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A1. I still can't speak English.

A2. I can't speak English yet.

B1. *I yet can't speak English.

B2. *I can't speak English still.

As far as I know, A1 and A2 are acceptable English.

But, I wonder, why are "yet" and "still" not perfectly interchangeable?
Is this a matter of grammar, style, vocabulary or usage?

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First and foremost, very few words in English are "perfectly" interchangeable.

NOAD says:

still (adv.) up to and including the present or the time mentioned

yet (adv.) up until the present or an unspecified or implied time

I hadn't thought much about this before, but using the word yet suggests a glimpse into the future:

I can't speak English yet – but I won't quit trying until I do.

while using the word still suggests a glimpse the past:

I still can't speak English – even though I've been trying for 10 years!

I'll try this again; the quotes here are in italics, what follows in [brackets] is what I might infer from the speaker's choice of words:

The bus hasn't come yet [but I expect it will come soon].

The bus still hasn't come [I've been waiting such a long time!]

I think you can even combine both words to express exasperation:

We've been potty training Dora for six months now, but she still hasn't got it yet!

That wording indicates it's been a long time, but there's still hope the desired result will happen eventually. Similarly, going back to your original examples, one could say:

I still can't speak English yet!


By the way, this answer hasn't even mentioned the use of these words to mean "even", as in:

We'll have even more snow tomorrow.
We'll have yet more snow tomorrow.
We'll have still more snow tomorrow.

That's another context entirely.

  • J.R., excuse me, but do "I have yet to hear from Paola" and "I'm still waiting to hear from Paola" have the same meaning? – user114 Feb 2 '13 at 12:14
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    They have the same meaning, as in both the cases the meaning is "at the present time, I haven't heard from Paola." – kiamlaluno Feb 2 '13 at 15:20
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    @Carlo: I agree with kiamlaluno; they're pretty much the same. If I could describe a difference between those two, I'd probably be overanalyzing it. – J.R. Feb 2 '13 at 16:17
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In your example that you given above, "I still cannot speak English.", shows that you have tried very hard in learning English but still cannot speak the language. However, "I cannot speak English yet" means that you have not tried/attempted in learning the language.

Of course like you said, B1 and B2 are out of the question.

So generally, the difference is the strength of your tone given the context of the sentence. I doubt that we can actually use the two interchangeably.

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