In the public places of the United Kingdom, but somehow especially those of the south, you’ll find it pretty common to hear the response to some statement: ‘yes no but’, or just ‘yes no’. ‘Yes no’ (like its individual parts) is always a response. The ‘yes’ must always come first, meaning ‘yes you are right’, and so with generosity we could allow it some real use as an agreement with a negative statement: ‘yes, you are certainly correct, there are no working toilets on this train (oh well)’. Perhaps the ‘yes no’ also acts as a kind of fearful bridge from one side of the conversation to another, admitting that what follows may or may not be connected to the initial statement; the sighing breath if a ‘yes no’ has none of the self-defeating excuse-making of Vicky Pollard’s ‘yeah, but no’, though both phrases might indeed have something defensive about them. ‘Yes no’ is a diction that is unconscious and unlearned: it would never be taught to foreign language learners, and even when raised to the slight deliberateness of writing, appears odd and mistaken.
The proper treatment of a little phrase like this really is to ignore it, instead of removing it from its place in the natural conversation of fluent English speakers. We know there are many parts of communication, and not all of them rely on linguistic meaning: eye contact, body language, tone of voice, all communicate with as much clarity as language, but without language’s demands of attachment to a world of meaning beyond the word itself. ‘Yes no’ could easily be thought of as an equivalent member of those parts of speech, not making a wordy kind of statement, but performing some other conversational operation (and this is a question of conversation – to write ‘yes no’, even as an instant message, would require less thought than the act of writing itself involves).
That would be alright, except that the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, unlike a grunt or a sigh, each have as clear an agreed-upon meaning as it is possible to have, and adding them together results in a statement as contradictory as it is possible to have in two words (without forgetting, though, that single words like ‘cleave’ can contain in them as much of a contradiction). ‘Yes no’ may have once started out as the phrase ‘yes, I know’, and maybe this is what speakers would claim they are saying; but just as any useful member of society could tell the difference between ‘left right’ and ‘left, then right’ or ‘left, not right’, the (perhaps) contracted phrase has not carried clarity through the process of abbreviation.
To be fair, there are a multitude of questions in which a negative agreement is a perfectly fine response: anyone who answered ‘do you really not want to eat this chipolata?’ with the ‘yes no’ would be understood as indicating ‘yes, contrary to all reason, I truly have no desire to eat the chipolata’. But the phrase often goes beyond a simple response: ‘yeh no, no, I do like working at the bowls club’ is strange, and perverting the syntax might mean ‘in spite of what you might think (even though you haven’t raised any specific objections), I do actually like working at the bowls club’. Covering all bases, it’s as if there’s a deferred expectation of an opposition and discord that never came in the first place, an origin inoculated even as it’s needlessly created in the past.
The ‘yes no’ assents to an exchange while meaning is quietly swept under the carpet. A preference to appear agreeable, even when being combative; a preference to appear slightly confused, especially when rehearsing a well-wrought position; a preference to be stupid when intelligence is possible. In stating its importance, ‘yes no’ is necessarily expunged from formal speeches or those operating with a certain level of care; but nonetheless, every hour, across the land, it is at work in the mouths and minds of the people.