Q: We North Queenslanders are considered rednecks even by Australian standards. I thought I’d pass on an example of English usage in this part of the world: Yeah, no, as in “Yeah, no, they should’ve won in the last quarter.”
A: We’ve written on the blog about “yeah,” but we haven’t looked into “yeah, no” until now.
Others, however, have studied this conversational response, which is used by both Americans and Australians.
In fact, Australians may use it, more—at least there’s been more written about “yeah, no” by language scholars in Australia.
A 2004 article in The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, quoted the Australian linguist Kate Burridge as saying, “It’s not going to disappear. It’s always hard to predict with language change, but it looks like its use is on the increase.”
The author of the Melbourne article, Bridie Smith, pointed out that English speakers aren’t alone in this usage, since “Germans use a similar ‘ja nein’ and the South Africans ‘ya nay.’ ”
“In Australia,” Smith wrote in 2004, “where the phrase has become entrenched in the past six years, ‘yeah no’ can mean anything from ‘yes, I see that, but can we go back to the earlier topic’ to an enthusiastic ‘yes, I can’t reinforce that point enough.’ ”
The meaning of “yeah, no” depends on its context, Smith says. She quotes Dr. Burridge, the linguist, as saying: “It can emphasise agreement, it can downplay disagreement or compliments, and it can soften refusals.”
Burridge and a colleague, Margaret Florey, published a paper in the Australian Journal of Linguistics in 2002 entitled “ ‘Yeah-no He’s a Good Kid’: A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-no in Australian English.”
An abstract of the paper said that as of 2002, “Yeah, no” was relatively new in Australian English and served many functions. It kept a conversation rolling, helped with “hedging and face-saving,” and indicated agreement or disagreement.
Since then, American linguists and language watchers have taken note of “yeah, no” in the US.
Linguists have discussed it on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. And articles have been written by Stephen Dodson for Language Hat, by Mark Liberman for the Language Log, and by Ben Yagoda for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Even presidents of the United States aren’t immune. When a radio interviewer in 2011 asked Bill Clinton how he felt about being spoofed on TV comedy shows, Yagoda writes, “The former president replied, ‘Oh yeah, no I thought a lot of the Saturday Night Live guys were great.’ ”
Liberman surveyed the speech databases in the Linguistic Data Consortium, and found that “in all the cases that I looked at, the yeah and the no seem be independently appropriate in the context of use, even if the sequence seems surprising when viewed in merely semantic terms.”
In one comment on the ADS list, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter quoted a former New York City police detective as saying on CNN: “Yeah, no, you’re right!”
Lighter added: “There it seems to mean, ‘Yes indeed, and no, I wouldn’t think of contradicting you.’ ”
But it can also mean disagreement, as in this tweet a few months ago about horror movies: “yeah no i hate blood and guns and stuff like that.”
PS: Readers of the blog have reported sightings (or, rather, hearings) of the usage in New Zealand, in South African English as well as Afrikaans, and in Danish.
Check out our books about the English language