Let’s make a language – Part 12a: Questions (Intro)

How are you? What’s up? What am I talking about?

Up to this point, our look at language has focused primarily on the declarative, statements and utterances of fact or conjecture. That’s great, because those make up the largest part of a language, but now it’s time to move on. Why? Because we need to ask questions.

Asking the question

How do we ask a question? In English, you already know the answer, and it’s pretty complicated. Worse, it’s complicated in different ways depending on what kind of question you’re asking. So let’s take a step back.

Questions (interrogatives, if you prefer the more technical term) are, at their core, requests for information. We don’t know, so we have to ask. We’ve already met a couple of cases where we didn’t know something, like the subjunctive mood, and “interrogative” can indeed count as its own mood. But questions are a little different, because they are directed at the listener with the intention of receiving an answer.

If you think about it, you’ll find that questions fall into a few different categories. One is the yes-no or polar question; as its name suggests, this kind expects one of two answers: an affirmative (“yes”) or a negative (“no”). Examples of polar questions in English might be “Are you going with us?” or “Did you see that?” For English, yes-no questions are marked by “inversion”, where the verb (or an appropriate auxiliary, like do) is moved to the front of the sentence, and that’s fairly common in its relatives and neighbors, such as German and French. It was even more common in the past, as anyone reading Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible would know.

Another kind of question is usually known as the wh-question, after its most distinctive feature in English. These are the ones that request a specific bit of information like identity, location, or reason, asking things like “Who are you?” or “Where are we going?” In our language, they employ one of a handful of question words (“who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, “why”, and “how”), that most often appear the beginning of a sentence. This type of question also has inversion, but only after the question word has moved into place.

Alternative or choice questions make up a third type. “Do you want grape or orange?” is an example showing how this one works. Options are presented, with the expectation that the answer will be among them. This one allows, even begs for, an answer in the form of a simple stating of the preferred choice. This sort of elliptical response (a sentence consisting solely of “Grape,” for example) is very common, especially in speech, no matter what the formal grammar of a language might say.

Tag and negative questions, the last two of the major types, are similar to each other in that they both presuppose an answer, but they go about it in different ways. Negative questions use a negated form of a verb, as in “Aren’t you coming?” Tag questions, on the other hand, are formed as indicative statements “tagged” by an additional interrogative bit at the end: “You’re coming, aren’t you?” Strictly speaking, these are both polar questions, in that they invite a yes/no response, but the prototypical yes-no question (“Are you coming?” in this example) has a more neutral tone. Negatives are asked from a position of expecting a negative reply, while tag questions work more for confirmation or even confrontation.

Keep asking

English, again, is pretty complicated when it comes to questions. Polar and wh-questions use inversion, while wh-questions add an interrogative word into the mix. Tag questions basically have their own set of interrogative words (“you know”, “isn’t it”, and so on) that go at the end of a sentence, turning a statement into a question. All in all, there’s a lot to worry about, and other languages have their own systems.

There is one universal, however, and that is intonation. Nearly all known human languages, mo matter how they form polar questions, have a specific way of marking them. The intonation, or pitch level, of yes-no question sentences always rises from beginning to end. In English, it’s even possible to have this as the sole indication of a spoken interrogative, as in the statement “you’re coming” versus the question “you’re coming?” Some other languages, such as Spanish, only allow this method, as opposed to the inversion usual in English. (Question marks serve essentially the same purpose in these cases, but for the written form of the language.)

Looking around the world, you’ve got a few other options, though. You can add an interrogative mood marker to the verb, as in Turkish and others; this is probably going to be more common in languages where verbs already have a lot of marking. Another option is an interrogative particle, which can go just about anywhere. Polish has czy at the beginning of a question, which Esperanto lifted directly as ĉu. Japanese has the sentence-ending ka (phrases ending in “…desu ka?” are known to every lover of anime), fitting its hardcore head-finality. Latin puts in a kind of “second” position, after the questioned part; it also has the similar num for negative questions and nonne for positives.

Chinese, among others, takes a different approach, sometimes referred to as A-not-A. Here, the polarity is redefined in the form of an alternative question: a rough translation might go something like, “Is he there or not?” (“He is/is not there?” comes closer to the original, at the expense of being horrible clunky.) Another option, more likely to be found in colloquial speech rather than formal grammar, is through liberal use of tag questions or something like them.

Tag questions themselves are likely to be marked only by the tag and its intonation, as above. Wh-questions, on the other hand, have potential for more variation in their formation. Many languages use question words like those in English, and they are commonly moved to the front of a sentence, functioning as their own question particles. That’s not the case everywhere, however; although it has a specific connotation in English, we can still ask, “You want what?” (Unlike polar questions, intonation isn’t a guide here. English continues to use rising pitch for wh-questions, but Russian, for instance, doesn’t.)

The answer

Asking a question is one thing. Answering it is quite another. And answers to questions have their own grammar and syntax beyond what a normal statement would require.

Very many languages, maybe even all of them, allow a speaker to omit quite a bit when responding to a question. “Yes” and “no” can be sentences all by themselves in English, as can “si” in Spanish or “non” in French. Not every language, though, has equivalents; some instead repeat part of the question in a positive or negative form. Still others have two versions of “yes” and “no”, with one pair used for answering positive sentences, the other for negatives. (Even those that don’t can vary in the meaning of “no” when it answers a negative question. Does that create a double negative? It does in Japanese, but not English.)

Beyond polar questions, how much of a reply you need often depends on what you’re being asked. In general, a lot of languages allow you to express only the most specific part of a phrase under question: “Where are you going?” can be answered by “Home.” A fuller answer would be “I’m going home,” but the short form is perfectly acceptable in speech, and not only in English.

Further questions

So that’s it for questions in general. Next, we’ll look at the very specific question of, er, questions in our conlangs.

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