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Yup, uh huh, yes

By Anne Curzan

Would you agree?

If we agree with someone or something, sometimes we say, “Yes.” But we have other options too, many of them less formal than yes.

Consider: Yep, yup, yeah, yea,and uh huh,to name a few.

These informal variants of yesare older than you might expect. Yepgoes back to the end of the 19th century. And yeahand yupboth show up right at the beginning of the 20th century. Yeaheven comes with its own variations. Some people leave off the “h” for the shortened version, yea.I don’t know what was going on at this moment a hundred-and-some years ago to inspire all these informal ways to say something as simple as yes,and many of them undoubtedly predate the first written instances that we have found.

Uh huhis yet another variant of yes,but expressing agreement is not its only purpose. Uh huhis a U.S. expression that shows up in 1924 in the Oxford English Dictionaryrecords. While we can say uh huhto show that we agree with someone, we also can use it to show we are listening. It’s what linguists would call “back channeling.” When someone is talking to us we tend to make these little listening noises, one of which is, “Uh huh. Uh huh.” It doesn’t necessarily mean we concur with the person speaking, but it does show we’ve heard them.

There’s one other odd way that we sometimes say, “Yes,” and that is by saying, “No,” as in the expression, “No, I know.” In this case, the speaker could just as easily say, “Yes, I know.” It’s as if we are telling the other speaker that no, they don’t need to continue because we already know or agree.

Sometimes we use yesand notogether, or more specifically yeahand notogether, in the relatively new discourse marker yeah-no.It has several uses, including agreeing with a negative statement — e.g., “Yeah-no, I don’t need any more pillows.” (If you want to learn more about some of its other uses, such as hedging disagreement, check out this Lexicon Valley podcast.)

Then, of course, we can also use yeahto express skepticism rather then agreement, as in, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

This video appears courtesy of LSA Today. Curzan’s observations on language also can be heard on the Michigan Radio program “That’s What They Say.”

Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan

ANNE CURZAN is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education. In addition, she serves as co-director of the joint PhD Program in English and Education at U-M. She is featured on the weekly segment "That's What They Say" on Michigan Radio.