Finding a Simple Place to Start

Let’s think about what it means for a word to “mean” something. Learning Slovak, I’ve had some surprises with the word “no.” Part of the problem is that we have the word in English, too, where it means the opposite of “yes,” signifying something I might summarize as ‘refusal’ or ‘denial’; in Slovak, however, I struggle with the fact that “no” can perversely mean “yes,” (agreement, acceptance, approbation) even though there is a very similar word—“nie”—which means, well, ‘no.’ So, after climbing for several hours up above Strbske Pleso in the High Tatras with one of my ‘uncles’ (husband of my grandmother’s sister’s great-grandaughter) I ask:

i) Mozeme ist dolu?

And, to my consternation, he answers:

ii) No . . . . paci sa.

Only after much subsequent conversation do I recognize that he is not insisting that we climb to the very top of Mount Krivan, but that he is actually agreeable to whatever maniac idea I may suggest.

I’m told that such a “no” derives from “ano”—a shortened form of ‘yes,’ most commonly used in informal settings.

So you see that word meaning can consist of what we generally call a ‘definition,’ (in this sense “no” and “ano” mean the same thing) but, in addition, there is an associated contextual requirement. That is, part of a word’s meaning appears to include a requirement on exactly what context in which it may be used. “Ano” (almost) always means ‘yes’; though “no” only means ‘yes’ in certain circumstances.

So far, we are in the normal everyday territory of ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation.’ But words commonly have many denotations. My Kratky Slovnik Slovenskeho Jazyka says that “no” can also mean ‘but’:

iii) skromne, no dobre jedlo.
iv) Vykloni sa, no pre hmlu nevidi.
v) Usiluje sa, no nestaci.

It also appears to have a signification similar to English ‘well’, indicating heightened intensity:

vi) Zda sa, ze maju radi zmrzlinu Slovaci. No, pravdaze!

Or lack of intensity, communicating resignation:

vii) Musim ist do Rusku. No, zbohom.

These examples show that we can fine-tune the notion of ‘context’: there are social contexts in which language is used, and in informal contexts “no” can mean ‘yes’, but there are also grammatical, or more specifically, syntactic contexts that serve to tease out further dimensions of meaning. So in (iii-v) above ‘no’ occurs in situations where it is clearly connecting neighboring words or phrases. Its ‘meaning’ clearly makes a functional contribution: here it indicates that neighboring syntactic elements are related by means of contrast. Under the circumstances, ‘no’ seems to have the same meaning as ‘ale’.

Perhaps ‘no’ owes the lion’s share of its popularity to its function as an indicator of speakers’ disposition towards the comments they are making. People always have some attitude regarding what they are hearing and saying. And ‘no’ can be used to communicate that what you have just said is very obvious (e.g. vi), or conversely completely surprising:

viii) No, tu ho mas!

It can communicate resignation verging on defeat (e.g. vii), or conversely hearty exuberance:

ix) No! suri ho otec!

And the affective dimension of ‘no’ can combine with the denotative dimension:

x) Si spokojny? No!

And in the case of (x) we get a convergence of denotative, affective, and contextual cues clustering on “no”, here indicating hearty agreement underscoring an informal context.

One of the maddening—or fascinating—features of language is that words can often indicate themselves . . . or their opposites, a point repeatedly illustrated in the examples above. An adequate ‘theory’ of lexical meaning needs to explain the frequency of this apparently surprising phenomenon, and might suggest that a word’s meaning is constructed by bringing together more primary units of meaning . After all, for something to be something else’s opposite, the pair must be alike in every respect except for one, with regard to which there is a binary opposition: ‘no’ can be the opposite of ‘yes’ because they are alike in every way . . . . except one (consider ‘boy’ and its opposite ‘girl’ both human, non-adult, living creatures—alike in every way, except one). So the meaning of a word taps into ‘denotation,’ ‘connotation,’ social context, grammatical function, and the nexus of other words which make up the dictionary of the language in which the word occurs. . . at which point you may ask:

xi) ‘Uz sme skoncili?’

To which the only appropriate answer right here and now could only be . . . ‘no!”