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It is well-known that Early Modern English, if not earlier forms of English too, had a four-form system for answering yes–no questions. ‘Yea’ and ‘nay’ answered questions phrased positively (analogous to ‘ja’ and ‘nein’ in German, or ‘oui’ and ‘non’ in French), ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answered questions phrased negatively (like ‘doch’ and ‘nein’ in German, or ‘si’ and ‘non’ in French).

Where did this system come from? When did it come into use? Was it merely a prescriptive attempt to add this feature to the language that stuck for a while in careful written, edited prose but was never really used in natural speech (like today’s fretting over ‘less’ vs ‘fewer’ and ‘which’ vs ‘that’)? Or did it become part of everyday natural speech for a while and died only due to a later reversal of the change?

  • There is also aye: the British House of Commons votes Ayes and Noes while the US House of Representatives votes Yeas and Nays – Henry Feb 9 '16 at 20:07
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Yea is the original 'yes' word, cognate to German ja. Yes, which is unique to English, is (per the OED) a contraction of géa sí, where the second word is a subjunctive form of be. So yes says literally 'yea, it is', which is why it was used to give affirmative replies to negative questions, and so yea took over the role of affirmative in answer to affirmative questions. The OED traces this usage back to the 9C, long before there were any prescriptive rules of English grammar.

Similarly, no is the original word and nay is a contraction of ne géa, which can be understood as 'not yes', thus negating an affirmative question and leaving no to the role of giving a negative reply to negative questions.

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