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I was told by my Japanese teacher that 「うん」 can be used as a casual way to say "yes" as well as "no." If this is true, how can you tell the difference, absent any additional information?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

It's possible that your teacher was talking about how to respond to negative questions in Japanese. This is a good explanation for that.

In this case, though, I think your teacher was talking about うん vs ううん.

A straightforward うん with a falling intonation means yes. A lengthened ううん, often with high, then lower, then middle pitch can be used to express doubt, denial or disagreement (it may be helpful to ask your teacher to demonstrate).

As oldergod says, this is often used when answering a negative-question, but it doesn't have to be used this way. In my friend's copy of Genki I have seen something like:

A: 子供の時、元気だった?
B: うん、元気だった / ううん、元気じゃなかった

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On a side note, I really need to go through Genki myself. I've been stuck with some pretty awful textbooks in my Japanese classes so far! – LucasTizma Apr 26 '12 at 19:58

By default, it means yes/correct.

But regardless of the question form: negative or positive, the うん confirms it. ううん denies it.

In English, I am not sure but I don't think you would say "No, I am going" after being asked "Aren't you going to school today ?". But in Japanese, ううん would be used.

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