The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LingLunch 2/6 - Kai von Fintel and Sabine Iatridou (MIT)

Speaker: Kai von Fintel and Sabine Iatridou (MIT)
Title: Unasked Questions
Time: Thursday, February 6th, 12:30pm – 2pm
Location: 32-D461

Abstract: Since Hamblin 1958, many linguists have considered the denotation of a question to be a set of propositions. But what is it that compels the hearer to respond to a question? The by far most common answer is ‘pragmatics’. The general idea is that, as the natural response to an assertion is to consider whether you want to accept it (i.e. add the proposition to the common ground), the response to being confronted with a set of propositions is to be compelled to choose among them. We argue that a number of languages have a way of marking a question that seems to affect the question’s meaning in a way that is illuminating to the above issue. These markers include Greek araye, Turkish acaba, Japanese naa. We show that across these unrelated languages, these markers have surprisingly similar results. We argue that all these results reduce to one: a question marked this way imposes no obligation on the hearer to answer the question. This means that a set of propositions does not automatically and in and of itself bestow an obligation on the hearer to answer it. We discuss the significance of this finding for current theories of questions.