“Ayuh”: America’s Oddest “Yes”

Bar Harbor

Bar Harbor, Maine, ca. 1912

Growing up in Southern New England, I heard tell of a near-mythical dialect feature from Maine and other places further north: ayuh.

This word is the informal version of “yes” in Maine, and, unusually for semi-archaic dialect words, it has more of a standardized spelling than it does a pronunciation. I’ve usually heard it as eh-YUH (IPA eɪˈjʌ), but there’s also a pronunciation that puts more weight on the first syllable (EY-yuh), as well as EE-yuh or eye-yuh.

It probably goes without mentioning that Ayuh is rapidly disappearing. The word is mostly associated with the old-fashioned Down East Accent, an accent heard in Eastern Maine that, while still in existence, is pretty scarce among people under-40. While I’ve known countless New Englanders in my lifetime, I’ve never heard one utter “Ayuh.”

What I find unique and intriguing about ayuh is that it looks like the only real American relative of the aye heard in various parts of the British Isles. Most of America uses yeah, yup, yep or the African American-derived uh huh. But only in remote parts of New England does it seem a relative of aye is used.

Of course, I’d like to get out of the realm of “it appears to,” so I decided to look for some evidence of ayuh‘s etymology. Of which there is very, very … little.

In fact after going through twenty pages of Google Books results, I could only find one source remotely resembling a linguistics text that so much as mentions ayuh. That would be the awkwardly titled Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms by Robert Hendrickson. Quoth Mr. Hendrickson (emphasis his):

Chiefly heard in Maine, ayuh is found throughout New England … A touch stone of New England speech, it possibly derives from the nautical aye (yes), which in turn probably comes from the early English yie (yes). Another theory has ayuh coming from the old Scots-American aye-yes meaning the same.

Now, right off the bat, I am skeptical of a book which classifies aye as a “nautical” word. Isn’t the fact that the word is widespread across large tracts of the UK and Ireland more important to mention? However, I might be willing to buy the Scottish explanation for a few reasons:

1.) Maine was one of the areas where the Scots-Irish initially settled. In fact, you can see in this map that a large percentage of people of Scots-Irish descent is found in precisely the area where the “Down East” accent is heard.

2.) In most varieties of ayuh the “ay” rhymes with “day.” This more closely resembles the modern Scottish pronunciation of Aye than in other areas where Aye is heard.

3.) The aye yes that Hendrickson mentions appear to be a feature of some Scottish English dialects to this day. Although be aware that I am deducing this from some very circumstancial evidence (such as this message board). So take this last bit with a huge grain of salt.

To be clear, I’m not 100% sure this is the only aye variant in America. Can anyone think of another? Or any type of aye outside the British Isles?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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40 Responses to “Ayuh”: America’s Oddest “Yes”

  1. Marc L says:

    Ben:
    I fully agree with you about Hendrickson’s surmise that “ayuh” might have a nautical etymology, and I would definitely lean toward the Scots-Irish derivation. When I was in Maine many years ago for a summer of trying to build wooden dories, I did hear the natives say “ayuh” in the little town of Northport on the Penobscot Bay. The only use of “aye” that I can attest to hearing is in the military, particularly the navy, where “Aye-aye, sir,” is still a common response to a direct order from a superior.

    • trawicks says:

      I’ve always been curious as to why we maintain otherwise archaic assents in American English (like “aye” or “nay”) in formal settings like that. I suppose it’s for a sense of decorum, much like the way that judges in Commonwealth nations often still weird wigs.

    • as a Iberian descendant, we use “vale” still a lot to this day which is more of an affirmation like, “I support, or I agree” (stronger than yes)

  2. Pica says:

    My sister lives in Norway, Maine, which is in the southwest part of the state (Oxford County, regularly hitting the top ten poorest counties in the country). All the old-timers I’ve heard there say ayuh. I’ll have to ask her if she’s heard it from anyone under 40.

    In the UK Midlands (Black Country specifically) a form for “yes” is Aah, often said Oh ah.) (Sounds scandinavian and probably is.) Surely a variant exists in the US Midwest in areas with large Scandinavian populations in the Oh, yah featured in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo?

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a great point, Pica! I was aware of “oh yah” in the Upper Midwest, but I had never made that connection before.

    • 'enry 'iggins says:

      My grandparents are from northern Minnesota/North Dakota and I’ve never heard them say “oh yah” in a way that wasn’t facetious. They’re always making fun of the characters in Fargo when they say it 🙂 Their accents don’t sound anything like the ones in that movie either, but that’s a topic for some other day.

      • trawicks says:

        But they must say “you betcha” at least, right? 😉

        The “Fargo dialect” is pretty exaggerated. Those features were probably more common when Germanic languages (besides English) were still spoken in the region.

        • 'enry 'iggins says:

          I know you were kidding because of the smiley face, but in all seriousness, I’ve heard “you betcha” and things similar to it (“You bet your bippy”, etc.) throughout the country. They might be more common among older people though, but I really don’t think that’s something that’s unique to that Upper Midwest area. Maybe I’m wrong about this particular feature, but my point is that sometimes certain features seem to get associated in people’s minds with specific regions, even though in reality they’re much more widespread. It’s kind of like how “git” for “get” is associated with the South by many (“git-r-done”), even though I have a Midland (GenAm type, i.e., nothing like Larry the Cable Guy) accent and I use that pronunciation of “get”. Same with using the word “ain’t”.

        • trawicks says:

          Absolutely. To give another example from the Upper Midwest, my dad grew up in northern Wisconsin, where “eh” was quite common (as in, “You’re goin’ out, eh?”) Although that is associated with Canadian English, it’s hardly confined to that dialect. And while on the topic of Canadianisms, I’ve perpetually confused by the raised KITE diphthong being lumped into “Canadian Raising.” In my experience, this feature is far more prominent and pronounced in Philadelphia and the mid-Atlantic states than it is in Canada.

        • 'enry 'iggins says:

          Same with “mate” and Australia. A lot of Americans seem to think that Aussies are the only ones on the planet who say “mate”. For example, if my friends hear a foreign dialect of English in a movie and the actor says “mate”, they’re always like, “Oh, that has to be an Australian accent” (yes, like most people they do use the term “accent” in situations where “dialect” or “variety” would be more appropriate, but that’s okay). In reality though, “mate” is used in the British Isles (maybe with a few exceptions), Australia, New Zealand and maybe South Africa, though I have to admit I don’t know too much about South African speech. I had one teacher from South Africa, but that’s pretty much it.

          Regarding “Canadian raising”: I think of that term as being like “French fries”. I don’t think that by using the term “Canadian raising” linguists are trying to say that Canadians are the only people who have this raising any more than some American using the term “French fries” is trying to say that the French are the only people who eat fries (In fact, I think we probably consume more fries per capita than any nation in the world!). It’s just the term they came up with for it. I think you would probably find that a higher percentage of Canadians have it in their speech compared to the percent of Americans who have it though. I think Canada might have also been the place where linguists first noticed this raising phenomenon too. Oh and another thing I forgot to mention: I think the term “Canadian raising” technically refers to the raising of both MOUTH and PRICE before voiceless consonants. The American phenomenon you’re referring to only affects PRICE (some Canadians have that too though). Sometimes I’ll use the term “Canadian raising of PRICE” for the phenomenon that happens in some American accents (though I don’t think I have it in my own speech). Make sense? Maybe not. Oh well.

          Enough about this stuff though. It was nice “talking” to you.

  3. Neal Whitman says:

    The only place I’ve ever seen Ayuh is in the novels of Stephen King, many of which are set in his home state of Maine. I’d wondered about it, but not enough to go researching it, so thanks for posting this.

  4. David says:

    Re uh-huh a form of affiirmation said to be of African American origin. It is common in Scotland, where Affrican American influence is weakish.

    • trawicks says:

      There is some controversy about this. British West African Language expert David Dalby proposed the theory that “uh huh” derives from West African languages in the late 60s, and it’s been cited as an etymology ever since.

      Of course, many people have objected just as you have here, by noting instances where “uh huh” has been used in places with little African influence. But Dalby’s original point was not that “uh huh” doesn’t occur at all in other parts of the world, but rather that it occurs with far greater frequency in American and Africa.

  5. rozele says:

    to me, the ulster-scots historical explanation makes the most sense.

    this is partly because “ayuh” (sometimes “ayup”, which i think is just an attempt to render a final glottal stop) is also a classic/stereotyped part of the rural vermont dialect, where a nautical explanation makes no sense at all. it’s an inland region, where it’s precisely the farthest inland, upland areas that are understood to be the cultural heart of the region. (the nearest inland waterways – lake champlain and the st. lawrence – are very much their own economic/social regions, separate from the highlands.

    my experience of vermont speech has mainly been in the Northeast Kingdom, where the dialect older folks speak is fading out in younger generations. you do hear “ayuh” now and then, but less and less often – except when someone is performing ‘vermont old-timer’ (usually in a joke about a vermont farmer outsmarting a flatlander), when it almost always appears. see for instance these: http://www.cooksillustrated.com/otherdocs/detail.asp?docid=27938

    and on that map of ulster scots ancestry, the Northeast Kingdom shows up as the most inland spot of dark red in the new england area of ulster scots concentration.

    so then the question becomes, to me, whether there are parallels in appalachian dialects in the areas where there’s a large ulster scots presence…

  6. Salamander says:

    Ulster Scots makes total sense. I’ve heard “ayuh” from old-timers in New Hampshire, which had a lot of Ulster Scots. Haven’t heard it much in Vermont and never in Massachusetts.

  7. Shell says:

    I live in Maine and have been saying “ayuh” for years. I am just a tad over 40. I grew up in central Maine where many people continue to use it in everyday conversation. It’s not entirely located to one area of Maine, you just have to find the locals among the “flatlanders.” There is another word for ya! 🙂

  8. I have often wondered a bit about the dialect sounding ayuh, but I will say that there is more to this possibly than meets the aye. Firstly, Maine is a melting pot of other international flavours, French, specifically. In french we hear typically the uh at the end of a word, syllable, perhaps the aye-uh is a variant – not a sermon just a thought – carry on maties! Why though would the author forget that aye as a nautical expression is so rather mundane – doesn’t popeye the sailor man for instance use the aye- frequently? In any case skipper, it is important not to underplay the importance of the nautical usage, mainly because that is an important historical context – our navy the navies of the past are the majority of adventure-seeking employers in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries and beyond –

  9. BD says:

    I’m over 40, grew up and Maine, and say “ayuh”- but only when I’m speaking to another Mainer. Plenty of people still say “ayuh”- everyone in my family still does. But no one would ever say it to a New Yorker.

    • flutterby51 says:

      I was born and raised in upstate new York. my grandmother, mother, myself and other family members all say/said ayuh. my grandmother was of irish descent.

    • Travis says:

      I’m a late-30s Mainer who lives in New York and I catch myself saying a small version of it all the time in place of “yup”. But nothing like my great-great-aunt (died in 2005 at age 106), who had the thickest Maine accent I remember. She spoke slower than the average modern person, and “ayuh” was the same sound she’d use for the back half of “there”. But the other notable thing about her was that she would say “ayuh” or interchangeably she would use a drawn-out, two-syllable version of “yes” that was more like “YE-yuhs”, almost in a southern way.

      • Travis says:

        I should add that she didn’t say “ayuh” in the way most of us do now, kind of clipping it off at the end. She drew out the end of it almost as a question, almost in the way someone says “oh yeah?”

  10. Julie says:

    Man! Dude! I live in the mid-coast area of Maine; grew up right here. We say ayuh all the time! Sometimes we say it in an almost hiccuping, repetitive, sucking-air-in way as we end a conversation…. ayuh-ayuh-ayuh-ayuh.

    OK, I am just over 40 but check the islands and peninsulas of the coast, we STILL say it.

    We still say “wicked” and “descent” too.

    All my best.
    Julie

  11. Amanda says:

    I have to say, I was looking for an example of an older Northeast Kingdomer (Vermont) dialect for my English graduate class and came upon this blog.

    Although you’ve attributed this particular piece of dialect to a particular point in Maine, I do have to say I hear it a lot in Vermont (at least from people over 30 who were raised here). In addition, you’ll find that many Vermonters who were raised here (especially in the Northeast Kingdom) and are under 30 saying “yuh,” with the gutteral “t.” I even say it, and most Vermonters who have this particular form of speech often use gutteral “t”s if the “t” is present in the middle (with the exception of a double t) or the end of a word. Words like “Bolton,” “Cat,” and “Crate” are all pronounced with gutteral “t”s, at the back of the throat.

    Great post!

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  13. Bex says:

    Variations of ‘aye’ and ‘yea’ go back to Old English, with continental parallels– in French, ‘oui’ or ‘oc’ (of old, in the Languedoc region)- with common roots across all of the Indo-European languages. In Scottish Gaelic, ‘yes’ is ‘tha’ (pronounced ‘ha’). I live in Scotland, where ‘aye’ is used by more or less everyone in different ways– sometimes as an affirmation, sometimes at the end of a sentence as a question (Ye goan oot, aye?). Depending where in the country and who is talking, sometimes it’s pronounced more like ‘oi’, sometimes it’s more like ‘ah’ and sometimes it’s really drawn out ‘aaaaye.’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘aye yes’, but you do here ‘yes, aye’ or ‘yeah, aye’.

  14. Cindy Witham bennett says:

    My grandmother and father from wytopitlock, Maine ayuh-
    A and audible in hailing of breath raising tone at the ending normally two or three in a row . Yes, yes, yes. Or agreed. I use it, and all my family. (Who live in Bath, Maine) I don’t live in Maine anymore but in Massachusetts no problem using it in central Massachusetts they never question or look at me in a funny way!
    As Julie says above -wicked!
    C.

  15. Babie. Mc Connell says:

    I live in Deansboro, NY and I happily wandered across this site while trying to quel my grumpiness that Words With Friends would not accept ayuh. The nerve! In my area, while growing up, everyone said ayuh as yes. I’m 48 now, and ayuh has definitely died out in town as there has been an ever growing population of outsiders. It’s still used in the rural areas. We all also enjoy sherbert, which is different from sorbet or sherbet. Again, sherbert is common amongst older families here, and never said by the newbies.

  16. Mary Donovan says:

    I just came back from New England. Beautiful country. Spent a bit of time in Rhode Island. The people seemed taken aback when I used yes M’am or Sir and said do not call me that. I live in the south now originally from the northwest and getting used to the southern expressions is a trick and a half. I just noticed the Rhode Island people seems a bit more abrupt than any place else there. Even more so than NY, NJ or Philadelphia. We were raised to say sir in the northeast or maybe it was just my family. I picked up M’am when I moved south. Glad I found this site. Thanks

  17. AmyinCambridge says:

    I am from the upper Midwest (northern MI and family in WI), under 40, and definitely everyone says “you betcha” and “oh yeah” as well as “eh?”. I always diminished the Fargo association-thing too and swore I had no accent until I moved to Boston. I made fun of my boyfriend’s local accent and he very politely pointed out my “Oh yeah’s” and “Eh’s”. When he went to visit my parents, he couldn’t stop repeating “you betcha” because he heard it everywhere we went.

    To that end, I just came back from a week in Rockland, ME and heard “ayuh” everywhere. Young-ish and old.

  18. Antoine Goddard says:

    My grandfather lived during the first half of the 20th century in the lakes region of New Hampshire. He always used the term “ayuh” meaning “yes”.

  19. Schroeder says:

    To add further confusion to the subject, my folks (Scots-German, plus others) have this weird affirmative aye-uh thing they (well, we) say. The second syllable is not pronounced so much as it is just clipped off in a sort of glottal K noise. We aren’t the only ones around here (central TX, German-Czech country, which has its own bizarre dialectics) but that’s where I first heard it.

  20. Andrew Hill says:

    I was born in Maine in one of those red blobs, it looks like.. scots-irish almost entirely, by genetics.

    I grew up using ayuh, in Maine and after moving down to Mass. Still use it daily (a lot) though I live in Los Angeles. Pretty sure other people in my family still use it too..

    A note on pronunciation and use.. (as I interpret it in Maine, etc):

    It’s close to “aye-yuh” – should have two full, almost separate syllables – but there are a couple of important variants in how it’s actually executed:

    – long “aye”, short, fast “yuh” with a glottal stop as the final sound, very Mainer. eyeeeeeee-yuh| usually is genial “sure!”, although can be used as a simple “yes” or “i’m listening” in a pause, while sitting and talking. This last non-committal use is important, because you are probably being asked to believe something fishy

    – same as above, but with a wry tone. this means “unfortunately”, and might be said after disclosing that you had to send your kid to work on a fishing boat for the summer because you took him out to drop some pots one morning and he painted an X on the side of the boat when you asked him to mark the spot.

    – further south in Maine and into Mass you also get this “ayuh” where the two syllables are both almost swallowed, and it comes out as a muffled “_yuh” .. used as “yep” by people in New England who aren’t townies… or by a mainer who isn’t having any of your longwinded guff and just wants you to get out of the way so he can go home and sit on the porch and watch paint peel. if you get this from a mainer, *don’t* ask him for directions anywhere…

  21. Kayla says:

    I used to live in Maine; my family (and myself by extension) said this all the time. I feel as though it’s bee really over complicated; the spelling isn’t literal. Mostly, it’s an attempt at visual representation for something unique to Maine and wholly common, but the dramatic spelling makes people who try to sound it out believe that it’s more exaggerated than it is. Really, it’s just a form of “yup.” Only, the “y” is stressed and seems to be preceded with a slight “e” sound at the beginning of the “y” sound… and the “-up” part doesn’t have and obvious “p” ending. So really, it’s more like, “E-yuh” or “EE-y-uh.”

    Just my two cents. 🙂

  22. Sarah says:

    I was raised in Southern Maine in the South Portland/Portland area and everyone in our family just about uses “ayuh” particularly my Great-Grandmother who lived in Maine all her life & lived to be 102. She had a very thick Maine accent, spoke very slowly & deliberately and had a very dry New England sense of humor. She said ayuh all the time, sometimes on an intake of breath rather than speaking while breathing out, as most of us do. Also I’m in my 40’s and use it quite a bit, sometimes it comes out quite unintentionally! I’ve never heard it used out of state. Wicked odd, I’m telling you!

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  24. Kevin McKay says:

    I grew up in the Southern Tier region of New York. As my name indicates is of Scots-Irish origin. “Ayuh” was used in my home daily, especially when my aunt’s spoke on the telephone. For example, “ayuh, ayuh, . . .ayuh” repetitiously. I got a kick out of listening to it as a “lad.” There was no connection to New England, but definitely a connection to Upper Canada (Southern Ontario) since my Aunts grandfather lived there prior to emigrating to Steuben County, New York. So, this dialectic peculiarity is not just confined to Maine or New England in general.

  25. Kathy Marciarille says:

    Grew up in Mass/RI and never heard ayuh. Have lived in Central Maine all my adult life (almost 40 years), which means I’m from away. I use and hear ayuh daily. Only seems weird when I travel and people give me a quizzical look. I’ll check in with my two young adult children who grew up here but live away. Another expression of assent we use all the time is yessuh. I guess we’re just some pretty agreeable folk. Have a good’n. Ayuh.

  26. MacGregor says:

    England is a very proud Island Nation and since the time of King Henry VIII, has had a commanding role of the world’s seas. Aye is still used in the US Navy which borrowed heavily the traditions of the Royal Navy.
    I have coffee daily with older Mainers and I still hear “Ayuh” used frequently.

  27. BJ Dunfee says:

    For what it’s worth, I seem to have run into some form of this in Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s series of Asey Mayo mystery novels which were set on Cape Cod and which date from the early-mid part of the 20th century and later.

  28. Mike S says:

    Hmm….those that say they don’t hear “ayuh” in ME, NH and eastern VT apparenlty don’t get out much. VERY commonly heard in northern New England, but fairly rare south of the NH border. More apt to be heard in a rural setting than a larger city, though plenty of people use it right here in Manch-vegas, NH.

    It’s a word that I think you have to live here and be born into the tradition of using to truly master – depending on where you place the stress and intonation (there are MANY subtle differences) can indicate a myriad of different meanings varying from the very positive to the very negative.

    As to it’s origins, I suspect most likely Scots influenced.

    As far as “uh-huh” goes, quite possibly a borrowing from “the locals” – most American Indian languages spoken in northern New England use a variation of the Abenaki “ôhô” for ‘yes’ – the ô here is a nasal vowel like the ‘on’ in French “bon”. Stress is on the second syllable.