The verdict from Monash University chair of linguistics Kate Burridge is that the apparently non-committal expression will stick around. And, like it or loathe it, linguists say “yeah no” is a surprisingly effective communication tool.
“It’s not going to disappear,” Professor Burridge says. “It’s always hard to predict with language change, but it looks like its use is on the increase.”…
“All of these little markers have a very important role in conversation. They have roles in showing the relationship between speaker and hearer and this one has a linking function as well,” Professor Burridge says.
In Australia, where the phrase has become entrenched in the past six years, “yeah no” can mean anything from “yes, I see that, but can we go back to the earlier topic” to an enthusiastic “yes, I can’t reinforce that point enough”. So, where does the distinction lie?
Professor Burridge says the phrase falls into three main categories, each determined by context. The literal agrees before adding another point, the abstract defuses a comment and the textual lets the speaker go back to an earlier point.
The next time a footballer answers “yeah no”, be aware that there is more to the reply than just an “um-ah” prefix. In this sporting context, Professor Burridge says “yeah no” is often used in its abstract context; as a way to defuse a compliment by a bashful footballer.
“You’ve got to downplay the compliment but you can’t reject it because that seems ungracious. It’s a complicated little thing.”
(Thanks for the link to John Hardy of Laputan Logic, who calls it “a quite prevalent Australian linguistic weirdism” and says “the ‘yeah’ is to acknowledge the possible validity of the other person’s remark, the ‘no’ to deflect its implications.”)