When “Ya” Means “What”

As a Midwesterner, the word “ya” has a special place in my heart. There’s an argument to be made that movies like Fargo or Drop Dead Gorgeous might exaggerate the accent, but “ya” is one of those words that Minnesotans honest-to-goodness throw around: “Are you going to the cabin this weekend?” “Ya, sure, you betcha!”

For the first few days in Kyrgyzstan, I felt like the luckiest, smartest girl in the world when my host family and neighbors answered “YA” to everything I said. “Dang, I’m learning Kyrgyz so fast!” I thought to myself, sassy-strutting my way to language class. With time, I realized that a Kyrgyz “ya” and a Minnesotan “ya” carry vastly different meanings. I’d ask my host mom a question and get a “ya” in return; when I looked glad, nodded, and walked away, she’d repeat the “ya” and in Russian ask me to repeat my question. After enough of these exchanges, I figured that my Kyrgyz friends and family were using “ya” as a repair word: a one-syllable sound that signals a misunderstanding and need for clarification.

The Kyrgyz “ya” is a unique repair word, it seems. The linked article mentions that in most languages, the word has a rising pitch to mimic the tone many languages use for asking questions. Not our “ya,” though – it’s really flat and sometimes descends in pitch. Combine my regionally-ingrained understanding of “ya” with the fact Americans use uptick to signal confusion, and you can imagine why it’s been a bit tough to adjust to “ya.” The initial satisfaction that I made a coherent point in Kyrgyz quickly fades when I remember that “ya” means my conversation partner did not, in fact, understand me.

It’s rare for me to get through a conversation in Kyrgyz without “ya” coming up at least once. Either I can’t understand the person speaking to me or my American tongue mangles the pronunciation of a word, but in any case – mutual understanding jok. Bringing myself to blurt out “ya,” which even today feels rude, was at first difficulty. But, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, and to figure out what someone’s saying, that means throwing out a “ya” or two (or seven, on bad language days).


You betcha I was saying “Ya” in a “what the heck is happening behind me” kind of way when this picture was taken – which was a sheep being chopped up, by the way


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