Yes and No

Saying yes and no is surprisingly difficult in English, and I’ve seen many misunderstandings between native-speakers and non-native-speakers.

Let’s go out for dinner tonight.
Don’t we have food at home?
Yes / No

I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what either yes or no mean here. This example shows why many languages (including English!) don’t actually use a two-form affirmation / negation system. English used to have a four-form system:

Do we have any food at home? [positive question]
Yea [affirmative] / Nay [negative]
Don’t we have food at home? [negative question]
Yes [we have food at home]
No [we don’t have food at home]

Yea and nay survive in the modern English as fossilized forms, so they don’t help clear up the yes or no problem in modern English.

German has a three-form system:

Haben wir Essen zu Hause?
Ja / Nein [as in English]
Haben wir kein Essen zu Hause?
Doch [we have food at home]
Nein [we don’t have food at home]

Chinese doesn’t have the words yes and no at all; an echo answer is used:

我们在家有食物吗? [positive question]
有 [literally: have]
没有 [literally: not have]

Turning it into a negative question makes no difference in the clarity of the answer:
我们在家没有食物吗? [negative question]
有 [literally: have]
没有 [literally: not have]

In fact, the most common way to ask the question in Chinese is to use both the negative and positive form, from which the echo answer logically flows:
[literally: We at home have don’t have food?]

Spoken English makes extensive use of echo answers in addition to and sometimes in place of yes or no. This is likely a borrowing from the Celtic languages that were present in Britain before the arrival of Germanic speakers.

The issue brought up in the first example would unlikely occur between two native-speakers. A native-speaker would respond: Don’t we have food at home? [negative question]
Yes, we do.
No, we don’t.

Hence, my advice for non-native speakers is to always use an echo response with negative questions. In general, use them to add emphasis or make your speech sound more natural and understandable.

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