Yeah-no and no-yeah again


I was surprised and very happy about the sudden interest on LL in “yeah no” (initial post and the aftermath)since I’ve also been paying attention to the little guy in some recent research (following up, in a sense, from two earlier posts of mine here and here. I won’t reveal too much now (have to keep you in suspense!) but there’s one use of it which is really cool, and which is illustrated by LL’s own Geoff Nunberg on NPR.

Get yourself an archived recording of Talk of the Nation on June 2nd, 2004. It’s a discussion between Neal Conan and Geoff Nunberg on his then-new book Going Nucular. At about 10m30s into the session, they’re taking calls, and you’ll hear this:

JIM: Well, three categories here. I’ll do them real quickly. First I guess I’ll call it the category of the cachet of erudition. ((dozens of seconds omitted; some talk of the word robust included near the beginning))

CONAN: Any thoughts on those, Geoffrey?

Mr. NUNBERG: Yeah. No. I think ‘robust,’ for example, is an instance of one of those vogue words that for one reason or another is just picked up and people like the sound of it. You’re right. I don’t know if it’s erudition but there’s a kind of pleasure in saying a word like that and everybody plugs into it.

This sort of thing happens not infrequently on NPR (and other radio talk shows, I presume). It might even be getting to the point where “yeah no” (and sometimes just “no”) is almost just a question-uptake marker more than anything else. Listen for it. Other good places to listen for it: asymmetric social contexts, especially where one person constantly feels the need to maintain a non-disagreement or positive-alignment stance with other people there, either just in order to be nice (think job interviews) or to prevent themselves from being misunderstood (think any academic context).

It’s too bad that neither Burridge and Florey, nor Moore’s thesis from what I saw, take up the task of comparing “yeah-no” and “no-yeah” to the use and distribution of yeah and no individually. Maybe I’m just too much of a lexical semanticist. But, if they had, they might have found what I did in going through a bunch of LDC mixer corpora (as well as some more natural conversations): namely, that in most but not all cases there’s not a whole lot special about the combination in and of itself. It doesn’t seem to fulfil any core function that either “yeah” or “no” aren’t observed to do on their own (assuming you assign some combination of propositional and discursive meaning to each yeah and no when they do appear on their own, and also when they appear in combination). There may be cases where it is appropriate or even ideal to use both, as many of Mark’s readers pointed out (like in responses to negative or leading questions), but the resulting “meaning” is not really anything beyond what you might expect by putting the two together. I think that’s the case with most of the examples in the two LL posts. However, Australia could be a completely different story. In particular, if you have access to the Burridge and Florey article, check out the “athletic” use, which to my ears is actually rather strange.

Finally, it may interest my more sociologically- or CA-minded readers (all none of them?) that this sequence of words was analyzed by Schegloff in a 1992 paper, “Repair After Next Turn: The Last Structurally Provided Defense of Intersubjectivity in Conversation”, Am. J of Soc. He also looked at just “no” in “Getting Serious: Joke->Serious ‘No’” (2001, J of Prag.), but this “no” can also be combined with “yeah” resulting in a very similar effect. This is the use that I don’t think any of the LL-responders has mentioned, where you say something joking as a sort of ice-breaker, and then “(yeah) no I just wanted to ask you about….” This is as opposed to Mark’s (right-on, by the way) characterization of the “no” as indicating “divergence from (perhaps shared) presuppositions or expectations” — note the similarity to “intersubjectivity” in Schegloff’s title.

3 Comments so far

  1. koron on April 8th, 2008

    A’ight. I’m gonna let you in on the secret. Do you know what the words “random” and “irony” have in common? Find that intersection and you’ve found the sense in which the relaxed “yeah” precedes every sentence uttered from someone who’s attempting to pretend to be a New Yorker (the world over). Yeah, no I’m serious. Can’t you just picture it. I think the “yeah” was originally meant to imply that the comment was coming from a relaxed and non-confrontational standpoint. However, I think that standpoint has flipped onto its head, and now that relaxed tone is what people use to convey information they REALLY want you to believe, but have adopted a kind of surface non-confidence in their power to get you to believe it or believe in its importance.

    Bite your lower lip. It’ll be over in a generation. Notice that the teens who talk this way do it with a lot more confidence than we 20-somethings. But we’re the ones who’re confident in its usage.

  2. koron on April 8th, 2008

    but not them, the teens. that’s what i meant. it’s just more a part of speech than an intentional thing. a mimicry, or an attempt to be part of the cool crowd. wait ’till they realize we’re not cool. then it’ll go away (fingers crossed)

  3. Russell on April 10th, 2008

    Somehow “New Yorker” and “relaxed and non-confrontational” don’t seem like words that belong in the same sentence.

    (Geoff Pullum, this one goes out to you)