re interrogative verbs + interrogative relators + indefiniteordinals

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Wed Mar 28 19:44:47 UTC 2001

Matthew's comments on my rather loosely formulated conjecture are well taken:

> Regarding David Gil's conjecture
> (4) Conjecture: question words can "ask about" items belonging to major
> (or open) syntactic categories, but not minor (or closed) ones.
> I can anticipate various responses to the following, but arguably "which"
> is English is an exception, since it is a determiner, a closed class.
> Note that one must not confuse an interrogative meaning "which" from one
> meaning "what sort of", which English lacks a single word for.  I suspect
> that there are languages in which there is a word meaning "what sort of"
> that belongs to a closed class of adjectives, but I know of no example.
> Also, in many languages, numerals are arguably a closed class, but I
> believe that many such languages have a word for "how many".

But let me try and salvage something of the intuition behind the
conjecture.  In response to a question such as "Which book did you
read?"  you could answer "This book" (thereby seemingly replacing
"which" with "this"), but also "War and Peace", or "The book that John
gave me yesterday", and so forth.

So perhaps what licenses "which" in English is that the set of possible
responses forms an open class.  And likewise for "how many", even in
languages that have a finite and small set of lexical quantifiers.

By analogy, I would not rule out the possibility of an interrogative
preposition whose answers, say, could range over a potentially open set
of spatial or temporal relationships.  (So if such creatures really
don't exist, that would need further explanation.)  But I would exclude
the possibility of an interrogative preposition whose well-formed
answers could only range over a closed set of prepositions such as is
characteristic of English and many other languages.

In other words, what might be relevant is not the syntactic category of the
interrogative expression itself, but the range (either syntactic or more
likely semantic) of its possible answers.

Maybe this gets us a step closer to the truth :-)

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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