The Syntax of Yes and No

From October 2011 to September 2013
Project Leader(s): Anders Holmberg
Contact: Anders Holmberg
Sponsors: The Leverhulme Trust

The project is funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, for 24 months starting October 2011. The aim is to carry out two related tasks: (a) a survey of forms of answers, affirmative and negative, to polar questions (yes/no-questions) in the languages of the world, and (b) an investigation of the syntactic structure of the different types of answers encountered: What do they have in common, how do they differ?

The following are some salient differences among languages as regards answers to polar questions:
• In some languages you employ an affirmative particle, like yes in English, in other languages you reply affirmatively by ‘echoing’ the finite verb, or in some languages other constituents of the question depending on the focus of the question.
The echo-type clearly involves sentential ellipsis, so the project has theoretical implications for the syntax of ellipsis and focus, in addition to having implications for the syntax of negation, affirmation, and interrogation. A hypothesis to be investigated is that particle answers are also derived by ellipsis.
• As regards replies to negative questions, there is a well known dichotomy between two systems of confirming the negation of a question: The polarity-based system where the answer is ‘No’, as in English, for example, and the truth-value based system where the answer is ‘Yes’, as in Japanese, for example. Less well known is the fact that there is variation within languages as well, depending on the bias of the question and other matters to be investigated.
• There is cross-linguistic variation regarding how to contradict the negation of a negative question. Some languages have a special affirmation particle (French si, German doch, Standard Arabic balaa), other languages resort to VP-ellipsis (English: Yes he does), some languages use doubling of the echoed verb: Portuguese Fala, fala ‘speaks speaks’.
What is the range of variation? How can we explain these different strategies? One hypothesis is that these are different strategies employed to avoid including the negation of the question in the elliptical, affirmative reply. One task is, then, to investigate the variety of reply forms found across languages, and check if this hypothesis is right.

The first stage of the project will include collection of data from a large set of languages, sampled so as to adequately reflect the genetic and areal variation among the world’s languages. In the second stage, a small set of languages will be investigated in detail, with a view to providing a detailed syntactic analysis of different forms of answers, and characterising in precise, formal terms the variation among the languages.