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Celtic influence in English? Yes and No1

  • THEO VENNEMANN (a1)
Abstract

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.

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