Where did ‘Aye’ go?

What is the status of ‘aye?’ General impressions suggest that ‘aye’ means ‘yes’ in Scotland, a chunk of Northern England, and presumably Northern Ireland. But beyond that, the picture of where the word is spoken, and even where it was spoken in the past, gets fuzzy.

Aye (usually spelled ‘ay’) was clearly Shakespeare‘s preferred affirmative. Looking through the excellent concordance at Open Source Shakespeare, you’ll find a striking ratio: ‘aye’ or ‘ay’ occur 788 times in the Bard’s work, ‘yes’ or ‘yea’ a mere 413. Clearly, London audiences would have been familiar with the term.

Yet we shouldn’t draw conclusions about how Elizabethan Londoners would have actually spoken. ‘Thou,’ after all, is a trademark of ‘Shakespearean’ English, even though it mayve have receded in London by that time*. Was ‘aye’ simply a theatrical convention? Unfortunately, 16th-Century English printing was not prolific, so it’s not a question one can answer without looking through a vast body of extremely old texts.

What I can say is that London is definitely not ‘aye’ territory these days, and hasn’t been for ages. In fact, it didn’t seem to be at the time when London printing took up speed in the early 18th Century. Using Google Books to go through old newspapers, you’ll find that ‘yes’ almost always outweighed ‘aye’ in this period. For example, in an 1739 issue of the London newspaper The Spectator, ‘yes’ occurs 62 times. For ‘aye,’ that number is only 10.

And what about America? Outside of perhaps the ‘ayuh’ of remote rural New England, ‘aye’ is nowhere to be found on American soil**. But was it ever? Perhaps somewhere. But I would note that in the transcripts of the Salem Witch Trials, ‘aye’ is not used once. (‘Yes’ was patently the preferred affirmative). That would indirectly suggest that ‘aye’ had most likely waned a good deal in Southern England over the course of the 17th-Century.

That being said, there is an exceptional use of ‘aye’ that occurred in American military speech well into the 20th-Century. That would be ‘aye aye,’ a rote response to superior officers. Why this archaic (in America) term became a staple of military discourse is perplexing, but you can find it in any number of accounts of military life, such as Ron Kovic’s Vietnam Memoir Born on the Fourth of July:

And then he shouted, “Ready–mount!” And they shouted back, “Ready–mount! Aye aye, sir! And all eighty jumped into bed, still standing at attention, lying in their racks.

These are all very rough observations. Are any readers out there ‘aye’ speakers? And how is the word faring in the 21st-Century?

*See U of Toronto’s Cheratra Yaswen’s article on this subject for a more detailed look at the topic.

**Except maybe in dialects that are not contiguous with the spectrum of North American speech, such as those of the Outer Banks and Newfoundland.

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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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21 Responses to Where did ‘Aye’ go?

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    In American military lingo (particularly the navy) ‘aye’ and ‘yes’ are not interchangeable. ‘Aye’ is the proper response to a superior’s command, whereas ‘yes’ is the proper affirmative response to a superior’s question.

  2. trawicks says:

    Yeah, I figured ‘aye’ was a highly ritualistic word in military settings (a bit like the use of ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ in Congress). I’m also curious as to the purpose of the word’s iteration in this context; it seems to often be ‘aye aye’ as opposed to just ‘aye.’

  3. Stan says:

    I use aye sometimes, as an alternative to yes, yeah, uh-huh and so on. It’s not a word I grew up using in the west of Ireland, though I was familiar with it from non-familial sources like books, TV, and other people’s speech. More regular exposure to it through friendship with people from Donegal may have catalysed my adopting it for occasional use. I like the word.

    • trawicks says:

      I like ‘aye’ too. It’s funny, I’ve heard a number of broad impressions of Irishmen that involve ‘aye,’ but my impression is that it’s mostly confined to Ulster. Although as your example suggests, semi-facetiously or affectionately used words can often make their way into our everyday discourse.

      • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

        As Stan says it’s quite common with people form Donegal, those I went to college with or worked with used it quite often, whereas in west of Ireland you were more likely to hear “yeah”. Funnily enough I tended to use aye alot in interenet fora/chat rooms — “aye, ye could say that” instead of “yeah, you could say that”

  4. Chris says:

    I use ‘aye’ fairly regularly. It’s my go-to word for a single word response or as a word of concurrence. For example:

    “Is backing up my hard drive a good idea?” “Aye.”

    But,

    “Should I back up my hard drive?” “Yes, all hard drives should be backed up.”

    And,

    “It sure is raining hard outside.” “Aye!”

    I live in West Texas, though I suspect I picked up “Aye” in high school or college. I read quite a bit and the Internet has drastically increased my exposure to European television, so that may be in large part responsible for it. I’d not really thought much about it, prior to this.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    In my three years of service in the U.S. Army, I never once heard a soldier respond with “Aye” or “Aye, aye.” That’s not to say it never occurs. To the best of my knowledge it’s used in the navy, and still used by weekend sailors, latterly in a humorous way.
    It’s commonly used at public meetings in my part of the US (NJ), for passing ordinances and resolutions.
    After the ordinance is read, the chairman intones: “All those in favor, say ‘Aye.’ Clerk, please take the roll.”
    Response: “Aye.”
    Chairman: “The Ayes have it. The ordinance is passed.”
    To the best of my recollection, “ayuh” is the way a Mainer,with some spillover into New Hampshire, and possibly, Vermont, says “Yes.”
    It is a clear method of indicating affirmation, but in most contexts, it seems to be archaic, or humorous at best.
    Aye, there’s the rub.

  6. Janssen says:

    A Scottish woman (from Fife, near Dundee) once told me that she considered “aye” to be slang and that in polite company “yes” should be used. Perhaps this view kept it out of some written texts.

    • trawicks says:

      It’s definitely hard to get a picture of the situation from the written word alone. As I suggested above, writers will often purposely preserve archaisms (as in Shakespeare’s preservation of ‘thou’), or downplay regionalisms (such as ‘aye’ in Scotland).

  7. Ed says:

    “Aye” is recessive in the speech of the north of England, but it’s in no immediate danger of dying out. It remains more common than “nay” (emphatic “no”), which is the sort of thing that Yorkshire kids laugh at if they hear an older person saying it.

  8. Jeff says:

    “Aye-aye” is still part of the US Navy’s vocabulary; it’s most commonly used as a response to a superior, as above. Marines (who do make use of some Naval terms themselves, such as deck and overhead) make fun of us for it all of the time. The Navy’s rank structure and vocabulary differ a lot from the Army and owe a lot to old British English.

  9. As a Geordie (from Tyneside, in the north east of England) I can tell you that “Aye” is still in frequent use. To verify a statement or a fact that has just been reported, a Geordie will usually say “Why Aye, man”, as if to say “Of course.”
    And in the 22 years I’ve lived in the USA, I frequently hear people (in the mid-west) exclaim “Aye, aye, aye” when something goes completely wrong.

  10. Shaun says:

    Aye is used in the Royal Navy, and people generally assume it simply means yes, but the TV programme QI explained it’s more specific
    aye = I heard you
    aye-aye = I heard your order and will act on it

    http://www.qi.com/qi_quibble_blog/2011/09/a-guide-to-qi-series-i-episode-1-i-spy.html

  11. KChasm says:

    I use “aye”, both as a “yes” answer to questions and as a form of acknowledgement (sort of like “right” or “got it”).

    …But now that I think about , that’s pretty strange. Nobody else around me says “aye”. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard “aye” before, except in pirate imitations. Where the heck did I pick it up?

    I live in the California Bay Area, too, which I’ll bet makes the habit even stranger.

  12. In Scotland aye is best seen (IHMO) as the approximate equivalent of yeah, which most Scots don’t use. So there will be cases where it’s inappropriately informal. I seem to recall a case reported in the papers a few years back of a sheriff (which in Scotland is a kind of judge) actually penalised a working-class defendant for saying “aye” instead of “yes” in court. I do wonder whether that would have happened in England if he’d said “yeah”.

  13. Montmorency says:

    I’m glad someone spoke up for the Geordie “why aye (man)!”. Anyone who watched the TV series “Auf wiedersehen Pet” would have been treated to many “why aye”s, and other usages like calling men and women equally “man”! 🙂 I’m not a Geordie myself, but I feel I’m at least, say A2 level in the dialect, thanks to AWP. 🙂 A lovely usage that I can’t stop myself using (probably incorrectly) is to add “…though, but.” at the end of sentences for emphasis. (Perhaps more in “The Likely Lads than AWP). Long live dialect and lang live Geeawdeeh.

    “Aye aye” in the Navy: could this be one of those things that evolved because it could be heard better above the wind and rain? (like changing “larboard” to “port”, to distinguish it from “starboard”?). I don’t know if it is actually easier to hear, but it’s a thought.

  14. Gary says:

    Wearside; “Aye” is usually classed as informal and wouldn’t be used in any formal situation, we also use a greeting “Aye, Aye” to mean hello.