Over the course of its existence, the number of speakers of English and the number of words they use have grown exponentially. In terms of grammar and syntax, however, English has generally become a simpler, more user-friendly language. Whereas nouns in Old English could be declined into one of six cases (as in Latin or German), today this practice is preserved only in a handful of pronouns. Although there are a lot of reasons why simplicity is a virtue when it comes to language, it does raise the question whether any of those old quirks were actually more useful than we tend to assume. Here are just three reasons the answer might just be, well, yea.
Because we generally hear this word when we’re studying Shakespeare in school, most modern speakers of English tend to get the idea that thou was a very serious formal way to address another person, when in fact it was just the opposite. For most of English history, if you wanted to address someone respectfully, the word you used was you. You was also the word you used to address more than one person, like vous in French or sie in German. Thou, by contrast, was the more intimate, friendly way of speaking to one other person.
Since its disappearance, English speakers have bemoaned the fact that we don’t have a standard way of indicating whether we are speaking to one individual or a whole group. Of course, if we used thou instead of you when we were talking to one other person, then there really wouldn’t be this confusion. And it would spare us all the indignity of being called y’all, you guys, or youse.
Say you’re at a restaurant, you order a salad, and the waiter asks: ‘You don’t want the dressing on the side, do you?’ If you actually do want dressing on the side, this is a remarkably tricky question to answer. Saying yes will likely make the waiter think that you are affirming his statement that you don’t actually want dressing on the side. But saying no is also a very typical way of indicating that no, you don’t want dressing on the side. As a result, when someone asks a negative question like this in English, we usually can’t just yes or no; we have to explain what we mean by our answer – yes, I would like dressing on the side or no, I do want dressing on the side.
As with thou and you this is once again a case of one word trying to perform the functions of two. And like you, the word yes once had a much more specific meaning than it does today. If you were ordering your salad in the sixteenth century and you said yes in answer to the waiter’s question, he would immediately understand that you were contradicting the negative form of his question and that you did want your dressing on the side. This was the specific role played by yes at that period in English, to make it clear that a negative statement or question was incorrect. Yea, on the other hand, was the all-purpose affirmative used for signaling agreement with a statement or assent to a question. Apart from the perils of placing a dinner order, the usefulness of this distinction is well illustrated, once again, by the fact that it is still used in many other languages (one says si instead of oui in French; doch instead of ja in German).
Now, it’s not quite as likely (unless, say, you’re someone who obsessively overthinks the meaning of things), but the same scenario could unfold in reverse. Suppose you’re a waiter in a restaurant who, when a customer orders a salad, unthinkingly asks: ‘You don’t want the dressing on the side, do you?’ The customer being a socially competent, perfectly fluent English speaker says no and returns to the conversation you just interrupted. Of course, in all probability they meant no, I don’t want dressing on the side, but you couldn’t quite catch the nuance of their tone, and it suddenly crosses your mind that they might very well have meant, no, actually I do want dressing on the side.
Once again, early modern English can be of some help here. As we’ve already established, the word yes was reserved for answering negative questions of its kind, and its meaning was explicit: yes, I do want dressing on the side. In fact, the word no was specialized in just the same way. As the philosopher and statesman Thomas More explained in 1532:
Yf a man sholde aske‥is an heretyke mete to translate holy scrypture into englyshe‥he muste answere nay and not no. But and yf the questyon be asked‥Is not an heretyque mete to translate holy scripture into englysh. To this questyon‥he muste answere no & not nay.
So just as yea was the general term for affirming or assenting, nay was used if you were contradicting a positively formed statement or question like Is a heretic fit to translate holy scripture into English?, while no was only used in answer to negative questions like It’s not still raining, is it? or Isn’t he wonderful? The distinction might seem confusing at first but, properly applied, it removes all possibility of waiters and customers misunderstanding each other.