Polar answers

N. J. Enfield*, Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpaa, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, Mirka Rauniomaa, Chase Wesley Raymond, Federico Rossano, Kyung-Eun Yoon, Inge Zwitserlood, Stephen C. Levinson

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

    8 Citations (Scopus)

    Abstract

    How do people answer polar questions? In this fourteen-language study of answers to questions in conversation, we compare the two main strategies; first, interjection-type answers such as uh-huh (or equivalents yes, mm, head nods, etc.), and second, repetition-type answers that repeat some or all of the question. We find that all languages offer both options, but that there is a strong asymmetry in their frequency of use, with a global preference for interjection-type answers. We propose that this preference is motivated by the fact that the two options are not equivalent in meaning. We argue that interjection-type answers are intrinsically suited to be the pragmatically unmarked, and thus more frequent, strategy for confirming polar questions, regardless of the language spoken. Our analysis is based on the semantic-pragmatic profile of the interjection-type and repetition-type answer strategies, in the context of certain asymmetries inherent to the dialogic speech act structure of question-answer sequences, including sequential agency and thematic agency. This allows us to see possible explanations for the outlier distributions found in & Akhoe Hai & om and Tzeltal.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)277-304
    Number of pages28
    JournalJournal of Linguistics
    Volume55
    Issue number2
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 1-Apr-2019

    Keywords

    • conversation
    • interjections
    • polar questions
    • pragmatics
    • typology

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