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Yep and nope

A quick note about saying yes and no in different languages. In English we have noises that we make to affirm or deny something. Think about it. What noise do you make to say yes or no without opening your mouth to speak?



Don't open your mouth and give it a try. In English yes sounds like "Um huh". Two syllables. How about no? This one sounds like "Uh uh". Again, two syllables. Further, it's a good example of using tones in language. All Chinese words have tones.


The Uh-uh meaning no in English has a tone that goes down. It's sort of hard and blunt when you finish it. It's very different that a tone that goes up. In English we tend to finish a question with a tone that goes up. Try this one. Say "Is it over there?", but make sure you slow down on the last word and emphasize the there. The "there" will have a tone that goes up. I never put real time into the analysis of these sounds until recently because these same subtle noises are different in China, and it can be hella confusing.


In China they have a similar closed mouth noise thing for yes and no. However, their yes sounds like "en". It's a shorter single syllable that has a distinct downward tone. The confusing thing is it's easy to mistake for a shorter version of the two syllable English no that also has downward tones.


How about the Chinese no? Aiyun describes it like a quick closed mouth "I don't know", but it must be accompanied but a head shake. Fortunately, it's the same left right motion we would use in English to say no. It sounds like a fast "eh-n-eh". Making it weirder, there's a gender bias here. Women would say no this way, but for a man to do it it would sound very efemanant. As Aiyun put it, the man would look like a gay**, and culturally here they are pretty far behind acceptance of homosexuality compared to the states.


This cultural difference has been brought to you by the letter e, the number 31, and our friends living on Sesame Street. Hope you have a mah-nam-a-nah sort of day.


For you viewing pleasure, here's the original from the year I was born (1969).



** Using the term "a gay" sounds bad. It's a problem of translation. In English we wouldn't say this unless it was meant in a pejorative way. In Chinese it's not meant to sound pejorative, but the straight translation is "a gay" as opposed to a gay person. It also applies to race. He's a white. She's a black. Again, just sounds bad.

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