Negative Questions

Yes and no are the most primary answers in English conversations. The English lessons in Japan, of course, cover the two answers in the early steps in the programs. But they are not quite easy words for Japanese, when negative questions are asked.

Negative questions are basically questions containing “not.” For example, “Don’t you think so?” or “Aren’t they coming with us?” is a negative question. For the second example, the answer is yes, if they are coming. And the answer is no, if they are not coming. The yes and no do not appear to involve any difficulty.

In Japanese language, there are words, “Hai (pronounced exactly like “hi” in English)” and “Yie (pronounced like “E-yeah”)” usually meaning yes and no respectively. If a Japanese is asked if he is a Japanese, he would say “Hai (Yes).”

When negative questions are presented, they reverse. “Hai” means no and “Yie” means yes. This is because, to be precise, Japanese “Hai” means not yes but “I agree” and vice versa for “Yie.”

If “they are not coming with us,” and if a Japanese person was asked about it, he would like to say “Hai.” This is so because he intended to say, “I agree. They are not coming.” But you can not say, “Yes. They are not coming” in English. So, negative questions disturb the direct translation of “Hai” and “Yie” into “Yes” and “No.”

Once understood, the exchange system is not complicated. However, the spontaneous responses like reflex are hard to control with what we understand. Whenever someone asked me a negative question, I could not help my head moving to indicate Japanese answers. And a second later, my mouth vocalized the appropriate English answers, which were always opposed to the head movement.

When I was asked, “Aren’t you hungry?” I would instantly begin to nod for a second and stopped. And I say, “No, I’m not.” I know that this appeared ridiculous but I could not control the instant response… and still now.