Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

LSA 2007: Multiple-Wh Questions in ASL

Posted by Neal on January 9, 2007

Since my last posting, the family and I have been to Houston and back (no shooting this time), and I’ve been to the annual Linguistic Society of America conference. Woulda blogged while I was there, since I went to the trouble of taking a laptop (computer, that is), but it completely died the night I arrived, after I’d paid for a three-day block of Internet access. So this week I’ll be writing belatedly about some of the highlights. Today’s installment: The most interesting talk I heard, from Sanda K. Wood of the University of Connecticut, on multiple-wh questions in ASL.

First of all, you already know that in English, wh-words are typically placed at the front of the sentence; for example:

What did Jim eat at the LSA conference?

For this sentence, many linguists think of what as having been moved to the front from the normal location for a direct object for eat; that is, in some sense, the question is actually Jim ate what at the LSA conference?, but surfaces as What did Jim eat at the LSA conference? because of this “wh-movement” (plus the business of putting in a did and putting it before the you). Just to save some words, I will use the term wh-movement in this post, without endorsing the view that actual movement is involved.

Second: You know that there can be more than one wh-word in a question, as in:

What did Jim eat when at the LSA conference?

As this example of a multiple-wh question shows, only the what undergoes wh-movement. The when stays where it is.

Third: In some languages (notably the Slavic ones), it’s not enough for one wh-word in a multiple-wh question to move to the front; they all have to. So in these “multiple-wh fronting” languages, you’d have to phrase the above question like this (using the appropriate non-English words, of course):

What when did Jim eat at the LSA conference?

There are also languages (such as Chinese) in which none of the wh-words are moved; they all stay right where they are. In this kind of “wh-in-situ” language, our example would be phrased like this:

Jim ate what when at the LSA conference?

Fourth: A few years ago, Zeljko Boškovic (also of UConn) showed that multiple-wh fronting languages can be divided into three classes. One class consists of the languages for which all the wh-words are moved to the front by regular old wh-movement, the same kind that moves just a single wh-word in English. In essence, these are the pure multiple-wh fronting languages (example: Bulgarian). Another class consists of languages, such as Russian, that are essentially wh-in-situ languages in disguise. Sure, all their wh-words move to the front, but not via wh-movement. Instead, they’re moved there by way of focus movement, another kind of movement (or whatever you want to call it) for elements that you’re giving special attention to, and in these languages, wh-words are obligatorily focused. (In English, this is typically done with focal stress: I want THIS one, not THAT one!) Finally, the third class consists of languages, such as Serbo-Croatian, that are like English in disguise when it comes to multiple-wh questions. In these languages, only one wh-word undergoes wh-movement. The difference is that in English, the other wh-words stay put, while in languages like Serbo-Croatian, they undergo focus movement. And exactly how can you tell whether a cluster of wh-words was created by wh-movement, focus movement, or a combination? Too complicated to get into here, but it has to do with whether you can split up the cluster with other words, what ordering restrictions there are on the wh-words, and maybe some other stuff.

So much for the background. What about ASL? I’ve tried to find research on multiple-wh questions in ASL, and have found nothing. Neither has Sandra K. Wood, but she has remedied the gap with some research she presented last week. In short, she has found that ASL is like Serbo-Croatian regarding multiple-wh questions, with one wh-word moving to the front by wh-movement, and any others undergoing focus movement. And in ASL, it’s easier to distinguish wh-movement from focus movement, because wh-movement puts things at the front of the utterance, while focus movement puts things at the end. So in ASL, our example question would be phrased like this (using all capitals, as conventional in transcribing signed language):


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One Response to “LSA 2007: Multiple-Wh Questions in ASL”

  1. Rachel Klippenstein said


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