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«Lucas Seuren, Mike Huiskes & Tom Koole Centre for Language and Cognition Groningen; School of human and community development, University of the ...»

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Epistemics and the functions of declarative questions in Dutch


Lucas Seuren, Mike Huiskes & Tom Koole

Centre for Language and Cognition Groningen; School of human and community

development, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

l.m.seuren@rug.nl; m.huiskes@rug.nl; tom.koole@rug.nl

The role of grammar in talk-in-interaction has recently become a focal point of

conversation analytic research. Yet how different clause types, such as declaratives

and interrogatives, contribute to action formation is still rather vague. We approach this issue by looking at three questioning actions that are designed with a declarative prefaced by a specific lexical item: want, dus, and oh. We will demonstrate that each action presupposes that the speaker has a high degree of certainty: want is used to account, dus to infer, and oh conveys a change-of-state, typically from not knowing (K −) to knowing (K +). Based on these findings, we will argue that declarative questions are used when a speaker claims a particular epistemic stance, and in turn that epistemic stance constrains the actions that a clause type can be used for.

1. The linguistic realization of questions Asking questions is one of the most fundamental actions in talk-in-interaction. Not only do we use them for their obvious function, which is gaining new information, but they can also serve as vehicles for other actions (Schegloff, 2007); for Dutch, Englert (2010) found that there are at least six different uses for questions. This raises the question of how they can convey these activities; in terms of action formation, what resources - in particular what linguistic resources - are used to make an utterance recognizable as a question (cf. Schegloff, 2007: xiv).

Traditionally the answer has been sought, at least in part, in the syntax of utterances.

In Dutch, as in most other Germanic languages (Dryer, 2013), the prototypical questioning utterance begins with a question word such as wie (‘who’). These whclauses make relevant - i.e. request as an appropriate next action - a variable response, depending on the question word used, and are thus typically called variable questions or content questions. Another prototypical way to design a question is by placing the subject after the verb, making the utterance verb-initial. These interrogatives make Seuren, Huiskes & Koole - Epistemics and the functions of declarative questions relevant a yes/no response and are thus typically called yes/no questions or polar questions. The final question design, and the one we are interested here, also makes relevant a yes/no response, but has what we could call default word order: the finite verb is in second position and is preceded by some other clause-internal element, typically but not necessarily the subject. These declaratives are normally associated with assertions, but are also frequently used to ask questions, possibly even more frequently than interrogatives1 (Englert, 2010).

Although declaratives are syntactically distinct from interrogatives, the response they make relevant is similar. This does not mean they are also functionally identical.

Heritage (2012a) has shown that declaratives convey a different Epistemic Stance:

with a declarative the inquirer treats the content of the question as already known or established, whereas with an interrogative s/he treats the content as still in question (Raymond, 2010; for a similar proposal see Gunlogson, 2001). Because of this, declaratives are often seen to make relevant only a confirmation (Raymond, 2010, Lee, 2014).

Research has, however, shown that declarative questions, like questions with other clause types, are not just used as requests for confirmation. Schegloff (2007) views questions as a descriptive category for various actions. He demonstrates that questions can be ‘double-barreled’ and are used as ‘vehicles for other actions’ such as inviting.

Steensig and Heinemann (2013) take a more narrow approach. They show that questions, even when their primary function is to elicit information, can still be further categorized in more specific types of actions such as specification requests or knowledge-discrepancy question. Our aim in this paper is to unify these approaches, by considering some of the actions that declarative questions can be used for and show how such a categorization relates to their epistemic stance.

To address this issue, we have looked at a corpus of 23.5 hours of informal telephone conversations between students and friends/family. These conversations were recorded by students at Utrecht University as part of a BA-course in 2010 and

2011. From this corpus we gathered 150 declarative utterances that were used as questions2. These questions were selected from 75 separate conversations, with a total of 114 different speakers. The participants talk about a wide variety of topics from everyday life. We noticed that a large number of these questions are prefaced by particular lexical items. Each of these items conveys how the question relates to the preceding talk. We made a comparison with all the interrogative questions in the same conversations and found that while some items are combined with both clause types such as maar and en - others more strongly prefer declaratives (see table 1).

It has been claimed that a final rising pitch is crucial in making declaratives recognizable as questions (e.g. Haan, 2002). In our corpus, however, only 30% of declarative questions had a final rising pitch, counting both rise-to-mid and rise-to-high. Addressing the difference between these findings is beyond the scope of this paper.

We did not stop at 150, because we took all declarative questions from every conversation we analyzed, bringing the total to 153.

60 - Anéla Conference 2015 Epistemics and the functions of declarative questions - Seuren, Huiskes & Koole Table 1: Frequency of maar, en, oh, want, and dus, in the preface of interrogative and declarative questions

–  –  –

These findings are in line with earlier research by Beun (1990). He argued that dus and oh - he did not discuss want - are used to make declarative utterances recognizable as questions: they link a declarative utterance to prior talk by the addressee, and thereby s/he is marked as having primary epistemic status. Beun’s analysis, however, does not account for why some of these items more easily combine with interrogatives than others. We will attempt to shed some light on this issue.

In this paper, we will give a general description of the function of declarative questions prefaced by want, dus, and oh3. We will show that declaratives prefaced by want are used to account for other actions, an action of either the speaker or his/her cointeractant, and that declaratives prefaced by dus are used to convey the speaker’s understanding of prior discourse. Both conjunctions are thus used to achieve mutual understanding, but where want deals with the course of action, dus addresses content.

We will then show that oh, like its English counterpart (Heritage, 1984), is used to convey a change of state. Finally, we will argue that because all these functions presuppose certainty on the part of the speaker, their preference for declaratives is in line with Heritage’s proposal on Epistemic Stance (Heritage, 2012a).

2. Data

In the selection of our data we followed the definition of question put forward by Stivers and Enfield (2010). Our primary criterion was whether a declarative utterance was a functional question. Which means that it had to effectively seek to elicit information, confirmation, or agreement (p. 2621). Because the underlying format of fragment clauses is not always straightforward, we only selected full clausal declarative utterances with an overt element preceding the finite verb. An utterance A detailed comparison between interrogatives and declaratives unfortunately falls outside the scope of this paper. But we believe based on the distribution in table 1 that the functions discussed are exclusive to declaratives. Dus does not preface interrogatives, and want only does in two exceptional cases. Although oh prefaces interrogative questions more frequently, it is still far more frequent with declaratives.

Anéla Conference 2015 - 61 Seuren, Huiskes & Koole - Epistemics and the functions of declarative questions like met de kinderen (‘with the children’) in response to an informing declarative utterance about who came to visit could be parasitical on the format that preceding turn. However, without assuming some specific syntactic theory, there is no way to definitively prove that it is not an elliptical interrogative: ‘kwam ze met de kinderen’ (‘did she come with the children’) - assuming there is an underlying structure.

Declaratives containing the turn-final particle hè (‘right?’), which cannot be turn-final for an interrogative, were treated as tag questions, i.e. not as declaratives4; e.g. ‘maar sommigen beginnen maandag al hè’ (‘but some already start on Monday, right?’).

3. Function of declarative questions

In our analysis we have ascertained that there are (at least) three functions of declarative questions: they can be used (i) to account for other actions, (ii) to convey a formulation, (iii) or to signal a change of state. All three functions are conveyed by specific lexical items, but these do not contribute to action formation in the same way.

Whereas an account is an action on its own, a formulation can be used for different, albeit related, actions. As Heritage (1984) has shown, there are at least ten actions to which a change-of-state token can contribute. It can even be combined with an account or a formulation. We can only show some of these functions, but our claim is that all functions share the general feature that they presuppose a small knowledge gap between speaker and addressee, what Heritage and Raymond (2012) call the epistemic gradient. We will discuss the functions of want, before we move on to the more general functions of dus and oh.

3.1 Mutual understanding of actions

Declarative questions prefaced by want are done either following an action by the same speaker, or following an action by the co-interactant. In both cases the utterance is treated as a polar question, but it also functions as an account for that prior action.

The function of these declarative questions is to achieve mutual understanding about the course of action; why the prior action was done and how it should be addressed (Nielsen, 2009). The following excerpt is a case in point. Ilse and Daantje are talking about a friend of Daantje’s who recently moved into a new house. After an appreciative assessment, Ilse redoes an earlier question (Mazeland & Huiskes, 2001), immediately followed by a want-prefaced declarative question in line 4.

–  –  –

Although toch in turn-final position can also only follow a declarative, we did include it in our corpus, because as an epistemic modifier it does appear in interrogatives, just not in turnfinal position.

62 - Anéla Conference 2015 Epistemics and the functions of declarative questions - Seuren, Huiskes & Koole

–  –  –

Daantje addresses both questions, one after another. She begins with the second question by providing a confirmation in line 6, thus treating it as a polar question, and she then expands on the specifics of what was so difficult. After line 15, she moves on to the first question, saying that her friend enjoys the new program and is doing well.

Both answers are separated by a pause of 0.9 seconds, and Daantje treats them as separate answers by prefacing her second answer with en (‘and’) in line 17; she addresses a list of questions, albeit a short list. But Daantje does not answer the questions in this order simply for reasons of contiguity (Sacks, 1987), where her second answer is independent of the first. The first answer provides a context in which the second answer is to be understood: her friend is not just doing well, she is doing Anéla Conference 2015 - 63 Seuren, Huiskes & Koole - Epistemics and the functions of declarative questions well after having overcome difficulties. In this way, Daantje conveys her understanding of the declarative question as an account for the general news inquiry (cf. Button & Casey, 1985). It demonstrates why the main question has been asked and thus should be addressed first so as to provide a context for a response to the news inquiry.

Now bear in mind that by asking the question Ilse conveys that she considers it a relevant action. In other words, her request for a status update is relevant based on the premise that Daantje’s friend had troubles to overcome, which means that Ilse conveys a strong belief in the truth of line 4. Thus the epistemic gradient of her declarative question is very shallow. At the same time Ilse demonstrates only limited access by not naming the specifics of the problems. So with respect to those specifics, she conveys a rather steep epistemic gradient, which makes relevant an explanation of those problems by Daantje (cf. Heritage, 2012b).

We see that with the want-prefaced declarative question Ilse changes her main action. The question in line 3 is designed as a general news inquiry, but because of the account in line 4 it requests a very specific news update. The declarative question not only demonstrates that Ilse’s first question is a relevant action, it also conveys what a response must deal with.

In the previous cases an interactant provided an account for his/her own action.

However, in 4 out of the 13 cases in our corpus, an interactant provides an account for his/her co-interactant’s action. This account is then treated as a candidate account, rather as the account, and the co-interactant can still reject it. The following excerpt is a case in point. Lennie and Evelien began their conversation with an attempt to schedule a movie night, but they did not agree on a definitive plan. After some intervening talk Evelien has resumed the topic. In line 1-2 Lennie suggests to plan the night before the summer holiday, but Evelien argues that they could also plan it during the summer. Lennie follows with a want-prefaced declarative question in line 11.

–  –  –

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