I’ve noticed myself saying “yeah no.”
The expression came up in a class one day, when I had asked students to bring in examples of language variation. One student suggested “yeah no” as an example of not-quite standard California English.
California, it seems, gets the credit or blame for everything. But “yeah no” is not California English and it’s not just something young people say. It’s been around for a while and is used by males and females, young and old. I began to notice “yeah no” in the speech of others and soon in my own speech as well. Perhaps I had been using it all along and was just now becoming more aware of it.
When I mentioned her use of “yeah no” to a Victorianist colleague, she suggested the usage might have come from a BBC character on the show “Little Britain”, which ran on television from 2003 to 2005. The character Vicky Pollard is a teen slacker stereotype, prone to saying “Yeah but no but yeah but…”. The catchphrase is meant to convey inarticulateness. And the Urban Dictionary gives no less than six “definitions” of “Yeah no” including this one: “An annoying and obnoxious phrase uttered by the simple minded, who don’t think before they speak.”
It is wrong to think of “yeah no” as an oxymoron and a sign of inarticulate confusion. “Yeah no” is what linguists call a discourse marker. Discourse markers are usually short and sometime vague-seeming parts of a sentence which serve semantic, expressive, and practical functions in speech. They can indicate assent or dissent (or sometimes both). They can indicate attention, sarcasm, hedging, self-effacement, or face-saving.
It is wrong to think of “yeah no” as an oxymoron and a sign of inarticulate confusion.
Examples of “yeah no” abound and there is quite a bit of linguistic commentary, including posts by Stephen Dodson on his Language Hat blog, by Mark Liberman on the Language Log, and by Ben Yagoda in The Chronicle of Higher Education Lingua Franca column. And “yeah no” is not just an English phenomenon. Some of the commentary points to other languages with similar discourse markers, including “Da nyet” in Russian, “oui non” in French, and “ja nein” in German, and more. When I mentioned “yeah no” to a colleague recently back from a sabbatical in South African, she pointed me to the South African English expression “ja-nee.”
Some of the earliest published discussions of English “yeah no” come from Australia, which may mean that the English usage grew there or that Australian researchers noticed it first (or both). In their 2002 article, Kate Burridge and Margaret Florey first explored the variety of uses to which “yeah no” could be put. One is to agree with what has just been said before adding another point—an amplification or clarification. Here is an example in which the second speaker is agreeing and amplifying:
“Do you eat meat?”
“Yeah no, I eat anything.”
But “yeah no” can also be used to acknowledge and disagree:
“Do you eat meat?”
“Yeah no, I eat fish and sometimes chicken.”
The answer assents to eating some meat (fish and chicken) but clarifies that red meat is not on the menu.
Another use of “yeah no” is to signal hesitation and imply mixed feelings, as in this bit of dialogue from Joe Penhall’s play “Landscape with Weapon”:
Ned: Hi Dan. How you doing?
Dan: OK. How are you doing?
Ned: Yeah no, I’m good.
Or this, from Kekla Magoon’s book 37 Things I Love (in no particular order):
Evan … clears his throat: “So I guess you’re not going to the graduation dance?”
“Oh,” I had totally forgotten about it. “Yeah, no. The funeral and everything is that day. So I can’t.”
“Yeah” confirms the not going (yeah, I’m not going) and “no” emphasizes the fact that the character can’t go.
And “yeah no” can be a way of accepting a compliment, as in this Australian example from Erin Moore’s University of Melbourne honors thesis “Yeah-No: A Discourse Marker in Australian English.” Complimented on his team’s success (“You’re doing a very good job at the moment?”), a coach responds by accepting the compliment but also deflecting it.
“Well yeah no, it is pleasing the boys have had a good year, but um as I’ve as I’ve said to the boys, it’s a new year and everyone’s trying to knock you off, and we’ve gotta be up to it.”
The discourse marker “yeah no” is here to stay, and today, you can even buy “Yeah no” tee-shirts and coffee mugs.
Featured image credit: “Conversation on swing” by Bewakoof.com Official. Public domain via Unsplash.