When “No” Means “Yeah”: The Rise of “No Yeah”

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It seems linguists are discovering what Midwesterners like myself have done for years. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz discusses the use of phrases like “No, totally” when you actually mean “Yes.” Here’s her example, from a conversation about modern art:

“MARON: They can look at any painting and go, “Eh.” They can look at a Rothko and go, “Hey, three colors.” And then you want to hit them.

DUNHAM: No, totally.”

See? Dunham does “totally” want to hit somebody. But she starts her sentence with “No.” If she would have said “No” on its own, the meaning would be completely different. So what’s going on here?

Schulz wonders if it’s just a younger-generation phenomenon:

“Dunham is twenty-eight years old, but the “No, totally!” phenomenon is not limited to her generation. It’s not even limited to “No, totally.” I first started noticing it when a fiftysomething acquaintance responded to a question I asked by saying, “Yup! No, very definitely.” That sent me looking for other examples, which turn out to be almost nonexistent in written English but increasingly abundant in speech. In 2001, the journalist Bernard Kalb told the White House correspondent Dana Milbank that it was the job of reporters to thoroughly investigate political candidates, to which Milbank responded, “Oh, no, yes, I agree with you there.” In 2012, Anderson Cooper, talking with the CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, referred to Newt Gingrich as “the guy who has come back from the dead multiple times.” Borger’s reply veered toward Molly Bloom terrain: “Yes, no, exactly, exactly, exactly.”

So yeah, no – what’s the deal with that? Schulz has a few ideas:

“No, totally.” “No, definitely.” “No, exactly.” “No, yes.” These curious uses turn “no” into a kind of contranym: a word that can function as its own opposite. Out of the million-odd words in the English language, perhaps a hundred have this property. You can seed a field, in which case you are adding seeds, or seed a grape, in which case you are subtracting them. You can be in a fix but find a fix for it. You can alight from a horse to observe a butterfly alighting on a flower.”

In the rest of the article, Schulz does of fabulous analysis of the word “no” and its ambiguities in conversation. I mean, really, how should you respond to “He’s not here yet?” or “Would you mind if…?” When a negative means an affirmative, it’s confusing for everyone involved.

But what’s missing from the analysis, from my Midwestern experience, is that “No” also functions as a signal word: In addition to negating, it can also be used to interject yourself into a conversation, indicating a change in speakers. Remember, we Midwesterners are famous for our “Midwest nice,” so we’ll rarely jump in and interrupt you mid-sentence (I’m looking at you East-coasters). We will politely wait our turn, but when that turn comes, we’ve been waiting quite a while and want to jump in with a bang. “No” is a powerful word and zips attention right in your direction.

Check out this exchange.

Person A: And then my dog just took off running.

Person B: Yeah, that happens to me a lot.  

Person C: No, yeah, my dog does that all the time. The other day we were walking and…. 

While Person B’s statement technically makes more sense, Person C’s is definitely the attention grabber. In Midwestern-ese conversations, had Person B wanted to say something else, she probably would have thrown a “no” in there somewhere. And if Person C had just said “No, yeah, my dog does that all the time” but didn’t continue his story, the other two probably would have sat there awkwardly waiting for him to continue. Why? Because he used the “No-yeah-I’m-indicating-that-it’s-my-turn-to-speak” signal. 

So there you have it. It’s not that the person is confused, shy, or doesn’t speak English properly. No, this is truly a case of “it’s not what you say it’s how you say it.” These quirky no-yeah phrases are useful conversation cues that move discussions along and help polite Midwesterners find their way into discussions.

So no, yeah – totally don’t worry about it.

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