A polar question is a question that asks about the truth of a proposition rather than requesting additional information concerning a particular aspect of a proposition. Polar questions thus expect an answer like ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and are also known as yes-no questions. All languages have polar questions, and they are quite easy to identify and delimit from content questions (see Chapter 12 on the position of interrogative phrases in content questions). In this chapter, as in the corresponding WALS feature (Dryer 2005e), we ask how polar questions are marked as such, i.e. how the addressee knows that the speaker intends a question rather than a statement. Such marking is more important in polar questions than in content questions, because the latter can typically be recognized by the presence of a specific interrogative phrase.
Seven different values are distinguished, but only three of them occur with any frequency, the other four being rare.
|Only interrogative intonation||35||36||71|
|Interrogative word order||1||3||4|
|Initial question particle||1||13||14|
|Final question particle||2||20||22|
|Question particle in other position||0||7||7|
|Interrogative verb morphology||1||0||1|
By far the most common type is represented by constructions where there is no special formal marking apart from interrogative intonation (value 1). This is the only option in about half of the languages, and it is one possibility in almost all the others (only Afrikaans, Sri Lankan Malay, Media Lengua, Kikongo-Kituba, and Saramaccan do not have this possibility). Some examples are given in (1).
The exact nature of the intonational marking is rarely specified, reflecting the fact that intonation is not well understood by linguists and rarely described well. Most commonly, it seems that polar questions are distinguished by a rising intonation at the end. For Chinese Pidgin English, Hall’s (1944: 97) description is unusually explicit: "When no specifically interrogative word or phrase is present, pitch rises to the highest point on the stressed syllable of the last word in the sentence" (cited by Li & Matthews 2013). Concerning (1b), Meakins (2013) says: "The only thing that indicates that this is a question is rising intonation."
In a number of European languages, but only very few languages elsewhere, a special verb-initial interrogative word order (value 2) signals polar questions (cf. (Dryer 2005e) WALS chapter). In APiCS, this is only found in a few English-based languages (e.g. 2a), as well as in Afrikaans, i.e. in languages that are fairly close to their Germanic lexifiers:
A cross-linguistically very common method of signaling polar questions is by means of question particles, and this also occurs in APiCS. In quite a few languages, we find an initial question particle (value 3), as in (3a-b). In French-based creoles, this particle generally derives from the French expression est-ce que.
Even more common in APiCS are languages with a final question particle (value 4), as illustrated in (4). Note that questions marked by question particles may also show special interrogative intonation, but if there is segmental marking, intonation is not taken into account here.
Typical question particles are not separated intonationally from the question clause, whereas question tags are separated in this way. But since intonation is difficult to take into account systematically, we have not excluded question tags. Quite a few of the cases of final question particles could be question tags, and these elements often have other meanings such as ‘not’. Two examples are shown in (5a-b) (other languages with such ‘no’ question tags are Gullah, Norf’k, Saramaccan, and Mauritian Creole).
Question particles are most often in a peripheral position, but they may also occur in some other position inside the clause (value 5). For Singapore Bazaar Malay, it is reported that the particle may occur immediately after the questioned constituent (cf. 6a), while in Chabacano and Michif, the particle may occur in second position (cf. 7b-c).
We also subsume Guinea-Bissau Kriyol under this value, but the language is unusual in that it allows both an initial and a final question particle in polar questions (cf. 7). Both particles are optional, so Kriyol has four options (both initial and final particle, only initial, only final, no particle).
A single APiCS language was classified as having special interrogative verb morphology (value 6). However, the element -chu might well be a clitic.
Finally, two languages have A-not-A questions (value 7), i.e. questions marked by repetition of the questioned element, with a ‘not’ word in between. This pattern is found in Chinese languages, as well as in two pidgins influenced by Chinese, cf. (9) (an example from Chinese Pidgin English is Can no can? ‘Can you do so?’).
In the world’s languages, polar questions are most often marked by interrogative particles or interrogative verb morphology. Intonation as the sole means of marking questions is of course also found, but in Dryer's 2005e sample, in not more than one sixth of the languages. Thus, pidgins and creoles are far more likely to use nothing but intonation to mark polar questions than other languages. It should also be noted that APiCS languages that use question particles can usually also form polar questions without a particle. This, too, shows the general dominance of the intonation-only strategy.