Monday, October 26, 2009

No No, No Yes

Spent the last few days visiting S. to see what good old fashioned 'roughing it' fieldwork is like. Hiked two days through the Himalayan foothills, to a field site that is at altitude and is a short walk from a lovely view of Everest. Ate a lot of apple pie and instant noodles and didn't shower much. Also got a chance to try and speak some Nepali, which reminded me of something that I really wanted to blog about earlier.

Each language has difficulties for the beginner. K. - as I've complained about ad nauseam - has it's tonal system, French et. al. has it's gender system, Eskimo has few words for snow, but lots of ways to modify them. Native speakers have no problem with these things, and it's these differences that, although trying at times, are what make languages so interesting.

Nepali is interesting to the English speaker in that it has no direct equivalents for 'yes' and 'no'. Instead, you use the conjugated form of the verb. So if someone asks "do you feel hungry" (tapaai bok lagio) your reply is "I feel hungry/not hungry" (malaai bok lagio/lagdaina). "Is he here?" (u yaaha cha) is replied to with "is/ is not" (cha/chaina).

Like most languages, there is a bit of a way around this. If you want to say yes, you can say "hajur", which kind of means 'sir' but can be said to anyone.

Still, as a speaker of a language that has a rather easy out when it comes to answering yes/no questions, it's been, and still is, a huge processing load to make sure I understand the right question, remember the verb and re-conjugate it just to answer straight-forward questions.

I've been told Welsh is similar, anyone else learnt or heard about a language without yes and no?


  1. Can't say I know for sure, but Mandarin, and by induction many forms of Chinese? From what I remember being taught (albeit by my sister, almost ten years ago), is that there are common questions "hao bu hao?" and "yao bu yao?" which essentially mean "have/don't have?" and "want/don't want?". I can't remember which is want and which is have, to make matters worse. But the response is just the verb, or the negated verb.

    Of course, in Madarin, conjugation is far easier!

  2. That is correct! There is not yes or no in Mandarin. You can cheat and answer with "shi/bu shi", which mean "to be/not to be" if you don't know what the verb is, but that is usually reserved for ignorant laowei. Or you can say "dui", which means correct, but the negative form is not commonly used.
    And as Hugh said, most questions are asked as verb not verb, e.g. "good not good", "hungry not hungry". so instead of yes you would answer "good/hungry", and instead of no you would answer "not good/not hungry".
    There are a few variations of this, for example, there is another word for not/no, but that is only used with a very few particular verbs. You can also ask a question as you would in English, such as "are you hungry?", which would be "ni e ma?", and you would simply repeat the verb, "e" if you are hungry, or give the negative form, "bu e" if you are not hungry.
    So there you go!

  3. So all you have to do to make a negative construction is put a bu in front of the verb? That's nice and uniform I guess - Nepali negatives change with the person, number and level of formality for some parts of the paradigm. Not as much fun...