Imagine that you're back in elementary school, having a discussion on the playground with one of your classmates. It goes something like this:

You: My dad can beat up your dad!

Classmate: Nuh-uh!

What is the proper response here? For me, it is and has always been, "Uh-huh!" But in the past few years, I've been hearing "Yuh-huh!" At first it was just in a few TV shows (I think I've heard it in "Friends"), and then I saw it written in a comic strip or two. When I really started to take notice was when my son Doug got to be old enough to have these kinds of conversations, and always said "Yuh-huh," never "Uh-huh." That was interesting, because he certainly didn't acquire yuh-huh from me (any more than I acquired uh-huh from my parents). He must have gotten it from his peers, which meant that they were all saying yuh-huh, too. To make a hasty generalization out of it, there seems to be a generational shift from uh-huh to yuh-huh.

I asked some people about this a few years ago, and got some anecdotal support of the hypothesis. For example, here's what Glen said:

I've noticed the gradual emergence of "yuh-huh" as the response of choice. It's often been used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Dawn, Buffy's 15-year-old younger sister. The younger someone is, the more likely they are to say "yuh-huh" instead of "uh-huh." But I'm old enough that I still prefer "uh-huh."

And another guy told me that he used to say uh-huh, but picked up yuh-huh from his kids.

When I did an Internet search, I found:

  1. several attestations of nuh-uh and uh-huh close to each other

  2. many more attestations of nuh-uh and yuh-huh close to each other, the oldest of which seems to be a 2000 episode of The Simpsons (though there are a couple of scripts from Friends episodes that might be older).

  3. no cases in which a person uses both uh-huh and yuh-huh in response to nuh-uh

  4. several cases in which a person uses both uh-huh and yuh-huh, but in these cases, uh-huh is always the conversation-continuing particle, not an emphatic affirmation

  5. an entry for yuh-huh (but not uh-huh) in a listing of (I think) Pittsburgh English vocabulary

The last item was interesting, since it meant that maybe yuh-huh was more of a regional thing, which was now spreading.

But the most intriguing hypothesis on the origin of yuh-huh came from a comment from my parents: Although I've been using nuh-uh since I was a little kid, even it seems to have come on the scene within the last two generations or so. Before nuh-uh, there was uh-uh (also written unh-uh or unh-unh) If nuh-uh arose as a blending of uh-uh and no, then maybe yuh-huh is just a delayed analogical blending of uh-huh and yeah. Schematically:

uh-uh — merge with no --> nuh-uh

uh-huh — merge with yeah --> fill in the blank

Analogy is known to be a powerful force in language change (see for example my previous posts on backformation, here and here), but as for whether the scenario above is actually what happened, I don't know.

Sami (mail):
I've also heard "yeah-huh" in my interactions with teenagers. Maybe "yuh-huh" is a variation or a shortcut from that. This is in California, BTW.
7.19.2004 6:33pm
Jason (www):
We always used, both as children and then as slightly larger children, the duh-uh form. It is properly pronounced in a lower tone of voice while pinching the nose to produce a nasaly sound. Duh-uh was used in the negative, Duh-huh was used in the affirmative.
7.19.2004 6:59pm
There seems to be a difference in usage between "uh-huh" and "yuh-huh." One can use "uh-huh" as the direct answer to a neutral question:

Joe: Are you coming to the movie tonight?
Mary: Uh-huh. I love Ashton Kutcher's work.

I don't think anyone would use "yuh-huh" in that situation; rather, it seems only to be used to contradict an earlier negative statement:

Joe: Ashton Kutcher's never made a good movie.
Mary: Yuh-huh! Dude, Where's My Car is a classic.

Of course, "uh huh" could also be used in that second example, though the inflection would be different than for the "uh huh" in the first example.
7.19.2004 7:04pm
Anyway, I always thought the most elegant pair was "uh huh" for the affirmative and "huh uh" for the negative. Those were the ones I remember using, and I remember remarking when I was about 10 (circa 1989) that they were essentially the same syllables, only in a different order.
7.19.2004 7:10pm
Beldar (www):
This is actually a subject that can give court reporters and lawyers considerable grief.
7.19.2004 7:44pm
Nick Simmonds (mail):
Interestingly, it's commonly believed by linguists (although challenged by some) that uh-uh and uh-huh are originally from the Yoruba language of west Africa. I'm trying to find a good web source on this, although I'm getting sparse results, but it's mentioned here about halfway down the page.
7.20.2004 1:46am
Chris H:
Can't you use "uh-huh" as both an affirmative and a negative? The negative "uh-huh" would be a clipped, staccato pronunciation of the two syllables, without aspirating the vowels almost like "un un," with the "n" not pronounced, but felt in the back of the throat. The affirmative "uh-huh" would me more legato, with the vowels aspirated.

As well, "nuh-uh" and "yuh-huh" might merely exist as rebuttal its contrary. So, an affirmative or negative "uh-huh" might be normally given to a stand-alone question; but a "yuh-huh" or "nuh-huh" would be an emphatic, given as a response to a disliked statement or answer (witness the exhange in the original post).
7.20.2004 11:03am
Candie Goodyear (mail) (www):
My brother, sister and I always used "uh uh" for negative and "uh huh" for positive. Later, we started using "yeah huh" for positive and and "nuh uh" for negative. Now, we mostly use "yup" and "nope". I guess we grew out of using the "caveman speak". (IMO, that's kind of what it sounds like.)
7.20.2004 12:47pm
Mike Schwartz (mail):
Neal wrote: "the oldest of which seems to be a 2000 episode of The Simpsons"

For whatever it's worth, "Yuh-huh" actually appears in a 1994 episode of the Simpsons, although it's not said in response to "Uh-huh". The episode is Bart of Darkness:

Lisa: What are you writing here, a play?
Bart: Uhhh... No.
Lisa: Yuh-huh! "Cast of characters: Viceroy Fizzlebottom, a hearty cherub of a man"
Bart: Gimme that! It's a work in progress.
7.20.2004 2:30pm
I've always heard "yuh-huh" (where I'm from, it's pronounced more like "yeah-huh") only as a response to "nuh-unh." In other words, it's a more emphatic version of "uh-huh," sort of a combination "yeah" and "uh-huh," used when greater emphasis is needed because a preexisting negation must be overcome

Wherever the question is neutral, e.g. where there's no preexisting negation to be overcome, I've seen only the less emphatic "uh-huh" used.

Maybe "yuh-huh" as a response to a neutral question just hasn't gotten around to the Mid-South yet, but I've never heard it used that way.
7.21.2004 10:54am