Yes and No

I was teaching my partner some mandarin recently and I came to the conclusion that "yes" and "no" are very weird constructs of language.

We were practicing one day, where I'd ask her questions in English and she'd reply in Mandarin. I asked her a yes/no question and she replied 不, to which I surprised myself by pointing out that 不 is ever only used in a negatory manner. People who know some Mandarin would interject and say, but there is 不(bù), 没(méi), and 无(wú) that can be used in stead of "no". Yes, they can, but they're usually not used without context.

Let's look at some concrete examples to understand.

The following questions can be answered with a "yes" or "no" in English without ambiguity. I have also included the literal English translations of both the questions and the answer. In the last column, is a best-approximation of the lambda calculus the question can be represented in.

English QuestionChinese equivalentChinese AnswerEnglish lit. trans.Eng. AnswersLambda Calculus
Are you human?你是人吗?是/不是Be you a human?Be/Not Beλperson.λspecies. person-is-species (you) (human)
Do you know how to dance?你会跳舞吗?会/不会Have you knowledge to dance?Has knowledge/Hasn't knowledgeλperson.λknowledge.person-has-knowledge (you) (dance)
Can you dance?你能跳舞吗?能/不能Have you the ability to dance?Have ability/Haven't abilityλperson.λability. person-has-ability (you) (dance)
May you dance?你可以跳舞吗?可以/不可以Are you allowed to dance?Allowed/Not allowedλperson.λactivity. person-permitted-to-perform-activity (you) (dance
Will your system be alright?你的系统会好吗?会/不会Your system knows how to be alright?Has future knowlege/Hasn't future knowledgeλperson.λfutureknowledge.λobject.λalright. person-has-futureknowledge-object-alright (you) (knowledge) (your system) (ok)
Do you have money?你有钱吗?有/没有You have money?Have/Haven'tλperson.λobject. person-has-object (you) (money
Is boiling water hot?沸水烫吗?烫/不烫Boiling water hot?Hot/Not hotλobject.λdescription. object-is-description (boiling water) (hot)
Do you see her?你看到她吗?看得到/看不到You see her?See/Not seeλperson1.λaction.λperson2. person1-action-person2 (you) (see) (her)
Can you see her?你能看到她吗?看得到/看不到 or 能/不能You have ability to see her?See/Not see or Has Ability/Hasn't abilityλperson1.λaction.λperson2. person1-ability-to-perform-action-person2 (you) (see) (her)
Coming?来不来?来/不来coming or not coming?coming/not comingλaction.action==coming (coming)
Does a dog have Buddha nature?狗有佛性吗?Dog has Buddha nature?Muλanimal.λnature. animal-has-nature (dog) (buddhadhatu)

There can be some observations to be made between the differences in English and Chinese questions

Observation 1: Vagueness is avoided

The reason why I listed these questions is because I noticed after some thinking, that the way of phrasing a question is significantly different in Chinese than it is in English. For example, "do you dance?" is untranslatable to Chinese, because it's too vague - Chinese translations are more specific as to whether you have the knowledge to (会), have the ability to (能) or whether you have the permission to (可以).

Of course in colloquial Mandarin, you will find that people interchangeably use 会/能/可以. Exactly like how people just randomly misuse "can" and "may"[ref]one of my pet peeves to be honest[/ref] in English.

If you think about it deeper though, "do you dance" in English itself is too rather vague in semantics. What does "do" refer to? One's ability, one's knowledge, or one's permissive state? Obviously the question is to be asked with some cultural and situational context. This is weird, as Chinese is supposedly one of the more context-heavy language (in the sense that you need to have a larger understanding of the surrounding sentences to understand the semantics of a particular phrase). I will address context in a point below.

The difference between English and Chinese is that there is no way to ask "do you dance" in Chinese, therefore there is nary a need for a "yes" or "no"

Observation 2: Grammatical structure

Note that in English the questions are almost always posed in this form: SINV -> (NP -> (NP, ((NP|ADJP|ADVP|VP) -> NP))) [ref]Glossary for those who are unfamiliar with the Penn Treebank notation:

  • SINV- inverted declarative clause
  • S - declarative clause
  • NP - Noun phrase
  • ADJP-Adjectival phrase
  • ADVP- Adverbial phrase
  • VP - Verb phrase

The brackets and pipes are like regular expressions, while the arrows indicate parent to child relationship: a -> b means b is a child node of a. Note: this is different from the Tregex notation where a < b means a dominates b. I've always found that notation a little silly.[/ref]. The Chinese translations are more or less posed in this form: S -> NP -> ((VP|ADJP|ADVP) -> NP)) , where the verb in the VP is negatable (can/can't, have/haven't, is/isn't etc)

Again, due to the grammatical structure, there is no need for a noun like "yes" or "no", because you could just answer with the verb phrase alone, or negate the verb phrase. Imagine if you will, every question in English is posed this way: "Have you or haven't you money?", a "yes" or a "no" answer would be confusing - the better answer would be to answer "have" or "have not". Obviously in Chinese, the "have not" part is elided and is only accessible through understanding of cultural context due to the long evolution of the language.

Speaking of long evolutions - English itself isn't too far off. If you have ever read any of Shakespeare's plays, you'd notice that in ancient times, "yes" and "no" were also very dependent on the way the question was asked. In some of his earlier works, "yes" and "no" played the same role as "はい" and "いいえ" in modern day Japanese - they were affirming or negating the question before it, while "yay" and "nay" played the same role as today's "yes" and "no".

Here's an example in early Modern English where they had a four form system, which I feel would clarify a lot of communications issues.

QuestionYou have moneyYou don't have money
Have you money?YeaNay
Haven't you moneyNoYes

In fact, to this day, the Germans still has this differentiation - "hast du kein Geld?" can be answered with "ja" while "haben nicht du Geld" can be answered with "doch" [ref]the second sentence is quite dodgy German imo - I have no idea how to form a negative form question in German, is it "nicht haben" or "haben nicht" - in fact I don't think I have ever encountered a negative form question in German before[/ref]. The main difference in the questions is immediately visible when literally translated: "have you no money", "have not you money?". "Doch" is translated to "but" in Google, but according to some friends, it's the correct way to answer a negatively phrased question.

Observation 3: Boolean Logic and Classification

This is an obvious observation once you notice it. But almost[ref]barring weird questions like "Do you want to have banh mi or pad thai for lunch?" "yes"[/ref] all yes/no questions have a boolean equivalent for the answer - that is to say, if you rephrase the question as an expression that can be evaluated to a "true" or "false" answer.

Note that here I make a distinction between a yes/no and a true/false answer. In Chinese, due to the grammatical structure of the questions, for the most part you can just drop the question mark and evaluate the expression to return a true/false. And interestingly, you can answer most questions in Chinese with 是/否 (true/false)

Anyhow, I also noticed that you can sorta classify the English questions into something like these:

  • State based questions ("be you...?")
  • Ability based question ("can you...?")
  • Possession based question ("have you...?")
  • Generic question ("do you...?")
  • Future tense questions ("will you...?")

It's the last two that drove me to write this blog post. I cannot think of an instance in Mandarin of how to ask generic questions. Nor is there a directly translatable way of asking future tense style questions in Chinese. I think it's an interesting artefact of the English language.

Observation 4: Context

Perhaps the most important observation is that the Chinese answers carries with it the context of the question, where as in English, with a "yes" or "no" answer, the context is implied from the question. In linguistics this is often known as an echo answer.

Consider the question "coming?". In such a colloquial question, the common Chinese question literally translates to "coming or not coming?". The answer also translates to the same thing. Yes, you can phrase the question as "来了吗?" ("coming yet?") but the answer usually contains the word "来". Occasionally people may answer 是, which can best be translated to "true". But I think the question serves to show that the answer itself carries the context.

In English, the context is implied in the question. "yes" itself as an answer is meaningless without the question, but "来" means "coming". You can guess the context easier from the answer in Chinese, whereas you can't from English.


Does Chinese have a "yes" and "no"? Depending on how you see it - you can answer most Chinese questions with 是/否 but that in my opinion is like answering every question in English with "true" or "false". I also find it weird that for a supposedly high-context language, Chinese questions and answers are anything but. In fact the context is itself carried in both the questions and answer.

In other languages, their equivalent for "yes" and "no" are also less generic than in English - in Japanese, for example, "はい" (hai) and "いいえ" (iie) is often translated to "yes" and "no", but if you watch enough TV shows, you'd realize there is a flow to it that makes it not quite "yes" or "no". "はい" and "いいえ" is more used to confirm/negate the sentiment of the questioner than a direct "yes" or "no". In fact I found (at least in my experience watching TV shows) that in Japanese, echo answers are more likely to happen as well.

So does this make English the weird one for having generic "yes" and "no"?

What do you think? I guess that's my little mind teaser for a good Sunday brunch discussion.
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