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Polar question particles: Hindi-Urdu kya:

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We distinguish between two types of interrogative particles, (regular) question particles and polar question particles. The first, canonically exemplified by Japanese -ka, occurs in all interrogatives, in matrix as well as embedded contexts. The second, the object of the present study, is exemplified by the Hindi-Urdu particle kya:. Polar kya: occurs in polar questions but not in wh questions, and it occurs optionally in matrix questions but only in a restricted way in embedded questions. We analyze this particle as presupposing that its prejacent denotes a singleton propositional set and as partitioning the questioned proposition into two parts that can be characterized as at-issue and not at-issue. These two aspects of its meaning are shown to capture several facets of the behavior of the polar question particle kya: that have not previously been analyzed or even systematically described. The paper also touches upon well-known phenomena, such as interrogative selection and alternative questions, but from a new perspective and opens up a way of looking at interrogative particles in other languages that do not seem to neatly fit the mold of regular question particles.

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  1. 1.

    We follow a common practice in the South Asian linguistic literature of using Hindi-Urdu to refer to Hindi and Urdu, which for a large number of linguistic phenomena can be considered the same language.

  2. 2.

    We thank a reviewer for help with the wording.

  3. 3.

    We will, however, not address the link between polar question particle kya: and thematic kya: in this paper. These two elements seem to be homophonous not just in Hindi-Urdu but in a number of other Indo-Aryan languages as well as in Italian and Slovenian. We have not conducted a wider investigation but it is likely that there is a deeper connection. What such a connection could be though is not clear to us. There is also the fact that the two elements are not fully homophonous—thematic kya: has a pitch accent. This wouldn’t eliminate an analysis where the two have a common core. Another factor to consider is that, as discussed in Syed and Dash (2017), in Bangla and Odia, the polar question particle (ki) cannot be sentence-initial while the homophonous thematic ki can be.

  4. 4.

    It is possible to have the PQP in a preverbal position, but its acceptability seems to vary based on a number of factors such as the the heaviness of the following verbal complex—see for example the fully acceptable (31c) where the verbal complex consists of a participle and an auxiliary.

  5. 5.

    The kya: that appears in the Hindi-Urdu scope marking construction patterns with thematic kya: in its distribution and prosodic profile.

  6. 6.

    This resource was created by Miki Nishioka (Osaka University) and Lago Language Institute (2016–2017). It has around 200 million words. The full reference is: Miki Nishioka (Osaka University) and Lago Language Institute (2016–2017). Corpus Of Spoken Hindi (COSH) and COSH Conc [Software]. Available from http://www.cosh.site. Last accessed 4 January 2020.

  7. 7.

    An anonymous reviewer notes that (11a) does not form a minimal pair with (11b) and offers us the following example which does form a minimal pair with the rogative.

    1. (i)

      I found out from what source the reprisals could come.

      *I found out from what source could the reprisals come.

    The fact that the restriction holds of CPs that are syntactically sisters to a P and not to the embedding verb highlights that selection cannot be a simple lexical matter.

  8. 8.

    We thank Mingming Liu, Beibei Xu, Jess H.-K. Law and Yi-Hsun Chen for these judgments. See also Song (2018) for discussion related to polar question particles in Mandarin.

  9. 9.

    The idea that some embedding predicates can take complements with more structure is anticipated in discussions of Spanish. The connection between structural complexity and semantic type-distinctions is articulated most explicitly in Suñer (1993). See Lahiri (2002:147) and Dayal (2016:144–147) for relevant discussion.

  10. 10.

    The reasons for this fluidity are explored in Dayal (2019). For a general discussion of issues related to selection, see Dayal (2016:136–147).

  11. 11.

    We thank Manfred Krifka and Maria Biezma for helpful comments in this connection.

  12. 12.

    See Sect. 6.1 for non-canonical uses of polar and wh-questions.

  13. 13.

    We note, though, that there are other contexts, such as unconditionals, discussed by Rawlins (2013), where the presence of complementizers such as whether is insufficient for delivering a plurality of propositions and an explicit (polar) alternative question is needed even in English.

    1. (i)
  14. 14.

    For a recent survey of embedded root phenomena, see Heycock (2017).

  15. 15.

    We are setting aside the issue of bias and its relationship to intonation. For relevant discussion on Bangla and Hindi-Urdu, see Bhadra (2017) and Dayal (2016, 2019).

  16. 16.

    More broadly, ForceP[+Q] will realize the intonation that characterizes the question that it embeds. So wh-questions, alternative questions, and rhetorical questions would be associated with different prosodic contours. Put differently, ForceP[+Q] will not always be realized as rising intonation. We thank a reviewer for asking us to clarify the link between our syntax and the prosody of Yes/No questions.

  17. 17.

    Note that we are not claiming that there is a blanket ban on the movement of weak indefinites in Hindi-Urdu. It is, in fact, possible to move weak indefinites under appropriate conditions (Dayal 2011).

  18. 18.

    An anonymous reviewer wonders whether (38) improves in the following context: A tells B that Asim and Ram visited Sita yesterday because it was her birthday. A further says that Asim gave Sita a book. B replies ‘what about Ram?’ followed by (38a). What is special about this environment is that the discourse makes available an explicit alternative to Ram and hence one might expect the left-adjacency requirement to be lifted. However, we find that (38a) is still deviant in this context while variants where ‘Ram’ follows or immediately precedes kya: are perfectly natural, especially when supplemented with bhi: ‘also’.

  19. 19.

    The reader will note that (42a) and (42b) do not form a minimal pair. The minimal pair of (42a), given below in (i), is noted to be ungrammatical in Han and Romero (2004:538–543).

    1. (i)

    We do not think that (i) is ungrammatical; the source of the problem, we believe, lies in generating the prosody needed for the Alternative Question interpretation with this structure. Some speakers, including one of us, cannot generate the required prosody but accept the Alternative Question reading when presented with questions that have the appropriate prosody.

  20. 20.

    Questions with disjunction can have a choice reading where the speaker provides a choice of alternatives (e.g. What is your name or your social security number? Either will do). They can also have a cancellation reading where the speaker retracts the first question and substitutes it with a new question (e.g. What is your name? or rather what is your social security number?). We are focusing here on the choice reading of alternative questions, which has been shown to be possible with clause-level disjunction (Hirsch 2017; Ciardelli et al. 2019). See also Groenendijk and Stokhof (1984), Haida and Repp (2013), Krifka (2001), Szabolcsi (1997, 2016). An interesting fact about Hindi-Urdu is that the disjunction operators ya:/ki do not lend themselves to cancellation type readings, for which balki ‘rather’ needs to be used. We set this aside as it does not affect the analysis of the PQP kya: in this paper.

  21. 21.

    Maribel Romero (p.c.) has directed our attention to examples like Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?. Syntactically these are disjunctions of two polar questions and yet it is natural to respond to them as a Yes/No question i.e. the explicit disjunction of polar questions does not force an Alternative Question interpretation. We believe that for a Yes/No interpretation to be available the two polar questions have to be asking parts of a higher-level question—here this could be Do you have an association with the Communist Party?

  22. 22.

    Two anonymous reviewers ask how we derive an alternative question, one that presupposes the answer to be only ‘p’ or ‘q’, from a disjunction of two Yes/No questions, each of which allows for a positive and a negative answer (‘p’, ‘¬ p’, ‘q’, ‘¬ q’). On our view, each polar question disjunct denotes only one answer that can either be accepted or denied. When the two combine by set union, we get {p, q} and it is to this set that an answerhood operator applies to yield the unique true answer (see Dayal 2016). Other approaches to building alternative questions out of a disjunction of polar questions have to make analogous moves (see Dayal 2016:261–265 for discussion and further references).

  23. 23.

    We only show the TP fronting option as fronting the CP is semantically equivalent.

  24. 24.

    Biezma et al. (2017; slide 32) note that polar questions can be asked even when a speaker expects a negative answer but polar kya: questions cannot. They are considering kya: questions with prosodically focused expressions and we agree. But without such focus, our judgement is that expectations about a negative answer pose no problems to kya:.

  25. 25.

    Incredulity questions have not been studied in depth and in the case of polar questions they are notoriously hard to separate from echo questions and/or biased declarative questions. The interested reader is directed to the discussion in Dayal (2016: 8, 279–282) and references there.


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This paper would not exist if Miriam Butt had not invited both of us and then told us to give a joint talk at the workshop on non-canonical questions in Hegne in February 2014. That got us working on this topic. We are very grateful to audiences at that workshop and at LISSIM 8, the GIAN lecture series at the University of Mumbai, the 2nd CreteLing, UMass Amherst, UCSD, Johns Hopkins, UConn, MIT, UCLA, seminars at Rutgers between 2014 and 2018, and the IATL conference in Beer Sheva. Miriam Butt, Tina Bögel, Maria Biezma, Farhat Jabeen, Gennaro Chierchia, Anoop Mahajan, Dominique Sportiche, Hilda Koopman, Roger Schwarzschild, Aron Hirsch, Irene Heim and Adrian Stegovec helped us refine our initial understanding of this phenomenon. Finally, we would like to thank our three anonymous reviewers for incredibly detailed and helpful reviews and our editor Hedde Zeijlstra who expertly shepherded us through the process.

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Correspondence to Rajesh Bhatt.

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Bhatt, R., Dayal, V. Polar question particles: Hindi-Urdu kya:. Nat Lang Linguist Theory (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-020-09464-0

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  • Prosody
  • Alternative questions
  • Polar questions
  • Disjunction
  • Scope of disjunction
  • Q-morphemes
  • Polar question particles (PQP)
  • Discourse particles
  • Selection