Those Three Little Words, in 16 Languages
Posted by Neal on May 12, 2007
Faithful readers of this blog (and sporadic ones who happened to read just the right posts) know that I’ve been interested in questions that contain more than one wh-word. In the course of doing some research on them, I’ve been having a set of 24 questions translated into as many languages as I can find willing native speakers for. As a result, I can now say “Who read what?” in 16 languages. In fact, I think I will:
- Chinese (Mandarin): shei du le shenme?
- Czech: kdo co cetl?
- English: who read what?
- Estonian: kes luges mida?
- German: wer hat was gelesen?
- Greek: pjos djavase ti
- Hebrew: mi kara ma
- Hindi: kisne kyaa paRhaa?
- Hungarian: ki mit olvasott?
- Japanese: dare ga nani o yomimasita ka?
- Korean: nwuka mwuesul īlkessnī?
- Macedonian: koj čto čital?
- Russian: kto čto čital?
- Spanish: quién leyó qué?
- Tagalog: sino ang nagbása ng anó
- Vietnamese: ai (đã) đọc gì
I bring this up today because I just got back from a one-day conference in Athens (Ohio, that is) where I presented some of this research. It concerned a strange property of multiple-wh questions that many linguists have remarked on over the years. Consider this multiple-wh question:
Who saw Elvis where?
To answer this question, it’s not good enough just to say something like:
Glen saw him at the gas station.
It has to be a list (of length greater than 1) of seer/location pairs, e.g.
Glen saw him at the gas station, Doug saw him in the school lunchroom, and Adam saw him on the swings at the playground.
If you don’t believe this is true, look what happens when you replace saw with a verb that dictates that your answer will be a single actor/location pair:
#Who killed Elvis where?
The hashmark indicates that this sentence sounds inappropriate; it seems to imply that Elvis was killed by multiple people in multiple locations. At least, that’s how it sounds to me, and how it has sounded to other researchers. (If you disagree, read the final paragraph of this posting.) For this question to get a single-pair answer, it would have to be rephrased as something like
Who killed Elvis, and when?
That’s about the only alternative we have in English for this particular question, though in some languages, you can coordinate the who and the where to get something like this (which is ungrammatical in English, as indicated by the asterisk):
*Who and where killed Elvis?
You can see a similar effect in this next pair, where English allows both a multiple-wh version and a coordinated-wh version:
#When were you born where?
When and where were you born?
For me, When were you born where? is grammatical, but is appropriate only in a conversation among believers in reincarnation.
Does this pattern of pair-list answers for multiple-wh questions and single-pair answers for coordinated-wh ones hold up for other languages? This question piqued my interest after I read papers by Anikó Lipták and Konstantin Kazenin noting the effect for Hungarian and Russian, respectively. So for the past few years, I’ve been trying to find out by having people translate those 24 questions and tell me what kind of answers they can or must have.
The answer so far? No; the pattern does not hold up for other languages. (A little but for Hebrew, but nothing else so far.)
But you know, there are a lot of languages out there, and I’ve only looked at 16. Furthermore, the data I do have could be enough to allow some interesting generalizations to be made that don’t concern SP and PL answers. Therefore, I am now making this data available to the public, to look at with other perspectives than my own, and to add data from other languages if they are so inspired. I hope the Coordinated-Wh Project will become a useful resource for linguists interested in syntactic, semantic, and typological issues concerning multiple-wh and coordinated-wh questions. Right now the page has all the background information, and the data from a few of the languages I’ve investigated. Check back during the coming weeks, as I will gradually upload the data from the other languages. If you speak a language that isn’t represented there yet, you and I can correct that situation. And if you speak a language that is already represented, it’s still good to get judgments from additional speakers. Just send me an email, and we can decide when and how to do it, or when to do it and how, or maybe even how to do it when.