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.