One of my editors questioned my usage of ‘yea’ in place of ‘yes’ for a story set in 1747 England, which landed me down a rabbit hole of figuring out correct usage of affirmations and negations in Regency and Georgian England.
Google Ngram insists that (in the British English corpus) nay and yea are the clear leaders from 1700-1850. (I didn’t include “no” in this chart because it skews the results: throughout this period it’s widely used as an adjective.)
The Online Etymology Dictionary lists yea in use from the 13th century in England, aye from the 1570s, and yes from the 16th century as a stronger version of yea. Nay sees use from the 12th century, but no shows up as a negation only slightly later.
Pride and Prejudice, from 1813, uses “yes” more than 50 times, while “aye” shows up only six times, and “yea” not at all. “No” gets about 25 uses, while “nay” gets ten.
The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, from 1751, has a similar ratio for “yes” and “aye”, and also doesn’t use “yea” (where is Ngram getting its “yea”s for this period?). “Nay” is the clear negation of choice at 26 uses, while “No” is used as a response only once (plenty of use as an adjective, however).
I also found some interesting information from linguist Anatoly Liberman on the etymology of aye and the still-uncertain attempts of etymologists to link “aye” and “yea”, but I’m still struggling to find definitive guidelines on usage in the Regency and Georgian eras.
Anyone have any further ideas or sources?