Chapter 19: Interrogative pronouns

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 19.

1. Simple and compound interrogative pronouns

All languages have interrogative pronouns for asking content questions, such as ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, and ‘how’ (Idiatov 2007). In addition, languages normally have adnominal interrogative words such as ‘which’ that allow speakers to form complex interrogative noun phrases such as ‘which house’ or ‘which girl’.

In this chapter, we focus on the contrast between two kinds of interrogative pronouns: simple interrogative pronouns (monomorphemic words such as English who, how, or Spanish quién, dónde) and compound interrogative pronouns which are composed of an adnominal interrogative word and a generic noun for one of the ontological categories (person, thing, place, time, manner). Such compound interrogatives are found, for example, in Guadeloupean Creole (Colot & Ludwig 2013a), which contrasts strikingly with its French lexifier:

ki moun [which person] 'who' (cf. qui)
ki koté [which side] 'where' (cf. où)
ki tan [which time] 'when' (cf. quand)
ki jan [which kind] 'how' (comment)

It is well known that pidgin and creole languages often replace the simple interrogatives of the lexifiers with such compounds consisting of adnominal interrogatives and generic nouns (Muysken & Smith 1990, Clements & Mahboob 2000). This chapter shows the extent to which different languages use simple and compound interrogatives. It has sometimes been claimed that compound interrogatives in Atlantic pidgins and creoles are due to African substrate languages, but this explanation works only for some of the languages. A more general (but more difficult to test) explanation is that compound interrogatives are due to the tendency for pidgins and creoles to exhibit transparent structures (Seuren & Wekker 1986).

2. The values

We concentrate our attention on the counterparts of the four interrogatives ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘when’, and ‘how’. Others such as ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how much’ could have been added but were not taken into account here because they show less variation, ‘what’ being almost always simple, and ‘why’ and ‘how much’ compound in most cases. While the lexifiers generally have simple interrogatives, most of the APiCS languages have at least one compound interrogative pronoun among these four. (It should be noted that what is said about the relationship between pidgins/creoles and lexifiers here relates mostly to the European lexifiers; some of the non-European lexifiers may themselves have compound expressions for some of the categories.)

All simple words22
One compound expression18
Two compound expressions17
Three compound expressions10
Four compound expressions7

Not suprisingly, languages with relatively little distance to the lexifier tend to have four simple words (e.g. Afrikaans, Reunion Creole, Singlish, African American English, Hawai‘i Creole, Gullah), as do the mixed languages Michif and Mixed Ma’a/Mbugu. Also, the Arabic-based languages and Kikongo-Kituba lack compound interrogatives. The languages that most strongly favour compound interrogatives are the Atlantic English-based and French-based creoles. Spanish-based and Portuguese-based languages generally preserve the simple forms better. In the English-based languages, influence from English is often leading to a replacement of compound forms by English-like simple forms.

3. Different ontological categories

The four ontological categories (person, place, time, manner) differ in their propensity to occur as simple or compound interrogatives. The category that most strongly favours compound expression is time: More than two dozen languages have ‘what time’ or ‘which hour’ instead of ‘when’ in the lexifier, e.g.

Ambon Malay apa tempo [which time]
Angolar ora kutxi [hour which]
Cape Verdean Creole ki tenpu [which time]
Principense ki ora [which time]
Bahamian Creole what time [what time]
Bislama wanem taem [what time]
Pichi us tɛn [which time]
Lingala tángo níni [moment which]
Fanakalo (y)ini skati [which time]

The category that is the most resistant to replacement by an adnominal form plus generic noun is ‘what’, followed by ‘who’. But Atlantic English-based languages not uncommonly have forms such as wiʧpɛsin/wiʧman (Ghanaian Pidgin English), husman (Cameroon Pidgin English), wich badi/huu badi (Creolese), and French-based languages have forms like ki moun (from French monde ‘world, people, person’).

The interrogatives ‘where’ and ‘how’ are intermediate. ‘Where’ is commonly replaced by ‘what place’ or similar forms:

Vincentian Creole wich paa(t) [which part]
Cameroon Pidgin English hu-say [which-side]
Papiá Kristang ki banda [what side]
Guinea-Bissau Kriyol na kal ladu [in which side]

How’ is commonly replaced by ‘what manner’ or similar forms:

Seychelles Creole ki mannyer [what manner]
Tok Pisin olsem wanem [like what]
Batavia Creole ki-lay [what-sort]

4. Degrees of compoundness

Whether a form is regarded as compound or not is decided by its shape, not by evidence for analyzability by the speaker. Maurer (2013b) notes that Batavia Creole kilay ‘how’ is always written as one word and also occurs with the shape klay. This suggests that synchronically this form is unanalyzable. But as long as the generic noun lay still exists in the language and has a similar form as the relevant part of the interrogative pronoun, we regard them as compound.

If compoundness were defined purely in terms of morphological complexity, then even English when, where, etc. could be analyzed as wh-en [interrog-temp], wh-ere [interrog-loc], etc. But we require identity of the generic noun with a noun with similar meaning in the language. Thus, Berbice Dutch wanga, which historically derives from wa-anga [what-place], is regarded as simple, because anga ‘place’ no longer occurs in the language (Kouwenberg 2013a). Similarly, Korlai kɔr when’ (< Portuguese que hora) and kilɛ how’ (< que laia what kind’) are no longer compound. But such cases of secondary opacity of interrogatives are not common. The adnominal interrogative word more often becomes opaque (e.g. in Pichi us-, e.g. us-say ‘where’, us-tɛn when’, us-pɔsin who’, deriving from which via a form utʃ), but forms with an opaque adnominal element are still regarded as complex.

Sometimes the adnominal element disappears completely, so that only the original generic noun is left, e.g. Martinican Creole koté ‘where’ (originally ki koté [which place], which is still possible, Colot & Ludwig 2013b). Such cases are considered to be simple interrogatives, but there are few cases of such “secondarily simple” forms that no longer occur side by side with the original complex form (e.g. Sranan suma ‘who’ < hu-soma [which-person], Angolar ngê ‘who’ < [person(+which)]).

Note also that morphological elements that are neither (similar to) generic nouns nor (similar to) adnominal interrogatives are disregarded, as in Gullah whodat who’ (presumably < who + that), Reunion Creole ki sa who’ (presumably < qui + ça), Papiamentu na unda [in where] ‘where’. All these forms are not counted as compound interrogatives

5. Cooccurrence of simple and compound forms

Many languages have simple and compound forms side by side. For example, Santome has the following forms (Hagemeijer 2013):

'who' kên kê ngê [what person]
'where' an(dji) kê xitu [what place]
'when' kê ola[what hour]
'how' kuma kê modu[what manner]

In San Andres Creole English, besides the simple forms huu, we, wen, hou, there are compound forms such as wa-paat [what-part] ‘where’ and wen-time [when-time] ‘when’.

Since we are primarily interested in the compound forms here, cases where both forms occur are classified in the same way as cases where only compound forms occur. It is only when the compound forms are very uncommon that they are disregarded. Thus, according to Hagemeijer (2013), “the frequency of compound expressions for 'where' and 'how' is very low”, so Santome is counted as a language with two compound expressions (kê ngê and kê ola). Similarly, in present-day San Andres Creole English, the compound forms are not common, so this language is classified as having all simple words.