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Why the French love to say no (bbc.com)
160 points by hhs 72 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 124 comments



I'm surprised that an article on the use of negation in French forgot to mention anything about "si", an interjection used to negate a negative question. [1]

Example from Wiktionary: [2]

  Tu ne m’aimes pas, n’est-ce pas ? — Si !
  You don’t like me, do you? — Yes, I do!
[1]: https://french.stackexchange.com/questions/848/differences-b...

[2]: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/si#Interjection


It goes a bit further, and allows to contradict any negative sentence (some example stretch a bit, more context would typically be given):

    C'est impossible. - Si!
    Je ne peux pas - Si! (I can't - yes, you can!)
English used to have a system with four words for that purpose [1].

An interesting fact is that some early Gallo-Romance languages were named after the "yes" word in that language: langue d'{oc, oïl}. One can recognise oïl as a precursor for oui [2,3]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yes_and_no#The_Early_English_f... (cases with three forms such as French are detailled bellow).

[2] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langues_d%27o%C3%AFl

[3] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallo-Romance_languages


Latin had no word for yes, so the various Romance languages adapted ‘hoc ille’ or ‘hoc’ (‘this is it’, or just ‘this’) or ‘sic’ — ‘like that’


I thought it was volo (I want) or nolo (I do not want) that was used for yes or no.


I thought it was repetition of the verb, i.e. I agree with you, but only if the question was 'do you want ...'.

I think it's the same in Mandarin, but the question structure also includes both forms, e.g. 'this cake you want not want?'--'want'.


I obviously didn't mean that the Romans had no way to assert agreement with something. I said they didn't have a word that means 'yes'.


Understood, and agreed.

Perhaps I misread though, I thought you were saying the verb 'want' is used in all cases, I was just saying my understanding is that it would be used when that was the verb in the question, but for 'do you go' similarly 'go' is used in the answer.


The following Louis de Funes movie scene demonstrates the use of si quite well: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GioEH34fhxE

English dub: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=me9ft6HeaMQ


Like “doch” in German


Or "ba da" in Romanian.


and "oh ja" in Austrian german ;)


And "jo!" in Swedish :)


"Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, Hungarian, German, Dutch, and French all have three-form systems. Swedish and Danish have ja, jo, and nej. Norwegian has ja, jo/jau, and nei. Icelandic has já, jú and nei. Faroese has ja, jú and nei. Hungarian has igen, de, and nem. German has ja, doch, and nein. Dutch has ja, jawel, and nee. French has oui, si, and non."

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yes_and_no#Three-form_system...


"mo mo" in Iraqi Arabic!


Wow, English could really benefit from this.


Australian English has this... "yeah, nah" and "nah, yeah" are commonly used as replies to negative sentences. Well, all sentences really, but in this context negative ones.

"You've got no chance of beating that thing in a fight, mate" "yeah, nah" (I agree)

"Reckon it's never going to rain again?" "nah, yeah" (it will, eventually)


and the classic negatory chain of Yeah! (yes)-> Yeah, nah! (no)-> Yeah, nah, for sure! (yes)


Pretty sure you can mix and match and it depends on the emphasis and tone of the speaker:

“Do you serve Pepsi here?”

-(no) “yeah no, we are all out”

-(no) “no, yeah we are all out”

-(yes) “no yeah, we got it”

-(yes) “yeah, no we got it”


it's always the last value that counts.

Your example of "no, yeah we're all out" doesn't actually work, because the "yeah" is dangling. The "yeah, no" works (the yeah agrees with the question, we do serve Pepsi, but the no modifies it because we're all out).

and the same for the "yeah, no" in the second example - the "no" is dangling.

but yeah, it can be confusing if the tone of the original question implies a negative (like "you don't serve Pepsi here do you?").

took me ages to work out that the first value doesn't matter ;)


We had yea/nay/yes/no. The former pair are not just 'olde' ways of saying latter; the equivalent of 'si' is actually 'yes', we just started using it for 'oui' too.


In english, as mentioned re. australia below (and also america), the negation of a negative is: 'no, yea'

https://pics.me.me/california-english-no-yeah-yes-yeah-no-ye...


'Yeah nah' - has variations across the English speaking world: https://english.stackexchange.com/a/253960/15280


Hmm, not sure about that. Sydney here. I can't think offhand of a context where 'No, yeah' would have much meaning, if any. I never hear it. Does sound like bush talk, maybe, but not sure. e.g. "You don’t like me, do you?" "No, yeah" (or "yeah, no") would just be a meaningless, confusing response. You'd say "Yes! of course I do" or something.

There's that old joke where a lecturer is telling the audience about how two affirmatives never make a negative in English, and a voice is heard "Yeah yeah". I guess you could try "You don't like me, do you?" "No no, I do!". But whatever's said, the meaning would be determined mostly by the tone of voice, facial expression, body language etc


Perth here. "nah yeah" is common.

the "nah" indicates disagreement with the statement, and the "yeah" affirms the positive. Often with a restatement of the statement attached.

e.g: "nah, yeah I like you mate"


‘Yeah na’ in New Zealand.


"Actually" gets you most of the way there


Using 'so', as in, 'I do so!' seems to carry almost the identical meaning to me, but it's hardly as universal and idiomatic as the French 'si'.


Most people just rephrase the question in response to avoid ambiguity but that does seem inefficient.


"Nah", no?


Au contraire


I'm not sure this is a great example.

"n’est-ce pas" is literally "is it not so" - to which a reply of "yes" would mean the same in English.


I disagree with several claims from this article.

"Meyer suspects one of the factors leading to this divide can be found in the numbers: according to her book, there are 500,000 words in the English language, but only 70,000 in French. This means that Anglophones are more likely to have the exact word to say what they want, whereas Francophones must often string together a series of words to communicate their message."

If true (I suspect a methodology shenanigan there) I really doubt this is a factor. Very few French or English speaker will have a mastery of 70,000 words, to say nothing of 500,000.

According to one source [1] adult English speakers are typically in the 30 000 - 50 000 range. [1] https://wordcounter.io/blog/how-many-words-does-the-average-...

Total vocabulary of the language is certainly not a limiting factor.

"Countries like the US and Australia are low-context cultures where people generally say what they mean and mean what they say. However, France, like Russia and Japan, tends to be a high-context culture, where “good communication is sophisticated, nuanced and layered."

I (and many of my French expat friends) have the opposite experience with US: shallow enthusiasm, shallow friendships, fake excitement. Feels like Americans present a simple layer that is actually a mask, whereas French actually show their inner feelings more easily (which ends up being a bit messy, like I suspect everyone is).

I was told several time (and experienced) that Americans love to say yes, and not follow through, which is a pretty rude thing in France. "Why don't we have lunch one day?" "you should come to my house!" "Let's make something together" Apparently these are non-committal statement in US. In France they are. That's why being able to say no is far more important.

Etymologically, "French" comes from "Franks" the name of the germanic/celtic tribe that lived there. It also gave the word "frankness". I never thought much of it but after working with several foreign colleagues, I really think there is a reason why this tribe and this trait got mixed together.

In France we value frankness and we don't find it commendable to hide your feelings or your opinions. If you promise something you have to follow through. You are going to receive a lot of "non" because of that, because "oui" really means "oui".


I'm not a linguist but I do enjoy linguistics and language learning as a hobby so I suppose I've gained a certain perspective that I feel most monolinguals lack.

Basically here's my rule of thumb: any linguistic claim coming from a mainstream source which seems to imply the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis[1] or other kind of objective criteria to compare languages is a huge red flag and extremely likely to be entirely bullshit. Out of those claims the "language X is more precise/able to express more nuance than Y" is probably the reddest flag of them all.

I think generalities about languages ("French like to say no") fall in the same category as horoscopes: if they're vague and general enough you'll probably recognize yourself in them to some extent. People like to feel special, they like to feel special for speaking a given language so they'll gladly accept any claim that sets them apart.

>If true (I suspect a methodology shenanigan there) I really doubt this is a factor. Very few French or English speaker will have a mastery of 70,000 words, to say nothing of 500,000.

Yeah, this claim alone shows that the author really stayed at surface level. I suspect the main reason for these numbers is that English, traditionally less prescriptive than French, considers basically any word once used in an English text to be an English word while French curates more heavily. The average English speaker definitely doesn't draw from a reservoir of 500k words, probably closer to a tenth of that. Maybe somebody could link this website to the author: http://testyourvocab.com/

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity


>Out of those claims the "language X is more precise/able to express more nuance than Y" is probably the reddest flag of them all.

This may be nonsense as an overall comparison between languages but this is definitely the case for specific concepts. Here is a paper where the reactions of 30 Dutch people and 30 Jahai tribesman to a set of odors were compared:

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.201...

First two paragraphs of the conclusion:

Olfactory abstraction varies across cultures: while Dutch participants confirmed the often-touted claim that ‘olfactory abstraction is impossible’ [19] by providing mostly concrete language in response to odours, Jahai speakers overwhelmingly described odours with dedicated, abstract language. In addition, their responses were faster and shorter, providing converging evidence that the Jahai are communicatively adept in talking about odours.

Even for the monomolecular odours used in this study, which do not have a single object entity associated with them, Dutch participants predominantly tried to identify a source (e.g. flowers), or situation (e.g. house that isn't aired), corresponding to that aroma. Their grappling to identify concrete sources was in sharp contrast to the fluent abstract Jahai responses. Previous studies have shown that Standard Average Europeans struggle to identify odours [5,13–16], as also illustrated by the Dutch here. The greater ease of linguistic expression demonstrated by the Jahai is not unique, however. It appears that hunter-gatherer communities in particular find odours easier to talk about [23].

It's not really an objectionable concept. It's essentially the same as how any kind of discipline with a reasonable amount of information to learn comes up with their own terms. It makes it easier to navigate relevant information.


This paper shows that Jahai are capable of "olfactory abstraction" but I don't see how that says anything about the respective languages. I mean the last sentence:

>The greater ease of linguistic expression demonstrated by the Jahai is not unique, however. It appears that hunter-gatherer communities in particular find odours easier to talk about.

If that's true that probably means that they have a greater need to express these concepts and as such have become better at it and developed a specific jargon. Maybe if they tried with tulips or windmills they'd find that the Dutch are much better able to describe them succinctly.

Besides the paper says that the Dutch subjects are urban dwellers while the "All Jahai still pursue traditional foraging, although they reside in a resettlement village much of the time, and so are exposed to modernity". Attributing the results solely to linguistic differences would be rather bold (and the paper doesn't in fact do that as far as I can tell>

So if you're saying "culture which have a lot of exposition to X and often need to precisely talk about X develop linguistic tools to do it efficiently" then yeah, that seems fairly uncontroversial. Just look at any HN technical discussion about "bugs", "segfaults", "DDOS" or "transpilers". I still don't think it makes a good case for comparing entire languages as a whole.


>I still don't think it makes a good case for comparing entire languages as a whole.

I wasn't making such a case. I was pointing out that in limited contexts, different languages may have more or less effective means for accurately describing things within that context.

Attempting to place a valuation on languages and comparing them wholesale is stupid, but that doesn't imply that a language can't be lacking in vocabulary in some space compared to another. That also doesn't mean that there is something fundamentally keeping it from developing vocabulary for such spaces. Which I'm sure they do in niche spaces, such as the academy.


"Out of those claims the "language X is more precise/able to express more nuance than Y" is probably the reddest flag of them all."

It seems like there are plenty of cases where some language is able to express some nuance another is not. It's just that there will be some tradeoff in return because there isn't a language that has all the details. The real problem is the implication that because some language is nominally superior in some particular dimension ("more precise", "more nuanced", "more deeply integrated into the grammar") in the vast set of dimensions languages have then it must be somehow "better", or that we can assume this relationship will be shown in all possible dimensions of comparison.

But I agree it gets oversold. English can't properly express the concept of schadenfreude... except I just did, because we imported it because we liked it, and it's an English word now too.


Right, that's what I had in mind. Just because some language doesn't have a "built-in" word or grammatical feature doesn't mean that it's impossible to express the concept. Spanish has two words for "to be", one for temporary states (I'm tired) and one for more permanent attributes (I'm tall). Because English only has "to be" doesn't mean that it's incapable of communicating this nuance when necessary.


I can't disagree more with "language X is more precise/able to express more nuance than Y"

Japanese has 4 words for "If" each one is used in a different set of circumstances and has a slightly different meaning and flavor.

http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar/conditionals#Ho...

While all of those circumstances are covered by the English "If", the flavor and connotation is lost.

Similarly with Japanese and personal pronouns.

There is one word for "I" in English, but many many words for "I" in Japanese, each with it's own flavor and implications.

http://nihonshock.com/2009/11/the-many-ways-to-say-i/

These other "I"s express additional information about the person using them. It's not that this information cannot be expressed alternatively, but it's very efficient to simply use the right "I" to convey the right meaning.


>It's not that this information cannot be expressed alternatively

So we agree then.

>but it's very efficient to simply use the right "I" to convey the right meaning.

How do you quantify efficiency here? Having more generic words can arguably be more efficient in situations where you don't actually care about which "I" you want to communicate: "I want an ice cream Sunday please". Besides some languages (and I believe Japanese to be one of them) are pro-drop and let you drop the pronouns in most cases, isn't that even more efficienter?

My native language is French, which unlike English kept the T/V (thou/you) nuance. You have familiar you and polite you. Do you consider that more efficient? Because as somebody who's usually pretty shy I've often found myself in awkward social situations where I simply want to say "how are you?" and "vous" feels too formal but at the same time I worry that "tu" might be a bit too brash and quite frankly I'd gladly trade them for a generic, neutral English-style "you" in situations like these.

Some other romance languages, like Brazilian Portuguese for instance, almost completely dropped the T/V distinction. Are they becoming less efficient or more?


What you describe comes across more like versatility.

It could be argued either way.

You could say its more efficient not to have the T/V distinction because then you don't have to think about how you want to express yourself.

Conversely, if you wanted to be very polite or very rude, people would have to rely more on context or vocal cues. Thus less efficient because now you have to express the politeness or rudeness in other ways.

But in Japanese, you are not only convening politeness information, which can be in the form of polite verbs (Keigo), polite verb endings, and polite pronouns, and honorifics, you are also partially conveying your own perception of your self importance and sense of masculinity or femininity.


Surface level. Sums up the book pretty well if you ask me. Started not too bad with some anecdotes, yet didn't build up on that on any depth. Maybe helpful, or with some bad luck quite the opposite, for people without any intercultural experience themselves. For people with some experience it is just common sense.

One other point the book misses is the complexity of all of that. Only hinted at are the effect personality has. Let alone the overlaying patterns of culture, personality and organizational culture.

And yes, the theoretical basis is almost totally absent.


> US: shallow enthusiasm, shallow friendships, fake excitement

I'm an American living in France for 10 years; the capacity for smoothing over awkward situations with heaps of bullshit is ubiquitous in France as well.

> Let's make something together" Apparently these are non-committal statement in US

As is the 'non' in French/France.


Some of what you are talking about is really more about politeness than high and low context cultures. There is certainly a connection but high context has more emphasis on the sort of "it isn't what you say but how you say it" kind of meaning. High and low context are just extremes and most cultures are somewhere in between. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-context_and_low-context...


I am really suspicious that this English speaker found out other English-speaking and Germanic countries to be low-context.

I suspect there is a strong bias in what you assume to be the baseline among humans and that you will integrate a huge chunk of your own culture into it.

I am curious of his methodology when it comes to sort cultures like that.


To be fair, the article identifies Ireland and the American South to be high context regions. But yeah, there's a pretty strong overlap between "high context" and "Germanic speaking" in that article.

(Ireland is of course Celtic, but America and Australia aren't really "Germanic" in a non-linguistic sense.)


Was English high or low around the 1700s/early 1800s? A lot of Southern mannerisms and formalities are based on English traditions around the time of the colonies. Especially the rural south.


> I was told several time (and experienced) that Americans love to say yes, and not follow through, which is a pretty rude thing in France. "Why don't we have lunch one day?" "you should come to my house!" "Let's make something together" Apparently these are non-committal statement in US. In France they are. That's why being able to say no is far more important.

Agree, and this is not unique to the US. Casual proposals to do stuff together in the future without follow-up happens pretty much everywhere - it being something more like a commitment is rather an exception than the rule.


I don't know typical these examples are, but "you should come to my house" would be regarded as quite committal in France because people don't invite people to their house lightly. It suggests intimity between the persons.

If you have a work colleague that you get along very well with and get close to then perhaps after a couple of years you could extend such invitation.


Nah, the reason it's committal in France in non-committal in America is because France is much more of a homogeneous culture than America.

Having one meaning for a single phrase is much easier when you know exactly how your words are going to be perceived.

Trying to say shallow in this situation is more of a case that you, as a French person - don't really want to accept the fact that other cultures may have a different opinion on why they are acting the way they are acting.


I should probably start keeping a list of all the various uses of that ”but X is much more homogenous than the US!” argument. It’s just a semantic stopsign, difficult to argue against because hey, that really sounds like a cum hoc ergo propter hoc but I guess it’s sort of plausible so what do I know? The causation is, of course, always presented as an accepted fact, not as a hypothesis with even a shred of confounder-controlled evidence. It’s just really tiresome.


If you read my previous comment you'll notice that I am only describing the culture. I am not refusing to accept anything.


You are refusing to accept that speaking of your feelings openly may be perceived as shallow as not speaking about them. It’s just that you somehow assume that French do it better.


´In France we value frankness and we don't find it commendable to hide your feelings or your opinions. If you promise something you have to follow through. You are going to receive a lot of "non" because of that, because "oui" really means "oui".´

The more south you are in France the less this is true, I would even argue the same is generaly true for europe a part for the UK.


> I would even argue the same is generaly true for europe a part for the UK.

I guess you meant:

and part of the UK

I tickled me no end though. The thought of Europe being a part of the UK, what would Farage do? :)


> I was told several time (and experienced) that Americans love to say yes, and not follow through, which is a pretty rude thing in France. "Why don't we have lunch one day?" "you should come to my house!" "Let's make something together" Apparently these are non-committal statement in US. In France they are. That's why being able to say no is far more important.

I wonder if the French are better at reading body language and social contextual clues so as to not make such offers either too early in a developing relationship or to someone who would really never be interested in the first place. In my experience these offers tend to overwhelmingly come from people who are oblivious to the fact that they and I are not particularly socially compatible.


There are many different cultures in the US. "you should come to my house!" is an expression in some parts - an expression that has gotten trouble for people in other parts who take the expression literally and show up when they were not wanted.


Interesting! Which part(s) of the US do not mean this literally? What does it mean in that context?


In the midwest if someone invites your over to their house they are hoping you come visit.

In other parts (the south, but I'm not sure where, maybe North Carolina?) it is an expression that just means nice to see you.

Note because it is an expression in some parts you hear it often from those people. People from the other parts don't invite people over often so they rarely say it. Thus the impression that it is universally used, when it is only a small region that says it often.


Historically people in America arrived from all over the world, from different cultures and traditions, so it has probably been safer to interact politely rather than sincerely.


Surely there's no contradiction between polite and sincere. How can someone be polite and not sincere? The American tendency towards excessive but superficial politeness strikes me, from another immigrant country, as being quite rude.

I would rather you be honest. How else can I know what you mean? Indeed, this seems to be required of a person in a low context culture where everyone comes from somewhere else.


>> How can someone be polite and not sincere?

"Does this dress make me look fat?"

"No, of course not, my dear"


One could argue that there's no insincerity there: "your body makes you look fat, not this dress" ;-)

Though one could argue that withholding the truth is insincere as well.

Anyway, I agree you can be polite and not sincere: on ocassion, it's required (especially if your opinion is not based on enough evidence).


I suspect the 500,000 words claim comes from the Oxford dictionary, which I understand includes old english, whereas as far as I am aware the most famous french dictionaries (Larousse, Robert) typically don’t include old french.

But it feels inconsistent with my experience of those two languages. I feel French is more expressive, largely down to tricks that are valid french like being able to use any adjective as a verb (like he le gros, tu viens?), effectively creating words on the fly.


Not really to do with old english, it comes from the fact that there are loads of borrowed French words in English (and loads of words from other languages). For example the french word for 'appointment' -> 'rendezvous' is used in English to mean a specific kind of meeting 'I heard Mary's husband had a rendezvous with that woman in accounts' to allude to an illicit meeting with sexy connotations or 'meet at the rendezvous for extract at 1830 hours' in a military context. There are also many cases where we use a French word which has a specific meaning in English to sound educated rather than string together a combination of simpler english words which predate the Norman conquest. e.g. 'He ascended the stairs' without the Norman influence would be 'He went up the stairs'. I speak terrible French, but if I find myself in a situation where I don't know the right word I think of the english word and if it ends in ion, end, able, there is a good chance it is a French word and dropping it into my sentence while pronouncing it in a 'ello 'ello accent will often vaguely help things along.

Other interesting examples 'chit' from Hindi, 'galore' from Gaelic.


i also think this original statement as complete BS. French has much more grammatical rules than english due to its latin roots (but less than other eastern european language), which is what makes a language precise and unambiguous.


> Meyer suspects one of the factors leading to this divide can be found in the numbers: according to her book, there are 500,000 words in the English language, but only 70,000 in French. This means that Anglophones are more likely to have the exact word to say what they want, whereas Francophones must often string together a series of words to communicate their message. This not only forces the French to be more creative with language, it also allows them to be more ambiguous with what they want to say. As a result, ‘non’ in France does not always mean ‘no’.

This is definitely a case of bad linguistics.

Without even cracking the nut of how many words are in either language,

* French tries to have an official authority while English does not. The academy is reluctant to admit new words, especially if they are borrowed, even when a word is otherwise in common use.

* English, like other Germanic languages, likes to compound words. French also compounds but it's not as productive. Very successful English compounds drop spaces or hyphenate and get inducted into the dictionary. Lexical procreation.

N.B. A word being in a dictionary is a matter of judgment, as a common word can be missing or a word that is almost never used can be present!

* Where a word is needed but absent, one will be invented or borrowed. Speakers are not constrained to be "creative" under the tyrrany of a limited lexicon from this time until the end of time.

* It's not clear that a limited lexicon would mean playing games with a concept as simple as "no". This seems strictly cultural.

* English may have, in some sense, 500k words but the vast majority of those are rare and not part of the principal vocabulary. And why would you think this is related to ways of expressing degrees between yes and no?

* Why should number of words be used to estimate the expressive power of a language?


> This means that Anglophones are more likely to have the exact word to say what they want, whereas Francophones must often string together a series of words to communicate their message

Have you ever lived in the US ? The hardest part for a French immigrant in the US is that when people invite you to do something it doesn’t mean anything and it’s never happening.


I lived in Switzerland, Thailand, and Germany, that’s something I’ve seen everywhere. And I’ve done it myself, I’m from the French-speaking side of Switzerland (Romandie).


yeah, it's extremely important to seem positive and friendly in every case. i definitely prefer the central european way of judging mainly on actions though


Yeah, the number of words in the language doesn't prove the author's point at all.

That said, the difference in lexicon size isn't a trick about authorities or dictionaries, it's a real obvious thing. In English one can usually reach for an obscure word to find a near-synonym with a subtle change in meaning - as well as walking, say, one can trudge or plod or amble, whereas in French you'd be reaching for phrases instead. It doesn't limit anyone's ability to express themselves.


Australians do a similar thing. They'll either start a sentence with "yeah, nah" or "nah, yeah" depending on the context of the question. I can't remember which one means yes.


"Yeah, nah" means one of two things. Most frequently it means "I agree with you that the answer is no", but it can also be used to say "yes I can see how that point is valid, but I disagree with the conclusion". Tone and context are used to differentiate between the two uses, particularly how one says the "nah" (in agreement or not). So for example: "it doesn't look like it's going to rain today aye" could be answered with a "yeah, nah" to indicate that one agrees that it won't rain today, or a "yeah, nah" to indicate that, while it may look like it won't rain, the respondent still believes it could rain.

I believe "nah, yeah" is used in an analogous way, but in my experience it's less commonly said than "yeah, nah".


I think there is the other more sarcastic case too - being "I could, but I'm not". Especially the case if the "yeah" is drawn out.

Shall we help Dave move his fridge up four flights of stairs? "Yeah.... nah".


I hear "yeah, nah" more used in this sarcastic way than any other in Western Australia.


I always understand it to be missing the word actually:

"yes, actually no"

"no, actually yes"


Yeah nah that's true some of the time I guess but 'yeah' isn't yes, it's an acknowledgement that I've heard your prior statement and considered it.

Rephrasing it as yes, 'actually no' makes it sound like the speaker is indecisive which yeah nah does not communicate. It's a a social nicety to smooth over hurt feelings.

That of course is until you use it with an affirmative 'yeah nah yeah you're right' or similar.


We (maybe it's just a local thing, though) say sometimes "oui mais non!" ("yes but no!") for when you agree with the premises but not the conclusion. It is generally said with a smile, or makes people smile or laugh.


There's even a song by Mylène Farmer called "Oui mais non"


Yeah, nah = No

Nah, yeah = Yes

Kiwi's also do the same..


Typically I'd agree that the latter overrides the former, but if I ask:

> You're not going on Wednesday?

I think it completely throws that rule of thumb out the window. Both "Yeah, nah" and "Nah, yeah" would seemingly be affirmative. To disagree would require a longer response.


But that has nothing to do with "yeah nah" and "nah yeah" and everything to do with "yes" and "no". If someone makes a false assumption, which is what that question necessarily entails, you must use many words to set them right. If someone has not made a false assumption, as "Are you going on Wednesday?" you can give them the answer with a single word.

Likewise if they said "You're going on Wednesday right" you could say "yeah" but you can't say "No", you must say "no, I'm going on Tuesday" or "no, it's my kid's birthday" or "no Clive is".


Brit here who has lived in NZ for a few years. Polled some Kiwis in the vicinity with your example and "yeah nah" is very much negative, even in that instance. I agree that on paper it's a double negative but I suppose we have to be descriptivist!

As far as I can tell, a sibling comment has it right: the last word signals the intent (modulo tone, sarcasm, etc).


This isn't a specifically an Australian thing, I hear this all the time in America.


The variant I hear/use here in west coast english goes something like "Oh yeah, no, for sure" for a positive/agreement.

edit: USA west coast English


Yeah nah, that doesn't mean the same as "yeah nah", which means "I acknowledge your reasoning but I do not share your conclusions".

A judge in a court case should be saying "yeah nah" when they come down in favor of the other side; an American who uses many words because it is rude to say "no" is nevertheless just saying "no".


Out of those two I don't think it's always 100% clear when people mean yes or no. It's usually spoken, not written, so I think it requires context.

"Yeah, nah" would typically be in agreeance of a negated question e.g. "You don't like Game of Thrones either?"

Edit: Heck, even if someone responds simply "Nah" to that question it's not clear what they mean without a further followup sentence or the tone in their voice.

I don't know if it's just Australians or other English speakers, but we definitely have really confusing spoken semantics around affirmation of negated (or even negative outcome) questions.


It's quantum agreement. You both agree and disagree until someone clarifies, at which point it collapses into a classical argument.


I have been asked by many a non-native question how to respond to such questions, or even more generally how to use "yes" and "no" in English.

My answer is "use a full sentence". If they insist on using "yes" or "no" because the answer is too long, I say "you can say "I do" or "she isn't", that isn't too long is it?

But if they promise they just want to know how people use "yes" and "no" while communicating and they really really won't try to use it, the answer is it's "yes and no agrees with the main verb in the full sentence of the answer _unless_ the question used a negative verb, in which case the only valid response is 'no'".

If necessary, I can explain: The reason this works is because if you have a question with a negated main verb, the questioner is making an assumption, and you need lots of words to contradict a person's assumption to set them right. Therefore "no" means "your assumptions are validated", whereas "no blah blah blah blah blah" means "let me destroy all your assumptions and rebuild the world in this fashion".

Since I speak with so many non-native speakers, I tend to speak like this automatically. Not every language has words for "yes" and "no".


It's just filler really. I don't think I've ever said "yeah nah" without adding on something else afterwards to clarify which one I mean.


Agreed it is just filler. It's closer to "But" or "Um" or "You know" than a "Yeah" or "Nah".

This song will clarify it from an Aussie perspective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyadntqXjn4


It does not clarify it at all. It merely uses it. If you don't know what it means, you still don't.


Haha, I found this funny: I ain't French (I am Serbian), and I am quite like that: my friends have frequently made fun of me for it.

But to put things in perspective, starting with "No" gives me a bit of a time to think about the proposition, and then during the response, perhaps change my stance and switch to "yes": I am basically buying time. It's just a "but" away :-)

Interestingly, my 2.4 year old kid is starting to do the same: — "do you want go outside?" — "no, LET'S GO!". That made me think if it was one of my parents who did this as well, but I can't definitely pinpoint it. My dad usually just takes a bit more time to answer instead (he's a uni professor, so maybe he evolved from a "no"-first person :-), and my mom is definitely not a "protester".

So, while it _might_ be cultural in France (or perhaps French as a language?), you can get it anywhere else too.


Hmm...other cultures just have different ways of in effect saying no. Example: in US airline travel if you ask at check-in to change your seat they well invariably say "oh the gate agent will be happy to help you with that". When you get to the gate they'll say "we have no open seats". The check-in agent knew that and if they were French would probably have said so.


That's just bad service, not cultural differences...


I couldn't stop thinking of the comedy potential of hypothetical conversation between a French person, who keeps saying "non" profusely, and a Japanese person who is appalled, and is trying their very hardest to not say "no".

> French ‘no’ is often an invitation to debate, engage and better understand one another,

To someone who can read and sometimes understand spoken French, that seemed like a good approximation. Also liked that part where they explain that "non" is just another way of saying "I don't know".

From the personal point of view, would say a French "non" is also easier to say, it just rolls off the tongue in a way and seems less abrupt and confrontational than a "no" in English, for example.


It's interesting how we interpret meaning that's not actually there.

I'm currently trying to lean a little French. To me the French "Non" sounds much more abrupt and often slightly agressive even when I know it's not at all being said like that.

My French is currently far too poor to pick up any subtlety but that doesn't stop my mind playing tricks on me unfortunately.


> It's interesting how we interpret meaning that's not actually there.

Fascinating. It's totally subjective. And I imagine it depends on what other languages you speak. Some languages to me just sound softer and more poetic like say French or Portuguese, some seem harsher like German and Japanese. Russian is probably in the middle, though poetry somehow works beautifully in Russian.


The English say "Yes, but..." or " I am afraid ..." but in fact they mean no...

The French say "Non, mais..." ending up most of the time with yes...

So what's important? the start with No or the conclusion with a Yes.


Usually the conclusion is more important, unless it's also "slippery"

"No but we can go next week" sounds more promising than "No because I have to defrag my hard drive"


I had my own experience of this - I narrowly missed a flight from Marseille and went to the ticket counter to change my flight to the next day. The woman at the counter checked my ticket and happily told me no she can't change it I will have to buy another. I told her that it was a marine fare and could be changed. She didn't look so happy then and said your travel agent needs to do it. Which they did.


Ah but that was in Marseille... Let's say you were facing extra challenges because of that ;)


It certainly is plausible that different cultures have different tendencies but this seems like it must be exaggerated somewhat for entertainment purposes because it almost paints French people as a bit of a caricature.

The specific example sounds like it could be a combination of a very small amount of language boundary and a slightly unhelpful or not particularly brilliant airline agent.

Anyway I'm interested to hear what French people think of this.


I feel like it’s crap all the way down. The context thing again, the quote from the most expensive and disconnected private school in the country, the suspiciously low number of words in the language. It’s just someone trying to be clever by pushing poncifs.


Is poncif really an English word ?


Definitely french, linguee translates it as "commonplace", or "cliché"


not yet, I'm trying to insert more interesting french sounding words than "double-entendre" in english. When I get them to use "poncif" I'll start working them on contrepèteries.


I'm French but living in the UK for the past 12 years.

British people have no problem saying "no" in my experience, and I don't think there is a large difference between France and the UK. In both countries, it is mostly class, politeness and social norms that influence the willingness to say "no".

The illustrative argument about the citizenship application rings true to me. But my interpretation is that you are just faced with the legendary disorganization of the French administration. It is at times Kafkaesque.

Years ago my Mom was faced with some weird catch-22 issue at the local benefits office. She had been on long term disability allowance due to Cancer (she's fine now) until one odd day they requested her to re-submit all her pay-slips from 5 years prior (i.e. before she got sick). As she was doing lots of part time jobs with different schedule back then, it was actually a difficult task, and she ended up missing something like 2 or 3 pay-slips among the 20 pay-slips she submitted. She went to multiple appointments every-time seeing the same clerk with no compassion. No other documents would do. Her employers did not have copies. On the last encounter the clerk said he would have to stop her allowance. She snapped and made an epic scene. After 10 minutes she was allowed to meet the manager. He apologized, clicked on a button on the computer, and that was that. She never had to resubmit any documents and has since retired.


Worked once with both French speaking and German speaking people where some fundamental components relied on communication between these native speakers, and was conducted remotely. Germans in turn are very laconic, literal when speaking English and like to feel smug because of it. At some point the German director became furiously hysterical on hearing „no”. What a beautiful clusterfuck it was.


> Countries like the US and Australia are low-context cultures where people generally say what they mean and mean what they say.

Ever heard an american woman talk? everything is just always amazing and awesome. 'customer service' they call it. and its nice and charming, until you try to figure out what they actually mean which can be a bit of a puzzle.


Then apparently I'm French. Because I love to say "no", especially to those around me that wanna take my free time to do something for them. It became and automatic response even before the question is finished. "Do you...", "No". "But I didn't even...", "No". The only exception to this rule are my wife and kids. They get to finish their question before I respond with "No" ;)


How did you answer this question: Do you take her to be your wife? Do you promise to be faithful to her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love her and to honor her all the days of your life?


That's where it all started... After answering that question with "yes" and realizing what was coming his way he swore to always answer with "no" from that point forward.


Yeah, because being married makes you a slave, especially now with women having rights and all that?

Seriously, this stupid meme needs to die. Marry if you want, don't if you don't. But stop perpetuating these stupid clichés.


non mais c'est de la merde leur article


I'm french, and I have a mother that always told me "non" when I was asking something. It traumatized me, now I have difficulties to ask something, because I always think the response will be negative. So, when my daughter ask me something, I mostly respond "oui", to give her self confidence.


Going from one extreme to the other is not the right way. Try to find balance. Kids need to hear no from time to time or they become insufferable brats.

What happens when your daughter is an adult and hears "non" for the first time ?

She will melt away. And will probably needs a lifetime to grow up and learn that she can't always get what she wants (which seems a common theme in western society nowadays).


There's an ad running in France right now for 1664 (a horse piss beer they drink here) which says 'pas mal' and immediately provides the footnote translation, synonyme of quality.


Is this like the “yeah no yeah” phenomenon?



Their codebases must be clean. They say "no" too all the features and random ideas people come up with.


Ah ah. I wish we could do that.


...before saying "yes" later.


I think it’s because it sounds like “no”, but it’s actually spelled “non”.

/s




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