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What don't you understand about yes and no?

Date:
June 17, 2015
Source:
Linguistic Society of America
Summary:
The words 'yes' and 'no' may seem like two of the easiest expressions to understand in any language, but their actual behavior and interpretation are surprisingly difficult to pin down. In a new paper, two linguists examine the workings of 'yes' and 'no' and show that understanding them leads to new insights concerning the understanding of questions and statements more generally.
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The words 'yes' and 'no' may seem like two of the easiest expressions to understand in any language, but their actual behavior and interpretation are surprisingly difficult to pin down. In a paper published in the scholarly journal Language, two linguists examine the workings of 'yes' and 'no' and show that understanding them leads to new insights concerning the understanding of questions and statements more generally.

Floris Roelofsen (University of Amsterdam) and Donka F. Farkas (UC -- Santa Cruz) provide a comprehensive account of 'polarity particles', as these words are called, across languages, and explain the intricate pattern of their distribution. For example, "Yes, it is" and "No, it isn't" are acceptable answers to the question "Is the door open or is it not open?," but not to "Is the door open or is it closed?." Furthermore, the intonation used when pronouncing a sentence can affect whether 'yes' or 'no' are appropriate responses to it.

The distribution of these particles, it turns out, is also affected by the polarity of the sentence they respond to. For example, both "No, he hasn't" and "Yes, he hasn't" are acceptable as agreeing responses to "Ben has not called today," but in an agreeing response to "Ben has called today," "Yes, he has' is acceptable but "No, he has" is not.

Roelofsen and Farkas build on previous insights from semantics and discourse models, as well as on quantitative surveys of how speakers judge various responses. The framework they create not only explains the distribution and interpretation of these particles in English, but also predicts what patterns one expects to find across languages. These predictions are then checked and verified against data from French, German, Romanian, and Hungarian.


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Journal Reference:

  1. Floris Roelofsen et al. Polarity Particle Responses as a Window into the Interpretation of Questions and Assertions. Language, June 2015

Cite This Page:

Linguistic Society of America. "What don't you understand about yes and no?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 June 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150617135403.htm>.
Linguistic Society of America. (2015, June 17). What don't you understand about yes and no?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 23, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150617135403.htm
Linguistic Society of America. "What don't you understand about yes and no?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150617135403.htm (accessed May 23, 2017).

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