'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

A Question on Questions

This is a bit of speculation on classification of language families.

Let me start with an observation: In most (if not all) Indo-European languages, questions which expect an affirmative "yes" answer are framed negatively - for example, "Did he NOT come?" EXPECTS "yes" for an answer. This feature is shown even by the Dravidian languages. And to my mind, this phenomenon has no obvious reason. This feature, for which there is no readily obvious logical reason, is shown even by the Dravidian languages.

Similarly, non-negative questions generally expect a negative answer; for instance, teh question: "Did he come?" expects a "No". But things are a bit subtler here. A non-negative question "Will you marry me?" in English (or in any language) does not expect - indeed, cannot often take - "No" for an answer. So, one could state the general rule for framing questions as follows: A negatively phrased question *certainly* expects an affirmative answer; an affirmative question tends to expect a negative answer but NEED NOT be in expectation of a negative answer.

I don't know if this feature is universal or not. If one assumes that East Asian, Polynesian, African, Native American, etc... languages do not have this feature, it could give a non-trivial property shared across the Indo-European and Dravidian language families and that perhaps can enable enables us to talk in terms of merging these two families. On the other hand, if in every language in the world asks a negative question if a "yes" is expected in return, that really begs a fundamental question: why is this trait so universal??.

Note 1: Modifying nouns or adding suffixes to indicate plurality (apple- apples and goose-geese for example is yet another feature of most if not all Dravidian and Indo-European languages; this is absent in at least some East Asian languages. Wonder if this could be yet another indication for the merger of Dravidian with Indo-European at the root-level.

Note 2: Some languages have quirky constructions like "What if something DOES NOT go wrong??" where what is being articulated is the fear of something actually going wrong. Hindi shows this peculiarity which used to mystify me in school days (and still does)!


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