Forming questions is a big problem for many learners of English and I have always wondered why. Students are always asking me odd-sounding questions like:
- This is a joke?
- You are going to correct my English?
- I can go to the toilet?
They use the same words as a statement but simply rise their intonation so that it sounds, like, a question? Unfortunately, English speakers don’t always realise that they are being asked a question and this can result in an strange kind of Mexican standoff. The Mexican is waiting for an answer but Paddy Irishman doesn’t realise a question has been asked.
Obviously, in English, we usually reverse the order of the words and ask, Can I go to the toilet?. It turns out that this is very unusual for a language and that explains some of the difficulties experienced by learners. This morning I came across a blog postwhich points to some evidence that English is rather unusual in how it forms questions. You’ll notice in the map that there are very few yellow-dotted languages and most of them are Germanic languages, concentrated in Northern Europe, where it is normal to change the order of words in order to indicate a question. English is represented in the map by a yellow dot over London. The rest of Western Europe is dominated by Celtic and Romance languages (e.g. Irish and French) which I shall discuss at the end of this blogpost.
Now, question formation is my biggest bug bear in teaching English and there is one thing that all my English-language students will agree upon — I have a zero-tolerance approach to incorrectly formed questions. Whenever a new student asks a question incorrectly, I won’t answer it until they have gotten the word order right, often with the help of my other students who have learnt the drill. But hammering home the point takes time. Old students will often resort back to bad habits when they are tired or pissed off, or if they have been speaking lotsa English in a non-classroom setting.
Question-formation is a problem that effects all levels of English speakers, although the problem is easier to resolve for low-level learners who, like children, will mostly do what you tell them, because they don’t know any better. But higher-level students have often been getting away with it for years and many of them can’t believe that their questions need to be formed as follows:
- Is this a jake?
- Are you going to correct my English?
- An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? (If you only ever learn one question in Irish)
In Romance languages (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, etc.), you can usually just use intonation to ask a question, so your voice rises in pitch towards the end. Normal English speakers cannot detect this so they genuinely don’t know that they are being asked a question. The incorrectly-formed questions might be understood as follows:
- This is a jake.
- A statement of exasperation. Much like What a focking jake!
- You are going to correct my English.
- Either: A polite order, like you might remind people of their respective duties. Ok, Anne, you are going to show the guests to their seats. Barry, you are going to show them to the bathroom.
- Or: An actual question confirming some information, although this would usually be followed by “right?” or “aren’t you?”.
- I can go to the toilet?
- Yes, you can. Who’s a big boy?!
When I leave class, it is hard to take off my teacher’s hat / mouthpiece. I live in Dublin so I spend a lot of time with non-native speakers of English. Outside of work I study in the evenings / weekends – regular readers will know that teaching English doesn’t pay the bills in Ireland – and the class is composed of various EU passport-holders, most of whom have been living and working in Ireland for years. So their English is highly functional but may contain fossilised errors that they have been getting away with. The abovementioned standoff occurs rather often in class. A question is ‘asked’ using intonation and the lecturer has to work out that a question is indeed being asked. And only then can the answer be given. Obviously, it would be deeply rude for me to interrupt, like I do when I’m teaching, and blurt out my usual refrain:
- Sorry, is that a question?
So what is so weird about English questions?
The picture above shows a high concentration of yellow dots in Northern Europe. This is because subject–verb inversion is common in Germanic languages, including all kinds of German, Dutch, Frisian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish. For some reason, Icelandic is not included in this particular data set (and, to be fair, the Atlas does only examine 2679 languages).
Nonetheless, in present-day English, there are only twelve verbs that can be inverted with the subject: be, have, do, and nine modal verbs. Hence we can use the following structures:
- Are you Irish?
- Is the Pope a Catholic?
- Are we going to the pub?
- Why are we going to Diceys?
- Have you been to Paris?
- What had he been doing before he died?
- Don’t you want me baby?
- Does a bear shit in the woods?
- Can I go to the toilet?
- Will you make me a cup of tea?
- May I have a biscuit?
- Might I ask a question?
- Should I answer both questions?
- Could I have a beer now, please?
- Would you be so kind as to lend me a fiver?
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
- Must I continue?
All of the above verbs involve switching a verb and a subject. In Present Day English you cannot invert any other verbs, as Shakespeare would have often done. I did a quick scan of the first hundred questions in Hamlet and I found the following nine examples which would not be possible nowadays:
- Looks it not like the king?
- What think you on it?
- What says Polonius?
- And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?
- Arm’d, say you?
- What, look’d he frowningly?
- How say you, then?
- Say’st thou so?
- Came this from Hamlet to her?
During the Early Modern period, English developed a tendency for using the verb do for these questions, as in this quote from The Merchant of Venice, which shows the Billy Shakes could go either way:
- If you prick us, do we not bleed?
- If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
- If you poison us, do we not die?
- And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’
This kind of question formation has become normal in modern English but I find that it is particularly difficult for learners. First they learn to invert subjects and auxiliaries (Are we unique? … Must I continue?) but that only works when there is an auxiliary verb or be. In the Present Simple (I love you) and the Past Simple (I once loved you), one must insert a ‘dummy’ verb in the question form:
- Do you love me?
- Did you ever love me?
The origin of these forms makes more sense when we remember the negative and emphatic forms:
- You don’t love me!
- I do love you!
In theory, all Present Simple and Past Simple forms can be reconstructed with a ‘do’ form, as above with I do love you. The musicians The Tiger Lilies do champion this in their pseudo-archaic lyrics and, while looking for examples, I did discover that they have actually written a whole album about Hamlet, including the following lyrics:
Prince Hamlet now does choke /
Prince Hamlet’s heart is broke.
Power it does so deprave /
You’ll end up lying in your grave
Such forms do be rare in modern English but do listen out for them and you’ll hear them now and again.
It might be argued that English ‘do’ is a kind of Interrogative Particle, much like the ‘an’ of Irish. If you think about it, the question ‘do you love me?’ is just the statement ‘you love me.’ with ‘do’ tacked on beforehand. Further evidence of this comes from another Hamlet example which I didn’t list above:
- Have you your father’s leave? What says Polonius?
I myself would say ‘Do you have your father’s leave?’, although my mother might say ‘have you your father’s leave’. The point being that the lexical verb have increasingly requires do nowadays. This would suggest that English is continuously becoming normalised as a language, with word order being phased out, ever so slowly.
The map indicates several different ways in which questions are formed, with the majority of languages having a blue dot. In Irish Gaelic (whose blue dot obscures most of the island), questions begin with special word ‘an’ or ‘ar’ and the rest of the sentence follows. Readers might notice that Scotland is obscured by a big red dot, the only one in Europe. I was surprised that these two closely related tongues would differ on such a fundamental dimension, but it turns out that Gaelic can be both a blue- and a red-dotted language (for examples, scroll to the bottom of the page), and Irish and Scots Gaelic might be better described with a purple dot (the third category).
Anyone who learnt Irish (with the notable exception of Google Translate) will remember how, when called by nature, to ask for permission to be excused from class.
An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?
Here the word ‘an’ means that a question is coming, hence the blue dot. But the form ‘bhfuil’ is a special form of the verb used in questions, hence the red dot, and a handful of irregular verbs have such a form (e.g. An bhfaca..? An ndeachaigh..?
The moral of the story is this: don’t place your trust in a neat infographic. Languages are complicated.
Finally, I should note that languages may use a number of strategies. English does sometimes rely on intonation alone, while French uses a mix of intonation (grey dots), ‘est-ce que’ (blue dot, as marked in the map), and word order (inverting subject and pronoun, albeit in writing nowadays: Le XV de France, sont-ils … ? ). I don’t know much Spanish but I’m shocked to see it has a yellow dot. Perhaps it has a form like in French writing. As far as I was concerned, all speakers of Portuñolçaisliano, aka the Romance languages, simply rely on intonation in normal speech.
However, to see combinations in action, I used Google translate to compare English against both Irish and Scots Gaelic.