Irish – A Language Without Words For ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Irish, the primary official language of Ireland has been spoken on the island for over 2500 years.  Its sentence structure and syntax are very different from that of the English language.  One striking distinction is the lack of words for “yes” and “no” in Irish.

This probably sounds very strange to any English speaking person.  How can you have a conversation without these seemingly all important words?

So how do you answer a question in Irish?  This is usually done by answering with the verb, either affirmatively or negatively.  Here are some examples:

 

An dtuigeann tú?: Do you understand?

 

 

Tuigim: Yes – or truly you are saying “I understand”.

Ni thuigim: No – the exact translation is “I don’t understand”

 

 

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Ar mhaith leat uisce?:  Would you like water?

 

 

Ba mhaith liom: Yes or literally “I would like”

Níor mhaith liom: No or literally “I wouldn’t like”

When some people are learning Irish they mistakenly apply the words “sea” and “ní hea” for the words “yes” and “no.”  These are only used to answer a question like this:

An é an doras?: Is that the door?

 

Is é (sea) or ní hé:  Yes or no – literally  meaning “it is” or “it isn’t”. 

 

 

Today most people in Ireland speak English, learning it at home, and only learning Irish at school.  However despite adopting the English language, many Irish people still seldom use the words”yes” and “no” when answering a question, even in English.  This is particularly noticeable in rural Ireland.

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This lack of use of these succinct little English words might be noticed by tourists when browsing in small country shops.  You might, for example, ask a shopkeeper if she has a particular product or brand in stock.  It is highly unlikely that you will get a simple “yes” as an answer.  More than likely you will hear a response such as:

“Let me see, now”

or

“I do, of course.”

or

“We have loads of them.”

or

“I’m afraid not.”

 

If you ever get the “I’m afraid not response”, it will generally be followed by a quick, “but I have such and such, which is just as good, if not better.”

Usually any response is followed by a story or a few questions about why you might need the particular item.  Maybe the shopkeeper might seem overly inquisitive to the non-Irish national, but all that is happening is the obligatory banter that is needed to start up a grand old conversation.

The Irish dislike those simple words “yes” and “no”.  They are way too short and to the point.  A plain negative “no” would be just too pointed, giving the impression that the shopkeeper is not in the least bit interested in a good old chat, when you can be certain that a chin wag is always on the cards in Ireland.

Words like “yes” and “no” are too polarizing, too stagnant for the Irish.  What kind of a chat can you start with such “useless” little words?

And so, when the Irish started speaking English, they decided not to use words like “yes” and “no” that do nothing to stimulate a good conversation.

 

 

Slán agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)

Irish American Mom

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Comments

  1. Melissa says:

    I studied Irish in New Hampshire a number of years ago, and getting used to not having a simple “yes” or “no” was very difficult at first. (Sadly, since I didn’t have the opportunity to use it very often, I lost most of it, though I do keep meaning to work on it again.) Amusingly, I realized as I read this, that it must have sunk in very well, as I rarely use them in English now, but instead use things like “Unfortunately, I don’t have…”, or “I do have…”, etc. I never noticed until now!

    • Melissa – Thanks for stopping by my website. It is lovely to hear that you studied Irish. It is a fairly difficult language to learn but truly lyrical. It’s funny how you noticed how you don’t say yes and no so much anymore. It is a difficult concept when learning Irish, but definitely affects our turn of phrase when speaking English. Thanks again.

      Mairead

  2. Greetings and salutations Mairead,
    I always enjoyed your explanations of why or how things come to be. I’ve attempted to learn a phrase or two of Irish, but to no good results. A nice chat , now that Ive enjoyed on both coasts of the Atlantic, with for the most part positive results. Keep the air conditioner on,
    Cheers,
    Brian.

    • Brian – I am glad you are enjoying my theories on all things Irish. I am sure many scholars may not agree with my conclusions, but its just a little food for thought. Glad to hear you have had many a nice chat on both sides of the great pond.

      The air conditioners are running full blast here in Kentucky. A “cool” front has moved through dropping our temperatures from the low 100′s to the mere 90′s. My five year old asked why he can’t go to Ireland this year, because “it’s too hot here”. Hope it isn’t as sweltering in your neck of the woods.

      Mairead

      • Hi Mairead, I was lost on some backwoods in Maine a while back and stop to ask for directions in an old auto repair place, I asked this old Mainer if I could go right at the fork in the road to get to my destination,
        he responded “you could, wouldn’t do you much good though” the following conversation lasted for a good half hour and is one of my all-time favorites. Anyway just thought you’ld enjoy that, The summer here has been one of the best, we live near the coast and always have the option of taking a dip.

        • Brian – I love the old man from Maine’s response. It seems you too have inherited the Irish love of a good chat. I find that here in Kentucky people love to stop and talk, too. I think it’s one of the reasons I like living here so much.

  3. Grammy says:

    Fascinating! I have a question….what is the difference (if there is one) between speaking Irish and Gaelic? I’ve always wondered that….Here’s another: Is it Celtic with a hard C (like cat) or Celtic with an S sound? My, it’s good to have an Irish friend that I can finally ask these questions! :)

    • Hi Grammy – Irish is a Gaelic language. The other Gaelic languages include Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Manx (spoken in the Isle of Man) and Brythonic Gaelic from Cornwall and Brittany in France. These languages all share certain similarities. In Ireland we say Irish when talking about our form of Gaelic language. Here in America the word Gaelic is often used to describe the Irish language, but all of these languages fall under this term.

      When saying the Celts or describing the Celtic people we use a hard C for pronunciation. The only time we use the soft C or S sound is when referring to Glasgow Celtic football club, just like the Boston Celtics have a soft C.

      Hope this helps. So glad to be able to answer some of your Irish and Celtic questions.

  4. Maired, how interesting! Fun to hear how the Irish want to keep the conversation going so just avoid yes and no. Thanks for another peek into all things Irish!

    • Cheryl – The Irish are great talkers. Whenever I go home I really take note of how much people love a conversation, even with strangers. I think that is one reason why tourists love Ireland so much.

  5. How right you are – yes or no are not well known concepts in Ireland. They wouldn’t be, would they…. :-)

    • Corinna – A chat is always on the cards in Ireland, so no point using a simple yes or no as an answer. Sometimes I miss friendly chats with strangers from my days in Ireland. All the best!

      Mairead

  6. Joy says:

    Mairead- I’m SO glad I read this article. I’m part Irish, and it really explains a lot about why I like to talk as much as I do. I thought I just inherited it from my parents. lol
    And, it also explains why I tend to not always give a straight answer when asked a question. I, too, feel like just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is too short sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I do tend to give just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer sometimes. But often-times, I will give a longer answer to a simple question. It really bugs my husband sometimes, because he’s of the “just get to the point” school of thought. lol And I tend to want to give an answer, and then explain why I gave the answer I did. lol

    I really like your site by the way. It’s really interesting to read about the land of my ancestors (Johnsons and Morgans/McKays). I hope to one day go back and actually visit Ireland. The last time I was there, it was just for a layover when I was leaving Italy to move back to the States (my dad was in the U.S. Army). My dad and I were at the Shannon Airport for about 45 minutes, so we didn’t really have time to get out and take in the view. But it was cool to hear the dialect of the locals who worked there. :)

    • Joy – I am so happy you found my site. I too seldom use ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but answer with a sentence most of the time. It definitely is part of our heritage. I hope you make it to see Ireland some day. It really is beautiful. Come back and visit whenever you get a chance.
      Best wishes,
      Mairead

  7. Tremendous things here. I am very glad to see your post.

    Thank you a lot and I’m taking a look ahead to get in touch with you. Will you kindly drop me a mail?

  8. sam says:

    Doesn’t sea mean yes

    • Sam – Technically “sea” is short for “is é” which mean’s “that’s it”. Over the years many of us who only learned Irish at school, and are not native Irish speakers, started using “sea” to mean “yes”. So if we accept that all languages evolve and change, then in modern times we might agree that “sea” now means “yes”. Thanks for checking out my post and commenting.
      All the best,
      Mairéad

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