Two weeks ago, I discussed the troubled origin of the word aye “yes,” as in the ayes have it, and promised to return to this word in connection with some other formulas of affirmation. The main of them is yes. We may ignore the fanciful suggestions that connected yes with the imperative of Old Engl. agan, the etymon of Modern Engl. own (Horne Tooke derived hundreds of English words from imperatives), or from Irish Gaelic (tracing the bulk of the English vocabulary to Gaelic was John Mackay’s hobby). Etymology has always attracted more or less peaceful maniacs, and they usually had the same tempting idea, namely that all words of all languages have a single source or go back to a small number of monosyllabic roots.
The word gese (with g pronounced as y) has existed since the days of Old English. Noah Webster knew it but said nothing about its origin. Later etymologists did not doubt that gese is a combination of ge and se, with ge being preserved in the modern word yea and cognate with Dutch and German ja, Old Norse já, and Gothic ja ~ jai. The s-part remains in limbo. It may be the stump of swa “so” or of sie, the present subjunctive of the Old English verb to be. Thus, “yea so” or “yea, be it.” Some dictionaries favor the first variant, others the second. The most circumspect ones sit on the fence, and we will join them there.
Words meaning “yes” often go back to demonstrative pronouns; such are, for instance, Slavic da and Romance si. They tend to be short and to have multiple variants. Even Biblical Gothic, the only extant version of that fourth-century Germanic language, had, as we have seen, ja and jai. The Old Celtic and Germanic forms sounded nearly the same and were related: neither Germanic borrowed them from Celtic nor Celtic from Germanic. Perhaps, as etymological dictionaries say, Proto-Germanic had both ja and je, but there could be more. Only crumbs of old slang and conversational usage have come down to us. The hardest question about their history is just variation, so typical of emphatic words and interjections. English has retained its oldest word for “yes” in the form spelled as yea, but it rhymes with nay and may owe its pronunciation to the Scandinavian borrowing nay (the negation ne + ey “ay”).
As mentioned in the older post, language historians tried but failed to derive aye from yea because the vowels do not match and aye has no y-. The second difficulty can perhaps be explained away. For no known reason, initial y– sometimes disappeared in English words. The oldest form of if was gif (pronounced as yif). Likewise, itch began with g- (= y): compare Dutch jeuken and German jucken. Less clear is the history of –ickle (Old Engl. gicel) in icicle. Its cognate is Icelandic jökull “glacier”; in the middle of a compound, the argument goes, j could be lost without anybody’s noticing it. This also happened in some Scandinavian languages. But as though to mock us, in one case Old Norse preserved initial j– in the position in which it was supposed to lose it. Compare German Jahr “year” and Icelandic ár. This is a regular correspondence: initial j has been dropped before a vowel. However, já has not become á.
Having disposed of j-, we wonder what to do with the vowels. Let me repeat: a word for yes or yes indeed occurred as an emphatic formula of affirmation, and a good deal in its life cycle depended on the rise and fall of the speaker’s voice. Wilhelm Horn, an outstanding German scholar (1876-1952), based many of his historical hypotheses on the caprices of intonation. In this he had few followers, for the intonation of past epochs is nearly impossible to reconstruct, but his opinions are worth knowing.
Both professionals and lay people have paid attention to the forms of yea in British dialects and especially American English. We find yeah approximately with a diphthong as in ear, yah (known from Lancashire to North America), eh-yuh (pronounced as ei–ya), and ayuh, the latter recorded in Maine and elsewhere in New England. Languages are most inventive when it comes to coining expressive words. For instance, the Swedish for “yes” is ja, but, to disagree with a negative statement, one says ju (“he won’t come”—“oh, yes, he will” [Ju!]); analogs of the ja ~ ju difference exist elsewhere in the Scandinavian area. The Russian for “already” is uzhe. This word, when it acquires threatening connotations, sounds as uzho (stress falls on the final syllables). Similar, often inexplicable, changes happen in humorous variants, as in Engl. brolly for umbrella and frosh for freshman.
We should not underrate the so-called ludic function of language: people like to play, and wordplay is among the greatest amusements there is. Could aye, a homophone of I, come into being as an emphatic variant of yea in contexts like: “You will do it, won’t you?”—“I, I!” (not a new idea)? That we will never know, but etymologists, predictably, shy away from vague suggestions, to save themselves from wild conjectures; however, such a possibility cannot be excluded. But one loses heart after discovering that the Korean for “yes” is also ye. Are we dealing with some near-universal interjection of assent?
As long as we are on the subject of emphasis, it may be useful to remember yep and nope (mainly but not exclusively American). The obvious things about them have been said more than once. While pronouncing such words, we are told, people sometimes articulate sounds very forcefully, that is, they close the mouth so energetically that some sort of final p is heard. This is not much of an explanation, but there is no better one. Scandinavian scholars, including the greatest among them (Axel Kock, Marius Kristensen, and Otto Jespersen) were especially intrigued by yep and nope, because Danish makes wide use of the so-called glottal stop, but even they were unable to come up with a more profound explanation. The fact that a Swiss German interjection once also ended in p does not take us much further.
As was noted in the post on aye, this English word has a Frisian congener sounding exactly as in English, but I expressed some doubt about the borrowing of it from Frisian. Also, I cited the opinion that aye could come to English from nautical usage, as suggested by the formula “Aye, aye, Sir,” and referred to two researchers: Hermann Flasdieck and Rolf Bremmer. My half-baked reconstruction resolves itself into the following. Among the rather numerous variants of the word yeah, the variant aye (that is, i or I) developed among British sailors and became part of international nautical slang. Later, landlubbers in Frisia and Britain began to use it too. This process must have taken place some time before 1500; Bremmer’s earliest Frisian citation dates back to 1507.
By way of conclusion, I’ll again cite an example from Slavic. The Russian for “aye, aye, Sir” is est’! (a homonym of the third person singular of the verb to be: Engl. is, German ist, Latin est, and so forth). It has been suggested that this est’! is a slightly modified borrowing of Engl. yes, Sir. This etymology has been contested, but, if it is true, we have a curious example of the spread of nautical formulas in northern Europe. Russian est’! is not limited to the language of sailors.
Image credits: (1) The Proposal by Giacomo Mantegazza. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) U.S. Navy Ensign Michael O’Connor receives his first salute from Electronics Technician 1st Class Eric Walden April 30, 2010, in Tallahassee, Fla. U.S. Navy photo by Scott Thornbloom/Released via United States Navy Flickr.