The Flexible Vowel in English Negation

It’s often observed that “no” means “no,” but less noticed that so do “naw” and “nah.” Although in writing, the negative interjection is almost always spelled no, in speech a number of vowels can follow the n and still make for a correctly-formed negation.

Here are some examples, using IPA notation (with non-IPA approximations in parentheses):

Permissible vowels

  • noʊ (no)
  • næ (nah)
  • næ̃ (nah with a nasal vowel)
  • (naw)
  • (nuh, rhyming with but)
  • n (n’)

These forms don’t all turn up in the same contexts. Most obviously, in both writing and formal speaking (e.g., in court) only no would be found. Among the informal forms, nuh and bare n can only occur in unstressed syllables, and bare n can only occur before certain vowels. (I recently saw a great example of a joke involving bare n negation: an image of a man relaxing on a yoga mat with a beer in the midst of a classroom of women in various yogic contortions, with the caption: “The guys asked if I wanted to go lift weights. Namaste here.”)

So these forms appear in different contexts. But aside from the formal-informal distinction, do they have different meanings? I think not; if so, the differences are extremely subtle. If and næ̃ in particular had different meanings, it would be somewhat revolutionary, since linguistic orthodoxy holds that nasal vowels are never phonemic in English; in other words, English never has a contrast between nasal and oral (i.e. non-nasal) vowels, just oral vowels that turn into nasal vowels in certain predictable contexts. It seems likely that æ and æ̃ and the other vowels here are in what’s called “free variation,” meaning a speaker can use either and the listener, though perhaps hearing the difference, won’t really notice it or attach any importance to it. The nasal counterparts of the other vowels here are not in free variation: you can say , for example, but not nɔ̃.

Questionable examples

  • nʌʔʌ or nʌ̃ʔʌ̃ (nuh-uh)
  • )ʌ̃ʔʌ̃ (uh-uh or unh-uh)

These two words are in their own class for a number of reasons. For one, they’re among the only appearances of the glottal stop (ʔ) in the middle of a word in American English. They’re also the only two-syllable single-word negations on this list. More relevantly, they don’t cover quite as much semantic territory as the one-syllable negations: these two (especially nuh-uh) can really only be used as contradictions, not negative responses. You’d use them to disagree with an opinion or, especially, refuse a command, but it would be noticeably overemphatic to say either as a response to a question like “Do you want to go out for some food?”

  • nop (nope)

Nope and its positive counterpart yep first appeared in the late 1880s. Nope is sort of the opposite of nuh-uh and uh-uh in that it’s really only a negative response, not a contradiction; if someone orders you to do something, for example, nope would be a weird way to refuse, and if someone expresses an opinion to which you reply nope, it would seem like you’d misunderstood (or pretended to misunderstand) their opinion as a question.

  • (neh)
  • (na, with the first vowel from father)

These two forms are sort of tough calls. On the one hand, you could maybe imagine hearing them and not thinking they sounded wrong, but on the other hand maybe that’s just because they sound close enough to and , respectively, which are correct forms.

  • nej (nay)

This case is more clear-cut; we recognize the form from archaic English, where it’s spelled nay, and Scottish English (and Scots), where it’s spelled nae, but we Americans would never use it except when mimicking those dialects.

Impermissible vowels

  • nu (nooh)
  • nʊ (nuh, rhyming with book)
  • ni (ni)
  • (nih)
  • naj (nye)
  • and the few other vowels and diphthongs present in American English.

It’s not that someone wouldn’t understand you if you said, e.g., nu to mean no; they might get what you meant, but they’d also think you were making a weird noise for some reason.

Why so much flexibility?

I don’t know. It could be related to yeah, a drawling pronunciation of yes dating from the mid-19th century; perhaps we instinctively wanted to complete the analogy yes : no :: yeah : ____. But yeah doesn’t display this vocalic flexibility: bend that vowel just a bit in any direction and it starts to sound odd. Perhaps it’s because yeah, for some reason, has a canonical and common written form, while the negative equivalent, though occasionally recorded as naw or nah, was never standardized to the same extent.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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