I wonder about indirect questioning
I received a copy of the excellent book “Language and Culture in Aboriginal Australia”, thank to the wonderful Lingoblog…
(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?
#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 choices. Chinook 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.?
Dave, ignorant layperson here, but don’t most sources pretty much always specifically note the rising intonation used for questions and/or the question particle ‘na’ (at least early on) and wouldn’t this then indicate that they are thought of as direct questions? At least it would indicate that there is a clear difference from just simple statements I guess. Are you suggesting there was a stage where there was no differentiation? If so wouldn’t the evidence from how questions have (seemingly always) been formed go against this hypothesis?
In the languages that use ‘indirect questions’ like “someone took this photo and sent it to my brother.”, do they ever differentiate such indirect questions from normal statements with intonation or some other way?
Your questions are well thought out.
The book I’m discussing differentiates between yes/no questions (which, comparable with [early] Chinuk Wawa, are formed with a particle), and direct information-seeking questions (which are what linguists typically call content-questions or the delightfully English-centric “WH=” questions).
I suspect the use of the Y/N question particle amounts to one element in the paradigm of “evidential” marking — amounting to overtly flagging a proposition as “maybe you know about this”.
The book doesn’t note an intonation difference in the direct content questions. And with e.g. Chinookan languages, we have scant audio data to check on this idea. My sense from exposure to a range of the world’s languages is that intonation needn’t be distinct when you already have formal ways of marking questions, e.g. Lakhota Y/N particles don’t seem to correlate with any special intonation. The same may be true of content questions in many languages.
I’d note that a further factor, the “WH-fronting” that places a content questioning / indefinite word up front in the sentence, is itself already a signal of the kind of information-seeking (or “I lack information”) utterance that we’re talking about. So intonation differences are less crucial there, and would have a lower “functional load” than with some other sentence types.
I’m not clearly recalling any sources saying that older-CW “na” questions have special intonation. There are sources, relevant to later CW which hardly uses “na” if at all, that do speak of rising intonation in Y/N questions.
Your questions remind me to remind my readers that intonation, too, is a dimension of Chinuk Wawa grammar where we can look for source-languages. My strong impression of virtually all CW that I’ve heard spoken (in recordings & in person) is that its intonation is enormously influenced by English. It’s a pattern distinct from what I’ve perceived among the most fluent speakers of the tribal languages of the PNW.
The pragmatics of present-day CW, I’d add, are clearly influenced by English, too. For instance, We see this with present-day learners of tribal languages as well. Elder speaker-teachers are often heard saying things like “We don’t say thank you in our language”, “We don’t say hi, we ask have you eaten yet”, “We don’t cuss” — And learners have a very hard time taking on these patterns of usage. Most of us modern CW speakers overuse the expressions “ɬax̣ayam” (hi/bye), “sik-təmtəm nayka” (sorry), etc., in comparison with how the language was spoken previously.
blockquote>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”
Depends. In the southern US, people never expect the answer to be “no”, and they go to great lengths to avoid putting people into the apparently highly uncomfortable position of having to say “no”.
Is that que c’est?
I don’t know what specialists think “kosay” is, sorry David. My guess would be “quoi c’est”, as there’s some free variation between [wa] and [o] in Métis French. But “c’est” normally emerges as [si:], so I’m not too sure.