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This week we talk about the many peculiarities of how questions can be handled in your language.  Join us as we explore not only polar and content questions, but also talk about rhetorical and conjectural ones as well, with some insight on how different languages handle them.  We also have a natlang featured today, one that I’m sure many people will be familiar with.

Top of Show Greeting: Wateu

Links and Resources:

Featured NATLANG: Welsh (Early and Middle)


In lieu of a regular feedback, we read some of our iTunes reviews.  Unfortunately, I cannot copy-paste from iTunes and really don’t want to retype them, but I will link to Literal Minded’s blog post where he linked to us — you should have a look see at that guy.

15 Responses to “Conlangery #45: Questions”

  1. Roman Rausch

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention that Welsh has no word for ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I thought you chose it for this podcast because of that fact…
    Otherwise some random comments about mentioned things:

    In J. desu ka?, desu is the polite copula, not a confirmative particle. Also, Japanese is a good example of agreement to a negative proposition: If you answer to ‘Isn’t this true?’ with hai ‘yes’, then it’s not true; if you answer with iie ‘no’, then it’s true.

    For a Modern Welsh grammar which is available online, see Morris-Jones. This is the book Tolkien read and it also has all the diachronics. It’s quite old by now, but I think it’s still solid.

    Adjectives get lenited in Welsh after feminine nouns, as those ended in a vowel; and vowels trigger lenition.

    About the origin of the copulas:

    Mae is from *esmi est ‘here/there is’ → *ésmijest*→ymoeð→ymae→mae (post-tonic /j/ becomes /ð/ in Welsh similar to /j/→ζ in Greek)

    Nid oes is from *n’ ita esti ‘there is not’ →*nit-aisti→nid oes (see Morris-Jones p.349-350, §189)

  2. Andrew J Smith

    I know that I’m going to sound like a mean pedant, but, really, I’m not mean!

    Mike had talked about phrasal interrogative particles around twenty-one minutes into the show. While I agree that some languages will use phrases as if they were particles, I would like to add some corrections about “desu ka” and “n’est-ce pas.”

    Piggybacking on Roman’s comment, in Japanese, the particle “ka” forms both polar and content questions. For a polar question, just slap “ka” to the end of the statement: “Tabemashita ka (Did he eat?),” or “Tabemasendeshita ka (Did he not eat?)” For a content question, the proper wh- word or phrase is included in its normal indicative place, with “ka” at the sentence’s end: “Anata ha nani wo tabemashita ka (What did you eat?)” The particle “ka” is relatively ubiquitous for questions, even indirect questions: “Dare wo PAATII ni shoutai ka wasuremashita (I forgot whom I invited to the party; more literally: Whom party-to invitation made ? forgot)” In informal speech, “ka” is often omitted in favor of a rise in intonation: “Sakana wo tabeta? (Did you eat fish?)” The particle “ne” is used for those leading questions or for confirmation: “Ikimasu ne (You’re going, right?) Ne (Right),” and “Ikimasen ne (You’re not going, right?) Ne (Right).”

    In French, the phrase “n’est-ce pas” is equivalent to Japanese “ne”: “Tu vas, n’est-ce pas? (You’re going, right?)” Literally it means, “Is it not?” or “Is it not so?” and it ends a sentence. As far as a phrasal interrogative particle, the formal method is to use “Est-ce que”: “Est-ce que tu vas? (Are you going?)” Content questions add the wh- word or phrase in front of that: “Où est-ce que tu vas? (Where are you going?)” This phrase is actually an inversion of “C’est que … (It is that …)” Inversion is common for question formation: “Vas-tu? (Are you going?)” or “Où vas-tu? (Where are you going?)” The least used method of forming questions in French is a rising intonation at the end of the otherwise unchanged statement.

    Also, Kaqchikel Mayan uses the sentence initial particle “la” for polar questions: “¿La ütz awäch? (How are you? litterally, [question] good your-face?)”

    Well, I hope that this helps. I do enjoy the podcast, and I look forward to each new show. It’s super informative and brings innovative approaches to conlanging. I also know that none of you can research nor remember everything, so I’m just trying to help. I intend no disrespect.

    • admin

      No need to be polite. We know very well that we don’t know everything. It’s great to have commenters who can correct us on some of the languages we have limited knowledge in.

  3. Nate

    It should be noted that Welsh and the Celtic languages don’t seem to be the only influences on conlangs with consonant mutations. Nowadays, Nivkh seems to be at least as influential as Breton.

  4. pá mamūnám ontā́ bán

    I’ve only just started listening to the podcast but have managed to listen to them all in little under a week. When I recently added my translation of the the Lord’s Prayer to FrathWiki I felt compelled to include an inter-linear gloss because Bianca was always going on about them – and I have to say, it helped me quite a lot!

    Keep up the good work, I look forward to many more podcasts!

  5. Kraamlep

    Sometimes it seems like you guys are tapping into my brainwaves.

    I’ve been working on a new conlang for the last couple of months – my first major new language project for 10 years – and there are a bundle of features it has that I’ve been thinking were rather cool. (I haven’t gone public with it yet, because it’s not ready for prime time.)

    And then in this week’s podcast you discuss most of said cool features, e.g. using irrealis for questions, having a question particle (in this language, it’s the word for “whether”), VSO word order but permitting fronting with a following particle (which may or may not cause mutation – although in the case of my language it’s simply palatalisation), and so on. In my case Breton, not Welsh, was the inspiration for the latter, as well as for the sandhi patterns and the singulative forms and stuff. All this in a language which I have imagined as a possible distant relative of Basque, hence a limited number of primary (finite) verbs, with all the others existing only in non-finite forms; agreement with the object (but on the non-finite verb, not the finite/auxiliary); and ergativity (but only in the realis, and even then slightly weird; in the irrealis the core cases do a little dance, non-core cases work differently, word order changes and my brain starts to melt).

    This language – Frixàð (formerly J6) – is all your fault, you realise 🙂 Keep up the good work.

  6. LittleTree

    This episode got me thinking about Icelandic, which has two words for ‘yes’.

    ‘Já’ is used to affirm a statement. Er hann heima? Já. (Is he at home? Yes.)

    Jú’ is used to contradict a negative. Er hann ekki heima? Jú. (Is he not at home? Yes, he is.)
    Tóksu það? (Did you take it?)
    Nei (No.)
    Jú, víst! (Yes, you did!)

    • pá mamūnám ontā́ bán

      French also does that using “Oui!” to affirm a statement and “Si!” to contradict a negative.

      It also has two words for “what” in response to someone saying something to you. “Quoi?” is used to express surprise (or outrage I suppose) and “Comment?” is used if you simply didn’t understand what was said, similar to “Sorry?” or “Pardon?” I suppose.

    • wm.annis

      And German has doch, which blew my teenaged mind when I first learned it in German class, lo, those many years ago.

      • pá mamūnám ontā́ bán

        In Portuguese I think that it’s actually more common to respond in the “echo way”, at least in my experience. That’s not to say that “sim” and “não” aren’t used on their own – and it could after all be a dialectical difference.

  7. MBR

    At first I though I’d ripped off Esperanto, but then I realized that I came up with my polar question particle, which is placed at the beginning of the sentence, long before I had any interest in learning Esperanto. I guess it’s a living example of the “everything exists in a natlang” rule.

  8. Melvar

    For an ordinary polar question, Lojban has the particle xu, which normally goes at the beginning of a sentence. It is however a discursive and thus a free modifier, so one can actually apply it to any language construct, which indicates that you are focusing it for the purpose of the question; putting it at the beginning of the sentence applies it to the entire sentence.
    In theory, to answer a polar question, one should repeat the sentence, or the sentence negated. There is however a particle, grammatically a pro-verb, that repeats the last sentence, so in practice one answers affirmatively as go'i. As a pro-verb, any other component of a sentence can be used with it, and this indicates that one has replaced the original word or phrase in that role, so na go'i adds negation, so this is used for a negative answer. If the question was negative, the go'i will include the negation; to remove it, one uses ja'a, the logical affirmer, to replace the na. Of course, one can also add (a) differing argument(s) to the go'i instead to replace the false one(s) used in the question. So on the surface, it looks like a three-way agreement system, but underneath, it’s an echo system.
    Content questions are handled rather straightforwardly by inserting appropriate pro-forms in the holes you want filled. To ask for a verb or verb phrase, mo. To ask for a noun or noun phrase, ma. There are question words for number/letter, tense/preposition, attitudinal, place structure tag, and each type of conjunction. English question words generally correspond to ma or the combination of it with a preposition: “who” or “what” is usually just ma by itself, “when” is usually ca ma “at the same time as what”, and correspondingly “where” is vi ma “near/at what”. “why” might combine ma with one of ri'a (physical cause, “Why is the sky blue?”), mu'i (motivation, “Why did you hit me?”), ki'u (justification, “Why did he get first prize?”), or ni'i (logical antecedent), while “how” might use ta'i (method, “How did you do that?”) or se ja'e (what led to, “How did this happen?”).
    If you are presenting options, using xu with an a (or) conjunction allows only the mathematician’s answer, usually go'i. Instead, the way to do this is to use a question word for the conjunction itself: i do citka djica lo xajre'u ji lo bakre'u “you eat-want NMZ pigmeat [?] NMZ cattlemeat” “Would you like to eat pork or beef?”. Acceptable answers here include e nai (“and not”) for “the former”, na e (“not, and”) for “the latter”, e (“and”) for “both”, or na e nai (“not, and not”) for “neither”. Since this question is about desire to eat given objects, there is no straightforward “you pick” answer, though one may of course simply not answer, and instead request the asker choose. If the question is phrased with “shall I give you” instead, o nai (“xor”) might indicate “either one” and a (“or”) “either or both”.
    Any question may optionally be marked with pau as a discursive, however this is more often (still not very) used in pau nai in a rhetorical question to deny that it is a question.

    • Melvar

      To add one more thing, the most widespread question in Lojban is probably do mo “you [do/are] what”, which may mean “How are you?”, “What are you doing?”, “What do you do?”, or, at extremes, “Who/What are you?”. Mischievous people will take advantage of the fact that any verb that applies to them fits in the hole, and that most content words are verbs, replying with things like “human”, “person”, “tan-colored”, “doing [something]”, etc.


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