What makes a question a question?

Colloquium with Dr. Pavel Ozerov
Activity Date: 
Monday, May 7, 2018

Questions – information seeking speech acts – are often regarded as one of the basic types of speech acts, expressed cross-linguistically by dedicated linguistic devices. Wh-sentences (e.g. What do you think?) are commonly assumed to be one of the nearly universal linguistic expressions of a certain type of questions. Such accounts also address the issue of “rhetorical questions”, namely sentences that appear to have a form of a question, but “do not ask”. This study of wh-sentences in natural Hebrew interaction offers a more complicated view on this issue.

Examination of intonational patterns of wh-sentences demonstrates that question is not a basic concept in language and communication, and that wh-sentences are not primarily information-seeking utterances. Instead, the function of the utterance is obtained by the interplay of a few interactional immediately marked categories. What appears to us as a “prototypical” question is a combination of (at least) three basic categories, regarded as interactional moves performed by the speaker: (i) there is a gap expressed by the wh-word, (ii) I am concerned with it and seek your concern too, (= accent of the wh-word), and (iii) would you (the addressee) do something about it (= final rise of intonation)? This cluster of features is by no means basic and frequent: it is the most complex combination of the basic categories, which occurs in less than 1/3 of the cases examined. “Questions that do not ask” are in fact distinguishably different and more basic clusters underspecified for the relevant features: e.g. a lack of the invitation to act with respect to missing information (falling intonation), a lack of concern in its regard (lack of accent on the wh-word) etc.