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History of ‘yes’ and ‘no’: evidence from Proto-Uralic and beyond

Toyota, Junichi LU (2008) Cognitive and functional perspectives on dynamic tendencies in languages
Abstract
Little is known the evolution of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in human language, and in this paper, an attempt is made to make a first step in revealing how our ancestor came up with these words. Our analysis starts with Proto-Uralic, and then we compare its developmental path to other languages in the Indo-European family.<br>

It has been documented that in Proto-Uralic (ca. 4,000 BC) there existed e ‘no’, but not word for ‘yes’ (cf. Décsy 1977: 81-82). Our hypothesis proposed in this paper is that human languages initially managed without ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Answers were given by repeating a verb, e.g. Are you happy – I am (for ‘yes’) and I am not (for ‘no’). The ‘no’-word was created by dropping a verb (e.g. not from I am not), and it... (More)
Little is known the evolution of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in human language, and in this paper, an attempt is made to make a first step in revealing how our ancestor came up with these words. Our analysis starts with Proto-Uralic, and then we compare its developmental path to other languages in the Indo-European family.<br>

It has been documented that in Proto-Uralic (ca. 4,000 BC) there existed e ‘no’, but not word for ‘yes’ (cf. Décsy 1977: 81-82). Our hypothesis proposed in this paper is that human languages initially managed without ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Answers were given by repeating a verb, e.g. Are you happy – I am (for ‘yes’) and I am not (for ‘no’). The ‘no’-word was created by dropping a verb (e.g. not from I am not), and it stood on its on at the initial stage and later became an independent word. Since the negative answer can be given with ‘no’, its affirmative counterpart is somehow required, given a rise of ‘yes’.<br>

This line of argument is related to the binary features commonly found in the grammar of proto-languages (what Toyota 2004 terms kaleidoscopic grammar). Binary features are often cognitively less demanding and they suited the basic frame of emergent grammatical structures. In this sense, the presence of ‘no’ on its own in Proto-Uralic is considered to have forced its opposition ‘yes’ to appear in the course of forming the modern Uralic languages. It is true that it is much easier to find a linkage between the negative marker and ‘no’, and the word for ‘yes’ is often difficult to trace historically. For instance, in Slavic languages, the common ‘yes’-‘no’ pair is da/tak ‘yes’ and nie/ni/ne ‘no’, except in Slovak, e.g. áno ‘yes’/nie ‘no’.<br>

The binary feature can be found beyond linguistic features. For instance, pre-historic artefacts, such as spearhead, axes, cave paintings, etc., are normally binary in shape or design. This suggests that emergence of complex patterning is reasonably late in human evolution. One possible exception is the Celt: earlier artefacts from their civilisation involve a complex ternary or quaternary patterning. Interestingly, Celtic languages do not have the ‘yes’-‘no’ words, and they still repeat verbs in reply. This specific case needs further analysis, but it seems to suggest that the longer period for binary features is required for the development of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. This clearly shows that there is relationship between binary features of human cognition and the development of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. So, the study of the origin of these words should deserve more attention. (Less)
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Cognitive and functional perspectives on dynamic tendencies in languages
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d88068f7-b6d3-4ff0-9323-1ab713d98c59 (old id 1369333)
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@misc{d88068f7-b6d3-4ff0-9323-1ab713d98c59,
  abstract     = {Little is known the evolution of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in human language, and in this paper, an attempt is made to make a first step in revealing how our ancestor came up with these words. Our analysis starts with Proto-Uralic, and then we compare its developmental path to other languages in the Indo-European family.&lt;br&gt;<br/><br>
 It has been documented that in Proto-Uralic (ca. 4,000 BC) there existed e ‘no’, but not word for ‘yes’ (cf. Décsy 1977: 81-82). Our hypothesis proposed in this paper is that human languages initially managed without ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Answers were given by repeating a verb, e.g. Are you happy – I am (for ‘yes’) and I am not (for ‘no’). The ‘no’-word was created by dropping a verb (e.g. not from I am not), and it stood on its on at the initial stage and later became an independent word. Since the negative answer can be given with ‘no’, its affirmative counterpart is somehow required, given a rise of ‘yes’.&lt;br&gt;<br/><br>
 This line of argument is related to the binary features commonly found in the grammar of proto-languages (what Toyota 2004 terms kaleidoscopic grammar). Binary features are often cognitively less demanding and they suited the basic frame of emergent grammatical structures. In this sense, the presence of ‘no’ on its own in Proto-Uralic is considered to have forced its opposition ‘yes’ to appear in the course of forming the modern Uralic languages. It is true that it is much easier to find a linkage between the negative marker and ‘no’, and the word for ‘yes’ is often difficult to trace historically. For instance, in Slavic languages, the common ‘yes’-‘no’ pair is da/tak ‘yes’ and nie/ni/ne ‘no’, except in Slovak, e.g. áno ‘yes’/nie ‘no’.&lt;br&gt;<br/><br>
 The binary feature can be found beyond linguistic features. For instance, pre-historic artefacts, such as spearhead, axes, cave paintings, etc., are normally binary in shape or design. This suggests that emergence of complex patterning is reasonably late in human evolution. One possible exception is the Celt: earlier artefacts from their civilisation involve a complex ternary or quaternary patterning. Interestingly, Celtic languages do not have the ‘yes’-‘no’ words, and they still repeat verbs in reply. This specific case needs further analysis, but it seems to suggest that the longer period for binary features is required for the development of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. This clearly shows that there is relationship between binary features of human cognition and the development of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. So, the study of the origin of these words should deserve more attention.},
  author       = {Toyota, Junichi},
  language     = {eng},
  title        = {History of ‘yes’ and ‘no’: evidence from Proto-Uralic and beyond},
  year         = {2008},
}