English Language and Linguistics

Research Article

Celtic influence in English? Yes and No1


a1 Department of German, University of Munich, Schellingstr. 3 RG, D-80799 Munich, Germany Vennemann@LMU.de


Compared to German Ja and Nein, English Yes and No are used less frequently, and often in combination with short sentences consisting of a pronoun and an auxiliary or modal verb: Yes I will; No I won't. When such a short sentence is used, Yes and No may be omitted: I will; I won't; I do; I don't; He can; They certainly won't. This difference in usage is established (1) by comparing the marriage vow in German and English, where the officiant's question is answered by Ja in German but by I will or I do in English; (2) by citing material from a practical grammar for German students of English; and (3) by studying the way Shakespeare has his figures answer decision questions, or Yes/No-questions, in comparison with Schlegel's way of rendering their answers in his German translation. Next it is shown that Shakespeare's way, which is essentially the same as modern usage, differs radically from earlier English usage up to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1388–1400) and Troilus and Cresseide (1382–6) and the anonymous York Plays (fourteenth century) and Towneley Plays (late fourteenth century), which all reflect the Germanic usage, essentially the same as in German. It is concluded that the modern English usage arose during the two centuries between Chaucer and Shakespeare, as a Late Middle English and Early Modern English innovation. As for the reason why English developed this un-Germanic way of answering decision questions, reference is made to Insular Celtic: decision questions are answered with short sentences in both Irish and Welsh, and this usage is old in both languages. The viability of this contact explanation is underlined by Irish English, where Yes and No are used even less frequently than in Modern Standard English, and short sentences are the normal way of answering decision questions.

(Received February 08 2008)

(Revised December 26 2008)


1 I am grateful to Lutz Edzard (Oslo), Stephen Laker (Leiden and Manchester), Angelika Lutz (Erlangen), Wolfgang Schulze (Munich), Hildegard Tristram (Freiburg), and two anonymous referees for commenting on earlier versions of this article and for making valuable suggestions. Special thanks are due once again to Lutz Edzard (Oslo) and to Stephen Laker as well as to Michael P. Streck (then Munich, now Leipzig) for sending me material for a long section on the question of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in Semitic and Berber. Unfortunately, for reasons of space limitations for the present article the publication of that section has to wait for a later occasion (see Vennemann, forthcoming).