On questions

Damien Hall halldj at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Nov 21 15:21:07 UTC 2005


I am sure that others will point this out too, but, with my British hat on, I
must say that the way of forming a question by applying a rising intonation to
a statement is only really common in American English.  In Britain, at least,
it's a marked Americanism;  so much so that it has probably risen above Labov's
'marker' and 'indicator' levels to become a stereotype (defined here as the kind
of feature that's prominent enough to be made fun of:  I have been in the States
two years and I think that the statement-with-rising-intonation is becoming my
default question-formation, whether I'm speaking to an American or not, so much
so that my sister has indeed made fun of me for it at least once).

The only context for a question by statement-with-rising-intonation that I can
think of in British English is when two people are reviewing a sequence of
events and one is asking the other to confirm that they happened in some
specified order:

'So, he asked you to marry him.  You said "Yes" [rising-intonation diacritic].'
'And so now you've got three months to plan your wedding.'

Note that in this sequence, the rising-intonation statement a) is not necessary
and b) does not necessarily express surprise, though it could (context will
disambiguate);  it could merely request confirmation.

On the converse of your question, I've actually had this conversation with
American friends before (not the marriage one, the questions one!), and I've
been told that for them, question-formation by inversion is marked;  of course,
that doesn't mean to say that they wouldn't / couldn't do it, but it is not
their default form, as it would be a Brit's.

As regards how long the inverted form for questions has been in use, it is
probably to do with the change of the English grammar from verb-raising to
tense-lowering.  Corpus-based studies show that the change was probably almost
complete by the late sixteenth century.  If you'd like to know some sources for
all that, maybe let me know off-list - happy to help.

Damien Hall
University of Pennsylvania

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