I wonder about indirect questioning

I received a copy of the excellent book “Language and Culture in Aboriginal Australia”, thank to the wonderful Lingoblog

small languages rock

(Image credit: Small Languages Rock)

This was edited by Michael Walsh & Colin Yallop, and published in 1993 by Aboriginal Studies Press of Canberra.

It’s a collection of articles by various contributors, one of which is Colin Yallop’s “The Structure of Australian Aboriginal Languages”.

Yallop makes the point on pages 24-25 that, to an English-speaker’s perspective,

“It seems that in most Australian languages words like ‘who?’ and ‘what?’ actually have an indefinite meaning, so that ‘who?’ could be reinterpreted as ‘someone or other, I don’t know who,’ and ‘what?’ could be reinterpreted as ‘something or other, I don’t know what’. Thus, a speaker of an Australian language might appear to be asking:

who took this photo and sent it to my brother?

when a better translation into English might be: 

someone took this photo and sent it to my brother.

He goes on to observe that in the grammar and cultural practices of speaking standard English, we do a lot of “direct questioning, expecting straight answers” (my emphasis added), whereas in Aboriginal languages and in many people’s Australian Aboriginal English, indirect questioning is normal. For these Aboriginal speakers, direct questioning may feel demanding and aggressive; for standard English speakers, the Aboriginal style can seem evasive and overly casual.

Chapter 13 (“Language and the Law” by Diana Eades) makes similar points, and adds more observations about the differences in communicative style. Eades for example notes,

Questions which ask the respondent to choose one of two alternatives are rarely found in the linguistic structure of traditional Australian languages or in Aboriginal English. So such questions, known as either-or questions, may confuse the Aboriginal person being questioned, who often simply answers: ‘yes’.

What does all of this have to do with Chinook Jargon?

Two things.

#1 – It’s about “small” languages. Chinuk Wawa, despite having become an intercultural language across a large swath of the Pacific Northwest, nonetheless originated as & remained the language of a small community. The Jargon was never the language of a dense urban population. Nor was it ever the primary idiom of a country-sized portion of the Earth. These facts make CW saliently comparable with Australian languages and Australian Aboriginal English. In both situations, I see a picture very much like what people say about growing up in tiny town — everyone knows everyone else’s business — so you don’t need to, and often wouldn’t dream of, directly asking many questions.

#2 – It’s about grammatical structure. Like Australian Aboriginal languages, CW uses one and the same word for (A) what we European-language-speakers take as direct information-seeking questions and (B) indefinite statements, e.g.

  • ɬaksta ‘who?’ & ‘someone’
  • ikta ‘what?’ & ‘something’
  • qʰata ‘how?’ & ‘in some way or other’
  • qʰa ‘where?’ & ‘somewhere’

Needless to say, both of these traits of Chinuk Wawa’s seem to trace back to Pacific Northwest Indigenous languages, which also are the speech of small populations.

This is where we turn to the huge influence wielded by punctuation choicesChinook Jargon was never, for most of its speakers, a written language, only a spoken one. When you’re speaking in person, your hearer knows your meaning very well.

But when someone decides to write a language down, in essence turning it into communication at a distance, the game changes. It’s incredibly hard to write the nuances of linguistic communication, except for the phonemic sounds used; intonation, facial expressions, hand gestures, and context are lost.

And a previously unwritten language is at the mercy of the existing writing culture of whoever first decides to start writing it. So, relevantly, the Jargon came to be written in the 1800s by the rules of Settler languages like English and French, which place a special mark “?” at the end of sentences containing ɬaksta / ikta / qʰata / qʰa, etc.

And the mere presence of “?” prejudices us to believe that these words are direct questions, “who? what? how? when?”

But I’m suggesting that this set of information-seeking CW words (all having Chinookan tribal origin) started out as indirect questions that hinted at the speaker’s wish to know more.

And the grammar of the Jargon certainly still reflects that quality. These same words are still used to express ‘someone’, ‘something’, etc.

My big question is whether Chinuk Wawa still uses these words as indirect questions?

Or have these words become direct questions parallel to, and historically influenced by, English ‘who?’, ‘what?’ and French ‘qui’, ‘quoi’ (Métis French kosay), etc.?

I wonder what you think.
qʰata mayka təmtəm.
Kosay ti pens?