eesti teaduste
akadeemia kirjastus
The Yearbook of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society cover
The Yearbook of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society
Impact Factor (2022): 0.3
PDF | doi:10.3176/esa61.04

Tiit Hennoste, Helle Metslang, Külli Habicht, Anni Jürine, Kirsi Laanesoo, David Ogren

Forms and functions of polar questions across four centuries and six text types

The article deals with the various forms and functions of polar questions in written Estonian, as well as the relationships between form, function and text type. The analysis is based on material from 17th and 18th-century religious and didactic texts, modern fiction and journalistic texts, internet comment sections and Instant Messaging dialogues. 100 questions from each text type were used in the study. We divide the means of forming polar questions into primary (question markers and word order) and secondary (question-marking conjunctions and epistemic modal particles) means, as well as declarative sentences with question
The main ways of forming polar questions are sentence-initial question particles (chiefly kas) and declarative sentences or questions featuring only secondary question markers. Each of these groups accounts for 27% of all questions. Sentence-final markers are common only in online dialogues, and inversion appears frequently only in old religious texts. Polar question markers and their usage differ between old and modern texts. Verbal markers have moved from the beginning of the sentence to the end, and the proportion of questions formed by secondary question markers has increased.
The primary function of polar questions in all text types except for old religious literature is to ask for confirmation of one’s understanding (questions expressing assumptions or doubts); this function accounts for 56–75% of all questions. The proportion of information-seeking questions is 31–32% in fiction and journalistic texts and between 0–14% in other text types. Moreover, all text types featured examples of directives and rhetorical questions, and old religious texts featured “testing” questions (where the questioner knows the answer and is testing the conversation partner’s knowledge).
In modern texts, requests for information are expressed primarily by sentence-initial particles and word order. Information-seeking questions did not appear in older texts. Questions expressing doubt were formed in all printed texts by markers similar to those used to request for information; in internet texts, the usage of different markers was more variable.
Questions expressing assumptions are in modern texts expressed primarily by declarative sentences and secondary markers, as well as sentence-final question markers in internet texts. In old written texts, such questions are formed by sentence-initial particles, which are often accompanied by secondary markers. Overall, secondary markers are closely associated with questions expressing assumptions, but are hardly ever found in information-seeking questions. The analysis reveals that the primary function of polar questions and the relationships between form and function do not depend on the time period, text type, or the reality/fictionality of the interaction. The preferences for particular means of question formation were not affected by prescriptive norms or language contact.


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