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In English, yes here means "Yes, I have had lunch".

Answering "no" will mean "No, I have not had lunch".

(My question isn't about how to answer this simple question)

However, in some languages, yes actually means "Yes, your statement is correct; I have not had lunch". Answering no would actually mean "No, your statement is incorrect; I have already had lunch".

I wonder what such a difference is called? Such difference can lead to mis-communication, as I have personally experienced. Is there any background information for the two approaches?

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  • 1
    possible duplicate of How to answer a negative question without ambiguity?
    – Hellion
    Nov 8, 2011 at 3:33
  • I have already stated I am not seeking answer to HOW to answer this question. I already know HOW to answer it correctly without causing confusion. My question focus on the DIFFERENCE of approaches across different languages.
    – Gapton
    Nov 8, 2011 at 5:15
  • Reminds me of those times when I ask my wife either/or type questions like, "Do you want fork or a spoon?" and she replies, "Yes." :)
    – purefusion
    Nov 8, 2011 at 12:16
  • So to clarify, you're looking for the name of the miscommunication issue itself?
    – user10893
    Nov 9, 2011 at 0:31

1 Answer 1

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I think it's just a matter of meaning as opposed to the literal interpretation of words and syntax.

In English, the inclusion of not in OP's question simply signifies that the speaker expects the other person has not had lunch. But the meaning of the question isn't changed by this additional information, so there's no need for the response to be inverted because of it.

Do you not understand?

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  • English is my second language, and in my native language, answering "Yes" to "Do you not understand?" would actually mean "Yes what you said is correct, I do NOT understand". While in English, you ought to say "Yes" meaning "Yes I understand". As English is my second language I personally find it very unnatural, but I do understand the reason behind it. What I am curious about it why does such difference across languages exist?
    – Gapton
    Nov 8, 2011 at 5:26
  • @Gapton: These cross-cultural differences are most important in the building of international social relationships. It's like the meaning of nodding (can mean yes or no according to culture) in the field of gestures. Are you aware that a Culture exchange is under commitment on Stack Exchange Area 51? We can ask the question there if it gets created.
    – None
    Nov 8, 2011 at 7:07
  • @Gapton: Would you mind telling us what your first language is, Gapton? Nov 8, 2011 at 8:34
  • @Barrie: I also thought it might be more a cultural difference at first, but once I'd written the first sentence of my answer it seemed to me it's just an idiomatic quirk of English that we can drop not into the phrasing of questions like this without altering the basic query which we expect to be answered. Maybe many other languages simply don't support such usage. Nov 8, 2011 at 13:33
  • Actually its more complicated. You see, my first language is Chinese (strictly, Cantonese and Mandarin). You may be aware of how different Chinese and English are, but it may still surprise you that there is difference between a simple "Yes". Our "Yes" is actually closer to English's "Correct" (No = Wrong). When we say "Yes" we mean "Correct", thus implying "What you just said is correct". In English, "Yes" means "Positive", while it is awkward to answer "Positive" most of the time, the true meaning is indeed "Positive". If you contrast "Positive" and "Correct", you will see the difference.
    – Gapton
    Nov 8, 2011 at 14:37

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