re interrogative verbs + interrogative relators + indefiniteordinals

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Fri Mar 23 12:47:19 UTC 2001

In response to Claude Hagege's query:

>    Speaking of interrogative words, I have a question : does anyone
> know languages having interrogative relators? If it were a
> preposition, for instance, it would be, representing the interrogative
> relator as wh-ip (ip = interrogative preposition), something like
>     he worked wh-ip John?,
> where  wh-ip means "for, or with, or because of, etc."

Well, in Riau Indonesian, where you can sort of do more things than in
most other languges, you can form the question:

(1) Dia kerja ngapain      John?
    he  work  AG-what-APPL John

And among the appropriate answers would be

(2) (a) bantu
        help (similar to "for")
    (b) antar
        accompany (similar to "with")
    (c) disuruh
        PAT-order (similar to "because of")

But you can't actually answer (1) with:

(3) (a) *untuk
    (b) *dengan
    (c) *gara-gara

However, this seems to me to be less a fact about the WH word "ngapain"
in (1), and more a fact about the forms in (3).  Specifically, "ngapain"
can be answered with any word or expression which belongs to a major
syntactic category (of which I've argued elsewhere that there's exactly
one); but not with a grammatical item, such as a preposition or
conjunction, which belong to minor syntactic categories.

Generalizing cross-linguistically, I suspect the following
generalization will turn out to be true:

(4) Conjecture: question words can "ask about" items belonging to major
(or open) syntactic categories, but not minor (or closed) ones.

If true, this makes the prediction that nobody will come up with the
example that Claude is looking for, namely an interrogative relator.



David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 49-341-9952321
Fax: 49-341-9952119
Email: gil at

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