Why do we have so many words for yes and no?
There's a whole lotta nope going on lately. Buckets of nope. It's a popular meme just now. The interwebz are saying "yup" to nope.
I'm not here to tell you more about the meme. People such as Stan Carey have already done a great job of it. I'm here for something more fundamental: Why do we even have nope? And yup, and yep, and yeah, and nah? What's wrong with simple yes and no?
Well, for that matter, why do we even have yes and no?
They're not necessary, you know. Not all languages have them. In languages as different from each other as Mandarin and Irish Gaelic, the answer to what we would call a "yes/no" question is along the lines of "It is" or "It is not," or "I have" or "I have not."
On the other hand, some languages have a third word for saying "yes" to negative questions: If someone asks "So he didn't do it?" you have one word meaning "Yes, he didn't" and another meaning "Yes, he did." And English isn't the only language with informal versions of the words. French has ouais as a casual form of oui for "yes," for instance; Japanese has ee and un that can be used in place of hai for "yes" on some occasions.
But, really, why nope and yup?
To start with, no and yes aren't the original words either.
Nope. No surprise, of course, since most words we've had that long have changed at least a little. In the case of no, it started as ne. Did ne just gradually become nay and no? Not quite. Nay comes from ne ay, "not yes." (Where does ay come from, you ask? Um, we're not entirely sure. Some say from ay meaning "always," but the earliest form of aye is actually written I, perhaps as in "I assent.") And no comes from ne plus o, which was an old adverb meaning "ever" — so no was "not ever." It also had the alternate form na.
Yes, on the other hand, started as ge or gæ, pronounced like "yeh." This became the word yea, as in "yea verily" and "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Was the change to yes like the change to no? Yup. The ge joined with se, an Old English third-person subjunctive form of the verb "to be," to make it gese or gise. Which became yes. So both no and yes come from emphatic forms.
But that s didn't stick everywhere, did it? Nope. Yea was in common use for a long time, especially in regional dialects. And the s fell back off in some parts of the United States: yeah and yeh showed up in America and started being written down in the mid-late 1800s.
Which leads us to yup and nope, which also showed up in the mid-late 1800s.
To see why there's a p on them, let's look for a moment at what these words are. Some dictionaries call them adverbs, but this is kind of like when you're sorting stuff into folders and you find something odd and don't want to make another folder so you just stick it in one that seems to make sense. You don't use yes and no in all the same places you use adverbs: "Did you yes make a cake?" "I no made a cake." Nope. They're one-word expressions.
In fact, they're sort of like verbal gestures, almost as basic as nodding or shaking the head. And here's the thing. If you want to make the "Yes" or "No" gesture final, you cut it off it quickly: use a glottal stop and your voice's air flow just ends — and so does the possibility of further questions. To be extra final, you close your lips. No more words.
But here's the thing: we very often replace "t" and sometimes "p" or "k" at the end of a word with just a glottal stop. Or we stop the air before we actually make the consonant. Say "He's not" and you may well notice the air has stopped flowing before the tongue tip touches as "t." So a glottal stop followed by tongue touch is a kind of t. And, by the same reasoning, we think of a glottal stop followed by lips closing as a kind of p.
It's not really a p, originally, of course. It's just "No" with no further questions, lips closed. Same with yep and yup (which is originally another version of yep). But if you want to write it down, you will of course write it with a p. (Some early versions of nope were written just as nop.) And then later readers will treat it as a full-on "p."
Where do we see yep and nope in print first, by the 1880s? In fiction, in representations of "uneducated" speech — rural men, African-American men, "foreign" speakers. By 1891, though, you can find yep and nope represented in an anecdote as being said by a college professor — who says he's always said them that way.
You can find some much older nopes in Google Books, by the way, but they're all optical character recognition errors for hope. Pretty amusing, too.
There is one more word that gets that same closing p: well — as in welp (or wellp). You know, that word you use to draw a conversation to a conclusion. You want to lead to the end with "Well…" but you don't want there to be any room for a reply. So it's "Welp, gotta be going." The noted linguist Dwight Bolinger observed welp back in 1946, and mentioned it in a paper where he was talking about the mouth-closing gesture in yep and nope.
Welp, there you have it. Nope? Yup.