ARUN RATH, HOST:
One day recently, Kathryn Schulz was having a conversation with an acquaintance.
KATHRYN SCHULZ: And I asked him a question. And in response, he said this wonderful thing. He said yep, nope, very definitely.
RATH: She thought wait what?
SCHULZ: Yep, nope, very definitely.
RATH: So that nope seems to contradict the yep; then that definitely seems to bring us back to yep, the affirmative - weird. Then, Schulz started noticing variations on this theme everywhere. CNN...
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN NEWS PROGRAM)
UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: No, exactly right.
RATH: "The View"...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VIEW")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, yes, research.
RATH: Here on NPR, too, where everyone from advice columnists...
UNIDENTIFIED ADVICE COLUMNIST: Oh, no, totally.
RATH: ...To scientists...
UNIDENTIFIED SCIENTIST: Certainly, yeah, no, totally.
RATH: ...To Quentin Tarantino.
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Oh, no, definitely for sure.
RATH: All of them using this weird construction.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Exactly - no, totally.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No, definitely.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, no totally.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: No, exactly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS IT YES OR IS IT NO?")
JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Is it yes or no?
RATH: Kathryn Schulz started researching the history of the English language, calling up linguists, sifting through the different meanings of all of our words for no - no, nope, negative, nu-uh. The good old "Oxford English Dictionary" offered up a surprise.
SCHULZ: I found out that the English language used to have two ways to say no, and they had two distinct meanings.
RATH: There was still no, of course, but we also had nay. Questions in English can be confusing when they contain a negative. Schulz illustrates the problem with this phrase - you aren't a fan cilantro?
You see, the answer no there could be confusing. It could mean no, are you kidding? I love cilantro. Or no, I am not - taste terrible.
English used to have what's called a four-form system in linguistics, with no and nay and yes and yea. You had a clear way to answer negative or positive questions. Schulz offered us this example.
SCHULZ: Did you hear that segment on NPR about the strange uses of the word no in the English language? Five hundred years ago, the correct answer would've been nay, I didn't hear it.
RATH: But over time, yea and nay fell out of use, leaving us with a two-form system - yes and no.
SCHULZ: And once the distinction dropped out, we actually created kind of a problem for ourselves, because now when someone asks you a question in the negative - oh, you didn't like that film? If I say no, I might be saying no, I didn't like that film. Or I might be saying no, you're incorrect. I loved that film.
RATH: Here's where it totally comes in. If you answer someone's question with no, totally, it's pretty clear you're agreeing with them. And Schulz points out it's even used in response to positive questions. Wow, this new Kendrick Lamar album is amazing, right? No, totally.
SCHULZ: But actually and paradoxically, it means emphatically yes, I totally agree with you. I hear what you're saying.
RATH: Now, Kathryn Schulz says she can't prove that the loss of nay led to the rise of no, totally, but for me, no, totally, makes sense. You can read Kathryn Schulz' story at newyorker.com.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YES/NO")
BANKY W: (Singing) Hey, would you be my lover? Yes, no, yes, no, yes. Would you be my lover? No, yes, no, yes, no. And if you won't be my lover, let me know. Yes, no, yes. Would you be my lover? (Singing in foreign language). Friends telling you to just say no. Baby no answer (singing in foreign language). This guy is feeling it in my soul. So would you be my lover now?
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