preposition stranding and null WH questions

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Sun Oct 25 19:54:36 UTC 1998

Without wishing to hijack Maria Polinsky's query (and without having
anything to add to it), there's a possibly related phenomenon which I've
been interested in for some time now -- and I wonder if anybody has
anything to say about.

I call the construction "null WH question", because it has the following
two properties:

(a) It has the meaning of a WH question in English
(b) There is no WH word present; instead, there's a preposition without
its object -- and it's precusely that object which is being asked about.

In Malay / Indonesian this construction occurs in the Kuala Lumpur and
Irian Jaya dialects, but not in the Riau dialect.  Examples (form my
corpus of spontaneous speech specimens):

(1) Ini dari?
    this from
    "Who is this from?"
    [Kuala Lumpur, secretary on phone, asking caller to identify

(2) Kau mau ke?
    you want to
    "Where are you going?"
    [Irian Jaya, semi-conventionalized greeting]

Intuitively, it's the *impermissibility* of preposition stranding which,
paradoxically, seems to license these constructions and endow them with
their meaning:  if you can't end a sentence with a preposition,
something must be missing, and one way of dealing with this is to assume
the speaker wants you to fill in the missing object -- which accounts
for the WH question interpretation.

But this can't be the whole story, because why then is the construction
okay in some dialects but not in others?

A further complication:  in Hebrew, in which there are generally no
dangling prepositions, the null WH question construction is possible for
exactly one preposition:

(3) biSvil?
    "What for?"

With all other prepositions it is impossible.

If anybody has any ideas, suggestions, further data from other
languages, or references concerning this construction, I'd be very


David Gil

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

tel:  49-341-9952310
fax:  49-341-9952119
email:  gil at

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