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tl;dr: when answering a negative question, can いいえ be used to affirm what the question states as a whole?

I came to Japan at the age of six, and I guess I pass as a normal native speaker of Japanese to most people (aside from some personal quirks like long response time).

However, there's one thing, one very basic thing that I have a hard time getting right without a conscious effort: answering negative questions.

Consider this negative question:

車、持ってないんですか? You don't have a car?

The right way to answer is:

  • いいえ、持ってます / いいえ。 Yes, I have one.
  • はい、持ってません / はい。 No, I don't.

The problem is, I almost always mix up はい/いいえ and end up answering just like in English. i.e. Describing my situation rather than responding to what the asker has in mind. With a single word answer, with no clarifying comment, it could be a life-or-death mistake.

Illustration

Over the years, despite the threat of death, I've developed a self-serving hypothesis that with most negative questions, the answer is predetermined and anticipated by context and it doesn't matter much if I screw up. This hypothesis seemed to work sometimes.

My question is, can I keep on believing my hypothesis? For example, if you were asked

もう料理はいらない?

  1. Answering はい implies what the asker has in mind "She looks full" is true; your meal is over. (the correct answer in Japanese)
  2. Answering いいえ implies you're not in the mood for another dish, just like the asker thought; your meal is over. (according to my hypothesis)

Or, is there no pathway for the kind of logic in #2 in the Japanese way of thinking?


Edit 1: to clarify the scope of this question, a few bullet points if I may...

  • Assume the question is a simple, plain negative question
    • that is, no double negatives (...じゃないんじゃない?), confirmation in the form of a question (...じゃないですよね?), etc.
  • answered with a single word (はい/いいえ/うん/ううん)
  • taking place between true, pure-bred native Japanese speakers

Edit 2: thanks to the feedbacks, I've come up with a definition of the problem in a more formal fashion. Here goes..

Conversations take place amid tensions (or harmony) between several norms:

  • Grammatical norm - the correct usage defined by grammar books
  • Social norm - accepted, default usage in practice
  • Contextual norm - accepted usage defined by context

The question is, when answering a negative question with a single word, can contextual norm disagree with the grammatical one? i.e. can an utterance of "いいえ" mean "はい" as defined in grammatical speak? As of this writing, one answer says yes, two others say no.

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I was always taught that はい basically means ‘I agree’ and いいえ means ‘I disagree’. Has your experience been to the contrary? –  Zhen Lin Aug 28 '11 at 1:39
    
@ZhenLin I don't remember being taught anything to the contrary, but I believe I sometimes got away with いいえ meaning ‘I agree’. It could be that my intention didn't got through to the other person though. And sometimes I get a puzzled look and get asked what I really meant. So I'm confused about what really works.. –  ento Aug 28 '11 at 2:04
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4 Answers

My understanding is that, in Japanese, you answer the question, whereas in English, you ignore the question and just affirm or negate the predicate part. In other words, Japanese is more logical than English, (whereas English may be more pragmatic than Japanese).

Japanese

車を持っていますか
'Is it the case that you have a car?'
--はい
 'It is the case that I have a car.' = 'I have a car.'
--いいえ
 'It is not the case that I have a car.' = 'I do not have a car.'

車を持っていませんか
'Is it the case that you do not have a car?'
--はい
 'It is the case that I do not have a car.' = 'I do not have a car.'
--いいえ
 'It is not the case that I do not have a car.' = 'I have a car.'

English

Do you have a car?
[Ignore the question. Just affirm or negate the predicate '(you) have a car'.]
--Yes. I have a car.
--No. I do not have a car.

Don't you have a car?
[Ignore the question. Just affirm or negate the predicate '(you) have a car'.]
--Yes. I have a car.
--No. I do not have a car.

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3  
@Dave M G - Oooh, controversy! (笑) If I may be allowed to put in my 2 cents, I have to say I'm with sawa on this one. First of all, I don't think this really has as much to do with "correct English" as it does with social norms. I can easily imagine speakers of Hong Kong or Singapore-based varieties of English answering in the Japanese way, for example. That said, in America and England, I think there is a very definite and strong tendency to answer in the way opposite to Japanese, and I don't think it causes confusion. People know it as the norm, accept it, and use it. (cont'd below) –  rdb Aug 28 '11 at 21:01
2  
(cont'd) This is not to say that there are never ambiguities, but there is a normal usage, and it's different from Japanese. In fact, if you look at the pages in your Google search, most of them are ESL-related pages: ESL learners are confused precisely because English normally handles negative questions differently from other languages. (The hits other than ESL sites are mainly about how to handle receiving negative questions in job interviews, which is a different meaning of "negative".) At any rate, it's an interesting discussion. Thanks to both of you. –  rdb Aug 28 '11 at 21:11
1  
One difference between Japanese and English is that Japanese people look for the correct way to do something, conformity is far more important. In many English speaking countries they don't like being told what to do thus the view is more often; how English is generally used is the closest to "correct". On the topic of logic, I would answer the question "Would you like tea or coffee?" with "Yes" if I would like tea or coffee (and I don't care which) –  Peter Lawrey Aug 28 '11 at 22:55
1  
@Dave Really? My experience is consistently the opposite. If it's an ambiguous question, then the answer will be confusing regardless, but "nope" in response to "Don't you have a car?" means "no, I don't have a car." –  Troyen Aug 29 '11 at 1:05
2  
@Dave M G - I'm not arguing that there is never ambiguity or that there is one correct way. I am arguing that there is a social norm in how negative questions are handled, and to me, it makes sense to follow that norm if you want to be understood. In my variety of English, if somebody asks me, "You don't have a car?", I say "no". If someone asks me 「車持ってないの?」 I answer 「はい。」 In both cases, I'm pretty confident that I will be properly understood. The existence of some people who think my confidence is misplaced will not cause me to change the way I answer. –  rdb Aug 29 '11 at 7:44
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This was a big problem for me as well (in the reverse direction, that is)!

In this kind of yes/no questions, the asker forms a hypothesis and then asks whether this is true. If it's true, you say yes, else no.

車持ってないの? ->
     「あなたは車を持っていない」は正しい? ->
          正しくない ->
              いいえ、もっています


もう料理はいらない? -> 
      「あなたはもう料理はいらない」は正しい? -> 
          正しくない -> 
             いいえ、もっと食べたいです


今日天気悪くない? -> 
     「今日は天気が悪い」は正しい? -> 
          正しい -> 
             うん、悪いねぇ

So at least in my book, if you answer 「いいえ」 to 「もう料理はいらない?」 then it always means you want more.

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Hello comrade! Reading your answer, it occurred to me that my strong sense of incongruity towards the Japanese way of answering must be also ingrained in reverse into the Japanese mind. Food for thought! Aside: I'll try air-quoting the negative question when I encounter one next time. –  ento Aug 30 '11 at 17:01
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Since this question was asked, I've gone around and asked about a half dozen Japanese people the following question:

If you ask someone 「もう食事はいらない?」 and they answer 「いいえ」, do you think they want more or not?

The result: Turns out it's just as vague as English with as much individual response. Most people said you would have to know more about the context what else was said, and that it would be a little unusual to just say 「いいえ」 without anything else (which I take to mean that a follow up clarification is needed and expected).

Some said it would depend heavily on the way it was said, because your tone alone could convey the necessary information. Saying 「いいえ」 in a flat tone meant "I don't want more food", but if said in a sort of happy upbeat tone, it meant "I do want more".

One woman actually said that if she wanted to convey she did not want any more food, she would say 「はい、いいえ」 as in, "yes, as you expect, my answer is no, I don't want more food".

I know others here would like to declare there is a rule that is followed, or should be followed, but I believe this kind of ambiguity of response to negative questions thing is not particular to Japanese, or English, but is just a function of human communication.

In other words, I think your stated premise that context will determine whether はい or いいえ is correct. It would be unnatural to just tersely say はい or いいえ and leave it at that anyway, so you're naturally bound to follow up with the clarification needed to make sure everyone is on the same page.

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btw would it be possible that in some regions it is not vague? –  Pacerier Aug 28 '11 at 22:47
1  
I'm still not entirely convinced. It would be a little unusual to just say 「いいえ」 without anything else (which I take to mean that a follow up clarification is needed and expected)- I'm not so sure. I think that it's just as likely, if not more so, that if someone offers you food, a one word yes/no answer is socially inept, if not plain rude, and that's why it's thought to be unusual. I would propose a test like this: Imagine a family eating dinner. The mother asks her typically sullenly taciturn teenage son 「もう食事はいらない?」, and he grunts out a colorless yes/no response. Would she get it right? –  rdb Aug 29 '11 at 1:31
    
@Pacerier: I can only test it out in Tokyo, so I can't be sure, but given that people in Tokyo come from all over Japan, I strongly suspect it's not a regional issue. –  Dave M G Aug 29 '11 at 5:36
    
I'm not trying to discredit what you said; I'm trying to think of a more neutral way to test your theory. It's just a thought experiment. I chose a sullen teenager because they are famously inscrutable to their parents, in order to eliminate tone (colorless) and loquaciousness (taciturn), so that the mother bases her judgment solely on the content of the words. If you don't think that's a reasonable test, that's fine. But, OTOH, I don't think that questioning half a dozen people constitutes any real evidence for your position. I just don't find it persuasive, that's all. –  rdb Aug 29 '11 at 6:55
    
@rdb: As a sample survey, six people is not much, and I won't try and claim it as definitive proof of anything. However, if, for example, sawa's answer was correct, then I should have encountered a consitent Japanese response. I did not, so my only contention is that the reality is far more nuanced than simply stating "In Japanese, when given a negative question, answer this way". –  Dave M G Aug 29 '11 at 8:57
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There might not be a clear answer to this question. In order to avoid the problem, you could always repeat the verb used in the question.

For example: 車、持ってないんですか? In the case that I do have a car: ありますよ In the case I don't: ありませんね

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あります in the sense of 持ってあります?? I think 持ってる/持ってない would be "repeating the verb" in this case. –  Earthliŋ Apr 10 at 13:03
    
@Earthliŋ Oops, yes, I messed up: I meant to type 車がありませんか as the example –  Hanne Apr 10 at 13:33
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