So, my brother is watching on tv a vote a in the American Congress. He says that the members are asked to vote with yea/nay (I have heard that from the Chamber of Commons in the UK as well). Now we are trying to figure our whether there might be an actual difference between yea/nay and yes/no, that might have gone lost with time. In particular, a person on Quora gave an interesting explanation: "English used to use what’s called a “four-form” system. “Yea” and “nay” were only used to answer positive questions, while “yes” and “no” were only used to answer negative questions." However, I cannot find confirmation of what is said.

On a side note, an aspect of this answer that is intriguing me is that I have never heard of a "four-form" system. As I have studied French and German, I am know of the existence of three-form systems (in German, ja/doch and nein, and in French, oui/si and non), but four??

Can anybody confirm/refute the theory of the "four-form system"?

If you are going to confirm it, could you please provide the source of your information?

(I have looked on stackexchange for answers, but, to the best of my knowledge, questions on yay/nay never wonder about the comparison with yes/no)

  • This looks more like a question about antiquated parliamentary conventions / vocabulary than "English as she is spoke today". – FumbleFingers Feb 1 at 16:41
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    @FumbleFingers, the vocabulary may only be used in parliament today, but that doesn't mean it wasn't once part of everyday life. I think that history is what is being asked about. – The Photon Feb 1 at 16:54
  • You might as well ask about the "history" of alternatives such as Yeah, Nah. – FumbleFingers Feb 1 at 17:17
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    Also: you mean "yea" not "yay". – GEdgar Feb 1 at 17:58

Etymonline has this for the word yes:

yes (adv.)

Old English gise, gese "so be it!," probably from gea, ge "so" (see yea) + si "be it!," from Proto-Germanic *sijai-, from PIE *si-, optative stem of root *es- "to be." Originally stronger than simple yea. Used in Shakespeare mainly as an answer to negative questions....

For what it's worth, yea is also derived from "Old English gea (West Saxon), ge (Anglian)"

and for no:

no (adv.)

"not in any degree, not at all," Middle English, from Old English na, from ne "not, no" + a "ever." The first element is from Proto-Germanic *ne (source also of Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old High German ne, Gothic ni "not"), from PIE root *ne- "not." Second element is from Proto-Germanic *aiwi-, extended form of PIE root *aiw- "vital force, life, long life, eternity." Ultimately identical to nay, and the differences of use are accidental. ...

So from this source we have

  • yes was at one time a more emphatic companion to yea.

  • yes was often used by Shakespeare in answer to negative questions.

  • no and nay are "ultimately identical*

Whether Shakespeare was using a three-form system, or just often thought that negative questions required more emphatic answers is not clear.

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  • Thank you for your answer! I believe though that @Laurel (in a comment to the question) is linking to the answer I was seeking (i.e. refuting/confirming the existence of a four-form system in the past). In turn, that answer is providing a wikipedia source (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…), which in turn includes primary sources (i.e. scientific paper / books that discuss the issue) – Fuca26 Feb 1 at 17:47

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