Why how and not say what

Alan Jones Alan.Jones at LING.MQ.EDU.AU
Tue Mar 22 22:24:38 UTC 2005

I think Johanna, makes a fundamental point when she says that:

"[In many European languages (at least)] it is obviously possible to use
interrogatives for a pragmatically implied negation" (22/3/05).

Also she is right when she remarks that what is interesting is when and
how grammaticalization of such usage occurs.

A further question concerns whether the different meanings encoded in
the different interrogative pronouns are applied in different social or
pragmatic contexts.

For instance, Marcel notes that < 'how' challenges not only propositions
but any type of *modal* utterance > (21.3.2005; my emphasis). Hence "How
should I ...?" and "How can you ...?" perhaps.

Heine & Kuteva (2002) note that 'how' can arise from 'way' (an example
would be ala keanga-ai "what way-by" in East Mekeo). This suggests the
focus is on manner or method of action as well as (or prior to)
modality. On the other hand, "How should I know" (Indonesian: Bagaimana
saya tahu, thanks Novi) seems also to focus on a 'state of being' that
explains a rude/stupid/inappropriate question (or action). It is
interesting that this question, which seems to occur in a number of
languages, also *inquires about* a state, i.e. knowing.

I would suggest that, as well as manner/modality, and possibly states of
being, 'how' focuses on any circumstances that might exculpate an
inappropriate action or statement, pushing responsibility back beyond
the motives of the actor, and in this way expressing a degree of
politeness (saving face).


Dr Alan Jones,
Department of Linguistics,
Division of Linguistics & Psychology,
Macquarie University,
NSW 2109.

Building W3A, Room 409.
Tel. 61 2 9850 9664
Fax. 61 2 9850 7849
E-mail: alan.jones at ling.mq.edu.au
Web: http://www.ling.mq.edu.au/about/staff/jones_alan/index.html
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