like you don’t really mean it!
The direct says, “Please leave!” The indirect says “You must be very busy today!” Directness sacrifices harmony for the sake of clarity. Indirectness sacrifices clarity for the sake of harmony.
‘Yeah nah’ and friends are so very very indirectly cuddly that they turn up all over the world. The New Zealanders think ‘Yeah nah’ is their unique catchphrase. “Yeah, nah, mate,” say the Aussies, “We do that too.” Yes-no has been reported in California, and New York, and Bill Clinton. The Brazilians, Romanians, Polish, Germans, South Africans, Indians, and more are all reported to have their own cases of ‘yes-no’ or ‘no-yes’.
So is ‘Yeah nah’ an inexplicable contradiction? The demise of English? Yeah, nah. Nah, yeah. Ah, no, no. yeah. Nah. Yeah nah. It’s good.
Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:
An exploration of the use of ‘yes-no’ on the Language Log, by Mark Liberman. Here.
Aussies and academics wrestle with the rise of ‘Yeah no’ in “Slang’s ‘yeah no’ debate not all negative” from the Age, here.