Dr Winford James

What kind of question is this? Pt 2

What kind of question is this? Pt 1

By Dr. Winford James
August 08, 2004

Often in the most standard speech of West Indians, we hear questions like the following: 'Why Manning and Boynes are complaining?' / 'Anybody agrees with the answer given?' / 'Everybody understands what they have to do?' / 'You-all heard what the prime minister said?' What kind of questions are these? It may come as a surprise to the users and most hearers that they are not Internationally Accepted English (IAE).

If they aren't IAE, what are they or, as we would have it, what they are?

Look carefully at the sentences and you will notice that they all have a structure in which a subject is followed either by an auxiliary or a main verb. In the first question, it is 'Manning and Boynes' and auxiliary 'are'; in the second, it is 'Anybody' and main verb 'agrees'; in the third, it is 'Everybody' and main verb 'understands'; and in the last, it is 'You-all' and main verb 'heard'. Subjects are followed by auxiliaries and main verbs - just as in statements - in a way that IAE disallows in contexts where the speaker is merely seeking information.

An IAE speaker seeking the same kinds of information would phrase her questions to have an auxiliary come before the subject, with the main verb following the subject. That is, she would invert the order that is typical of statements. So she would say: 'Why are Manning and Boynes complaining?' / 'Does anybody agree with the answer given?' / 'Does everybody understand what they have to do?' / 'Did you hear what the prime minister said?'

Apart from a difference of word order, there are differences between our West Indian Standard and IAE which should be clear. IAE uses the auxiliary 'do' (in the form of 'does', and 'did') and inflects the auxiliaries (not the main verb) for tense and agreement. Our West Indian Standard does neither. Instead, lacking auxiliary 'do', like IAE it inflects other auxiliaries (e.g., 'be' (in the form, for example, of 'are', in our first question), but, unlike IAE, it inflects the main verb, as in 'agrees', 'understands', and 'heard'.

Now, IAE can inflect main verbs in questions, but typically when those questions are used to echo or confirm previously given information, or to express emotions like surprise and disbelief. For example, if I told you that I had won the Lotto, you could exclaim in disbelief, 'You won the Lotto?!', in which there can be no inversion of subject and verb to 'Did you win?', and the main verb 'win' is inflected for simple past tense in the absence of auxiliary 'did'. Our West Indian Standard inflects the main verb in these contexts as well, but the critical point is that it does so in non-confirmation, non-surprise, and non-disbelief contexts, that is, in contexts where information is being straightforwardly sought.

What kind of language behaviour is that? If it is not IAE, what is it?

Well, it is not Creole either. Yes, our West Indian Standard is identical to Creole in not inverting subject and verb. If we take an auxiliary to be a verb particle that supports a main verb, even in the latter's phonetic absence (that is, when it does not appear!), Creole has no auxiliary in statements and, therefore, no auxiliary to invert in questions. The Creole statement 'He does lime here' contains an apparent auxiliary in the form of 'does', but the statement cannot be converted into the following questions: 'Does he lime here?' or 'Does he?' These would be IAE questions! The Creole would have only one question, and it would be 'He does lime here?', which has the same word order as the Creole statement; the Creole cannot have 'He does?', for the particle 'does' cannot substitute for the verb phrase 'does lime', and the reason is that it carries only a weak, low stress.

This identity with the Creole in word order and absence of auxiliaries might suggest that our West Indian Standard was influenced by the Creole state of affairs. And we might further hypothesize that the application of tense and agreement, albeit to the main verb, was influenced by the state of affairs in IAE. If that is the case, it should be clear that our Standard is neither fully Creole nor fully IAE, though it seems to have incorporated structure from both languages. What is it then?

Perhaps bad IAE? That conclusion would be unacceptable in that, since we have been speaking this way for years and years without any deficits in communication, it invites us to hold that we are unequal to the intellectually simple task of inverting subject and auxiliary.

No, this question structure of ours is definitely new (in the sense of different) language - perhaps an innovation by us West Indians, as well as by speakers with a similar language experience as ours.

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