A comparative study ofQuestion Formation: Wh-movement in English and Arabic Prepared by: Fadi Sukkari
Asking questions and looking forinformation under the form ofanswers is a natural human activity;thus, questions are found in alllanguages.The interrogative form is part ofevery language grammar, whateverits syntax or degree of complexity.
By definition, the illocutionary act,associated with the interrogative, isseeking information from the listenerto a question.However, other social meanings,such as exclamation or the issuing oforders might also be possible.
The passage from thedeclarative/assertive form to theinterrogative form, or what we referto in linguistics by “questionformation” can be very differentfrom one language to another.
To form questions, interrogativewords are used. These words arecalled wh-words becausein English most of them start with wh-(how is the only exception to the rule). They may be used in both directquestions and in indirect questions.
More recently, wh-questions have beenreferred to as A’-questions since wh-words are exclusive to English.In French, questions are rather formedby adding Qu-words such as (que, qui,quoi, quel, quand).Yet, the term wh-questions is still largelyused where it is used to study thephenomenon in languages other thanEnglish.
The formation of wh-questions is acomplex phenomenon that most EFLlearners find very difficult, especiallywhen their mother tongues do notpresent the same type of restrictions.If we consider the case of Arabic andEnglish, the normal sentence structureof the former is V-S-O, whereas thelatter’s structure is S-V-O. This has aninfluence question formation.
In this paper we will contrast the wh- movement in English to the wh- movement in Arabic; we will try to show that English has an overt wh- movement, whereas Arabic is morefavorable to in-situ wh-movement, yet, subject questions remain simpler to form than object questions in both languages.
Interrogative structures in English areof two types- “polar” and “non-polar”. Polar structures are more known as “Yes/No” questions, whereas non- polar ones are “Wh-” questions since wh-words are specific to English, or A’-questions as they are more generally known in generative grammar.
In polar interrogatives, it is simply the polarity that is in question, where the answer could only be either “Yes” or “No”. The person who is using polar interrogation does not expect any information of any kind on the questioned component of the interrogative sentence; thus we frequently hear utterances like “I am asking you, is it YES, or NO?”
On the other hand, Wh-questions are non-polar and are also known as“information questions” since they elicit from the interlocutor information andnot a mere “yes” or “no;” in a non-polar interrogative, there is an additionalelement embedded in the wh-word that the speaker is looking forward to knowing.
The “wh-phenomenon”or non-polar interrogative structure
The structural order of non-polar interrogatives or wh-questions willgenerally vary based on the element of the sentence the question is about: it will have a different structure whether the “Subject” or the “Predicate” of the sentence is the questioned component.
If the identity of the Subject is questioned, the same order, as thedeclarative sentence will prevail, which is an exception to the formation rule; thus, the order SVO is kept. Theanswer to the question “Who wants anice-cream?” would be “Sami wants an ice-cream.”
In other cases, where the predicate, is being questioned, the wh-word will still come in the beginning of the question,a phenomenon known as “fronting,” but the rest of the sentence will not keep the same order, as in “What did you eat?”, “Whom did you invite?”, or “How is it made?”, where the SVO order is inverted to VSO.
Wh-question formation, as a phenomenon,has always interested linguists as it appearsto violate some of the language linguistic rules. Among these rules, for instance, is that certain verbs are ditransitive so they necessitate two objects- one direct and the other indirect.Sami put the dictionary in a drawer (S-V-O 1-O2). *Sami put the dictionary1___ (S-V-O1-___). *Sami put ___ in a drawer2 (S-V-___-O2).
Although S-V-O is the habitual English structure,but the ditransitive nature of the verb “put” doesn’tallow the empty slots in (b) and (c). However, thisempty slot is allowed in:d- Where did Sami put the dictionary ___?Here, the empty slot shows the expected locationof the PP that is required in the case of aditransitive verb, as though the question shouldhave been:e- *Where did Sami put the dictionary in a drawer?
Languages with SVO structure, such as English, have an overt wh-movement.1. If the questioned component is the subject the question is formed by insert who or what.2. If the questioned component is anything in the predicate or any sub-part of a noun phrase in the subject, the question shall be formed by - inserting the correct wh- word, - fronting that word, - moving the operator (V or Aux) in front of the S, - adding “do” if the sentence has no operator.
p. 8 From the examples in the table, we can conclude that to make a questionusing the predicate pattern, it is easier for the learners first to form a yes/no question by inverting the subject and verb, and then, add the appropriate wh- word to the beginning of the sentence.
What generalizations can we formulate in English?1. Wh-questions focus on particular parts ofsentences and not on the whole sentence the waythat yes-no questions do.2. Wh-questions are formed by inserting a wh-word into a sentence in the place of missinginformation.3. Wh-questions about the subject of a sentencehave simpler grammar than wh-questions aboutanything in the predicate.
4. If Wh-questions are about the S of a sentencejust insert who or what and keep the same wordorder S-V-O.5. If Wh-questions are about anything in thepredicate insert a wh-word and then manipulatethe word order by moving that wh-word to thebeginning and then moving the operator in front ofthe subject.6. If theres no operator in the verb phrase, thenone has to be added. Like Yes/No questions andnegatives with not in the verb phrase, wh-questions that need to add an operator use do.
Wh-questions in ArabicAccording to JosephGreenbergs linguistic universal number12, “If a language has dominantorder VSO in declarative sentences, italways puts interrogative words orphrases first in interrogative wordquestions.”p. 10
It is clear from the examples, that Arabichas a simpler structure when it comes toquestion formation than English.In all cases, without exception, the wh-wordis added at the beginning of the questionand the structure V-S-O is kept unchanged.The only exception to this rule is when thequestioned component is the possessiveform of the object as in number (7), wherethe wh-word “ ”منis projected at the end ofthe question.
As for the movement within the question ofthe empty slot, number (1) is different fromthe other examples, yet, it is not anexception to the rule. The questionedcomponent here is the subject itself, andsince in the habitual Arabic sentencestructure V-S-O, the subject shouldimmediately follow the verb, which applieseven in this case.