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Polar Questions

Polar questions can be formed in several ways. Syntactic means can form overt polar questions, while particular intonations can give utterances with declarative syntax the illocutionary force of a question.

ndax Questions

Polar questions are typically formed by means of a clause-initial question particle ndax. It may or may not be preferentially used in instances where the speaker has incomplete information to make the yes-no judgment themselves, or situations in which the speaker is seeking confirmation For instance, one might ask ndax a ñaama? "Is s/he eating?" while looking at a person with a plate and utensils (102).

ndax can also be used as a complementizer, occurring at the left edge of a subordinated clause, meaning approximately 'whether' or 'if'. In the case that it is used as a complementizer, a question can be formed by adding another ndax at the beginning of the matrix clause:

a andee ndax xam ret.
'He doesn't know whether I'll come.' - declarative sentence (150)
ndax a andee ndax xam ret?
'Does(n't) he know whether I'll come?' interrogative sentence (150)

Pragmatic Questions

Polar questions can be implied by uttering a declarative. Often, a non-sentence-final H is added to normal declarative (falling) intonation. The specific placement of the H varies.

xeƈa is another sentence-initial particle that expresses doubt, meaning roughly 'perhaps'. The free variant xaƈa exists, although xeƈa is far more common in the speech of our consultant. Sentences marked with xeƈa may be declarative or (through pragmatic interpretation) interrogative:

xeƈa a anda ndax xam ret.
'Maybe he doesn't know whether I'll come (right?).' - declarative or interrogative sentence (150)

Uttering an otherwise unmarked procedural base (see Imperatives and Procedurals) allows one to ask, perhaps through implication, whether the indicated subject is allowed to proceed with the indicated action. Consultant reports that this phenomenon is very frequent in informal conversation. This particular construction works with all persons and numbers (all data from 169):

in yeer? 'Can I drink?'
o yeer? 'Can you drink?'
te yeer? 'Can s/he drink?'
i yeer? 'Can we drink?'
nuu yeer? 'Can ya'll drink?'
de yeer? 'Can they drink?'

WH Questions

All WH-questions are formed through the use of syntactically overt WH-pronouns: xar 'what', yam xar 'why' (lit. 'because what'), tam 'where', an 'who', and mban 'when': Furthermore, subject marking (all from 101):

xar o ñaamaa?
'what are you eating?'
yam xar o ñaamaa?
'why are you eating?'
tam o ñaamaa? or tam o ñaamtaa?
'where are you eating?'
mban o ñaamaa?
'when are you eating?'
an o ñaamaa?
'who are you eating?'
an na ñaamaa sup ne?
'who is eating the soup?'

Two more WH-words, oxum 'which' and podnum 'how many/much', are discussed in more detail below. Before reading on to these, though, several observations should be made about the above WH-words in usage.

  • Each WH-pronoun is typically fronted and the verb in its clause exhibits extraction marking as appropriate. (Adjuncts like "when," for instance, do not co-occur with extraction marking.)
an ñaam-u?
'who just ate?' (139)
xar a ref-u?
'what is it?'
xar ñaam-u?
'what am I eating?' (103)
  • "where" can occur licensed by an applicative suffix on the verb or without this extension.
  • "who", if its referent is the subject of the sentence, co-occurs with an apparent verbal prefix or proclitic na- that seems to stand in for an indefinite subject.

WH Constituent Questions

Wh-DPs are formed such that the WH determiner agrees in noun class marking with the noun at the head of the NP. As such, there are 14 different ways of saying "which" and "how many/much". The syntax and agreement patterns of these WH-words is presented below.

oxum 'which' is postposed to its noun and agrees with it. It is likely based on a default article ox suffixed with a WH-suffix -um that forms the resulting WH-determiner. The following table shows agreement with all noun classes:


The wh- question word appears in the form of a morphological change on the determiner particle, whereby the initial segments are retained in agreement with the noun class, but the usual determiner vowel ending is substituted with -um:

faniik famaak fe
‘the big elephant’
faniik famaak fum yaxgu
‘Which big elephant is red?’

Historically, this -um suffix may have been an independent word *num, since forms such as the following are still in occasional use:

faniik fum yaxgu
faniik fanum yaxgu
‘Which elephant is red?’

In the absence of a noun, all singular and plural forms of which-determiners are realized as a default oxum (the citation form provided above) and wum, respectively, without any noun-class-specific identifier:


oxum magnu
‘Which one is big?’


wum yaxgu?
‘Which ones are big?’
*fum yaxgu?

However, when a modifier is already present in the question, that modifier must agree in noun class with the elided referent, and therefore oxum again agrees with the noun class of the elided referent:

famagnu fum yaxgu
famaak fum yaxgu
‘which big one is red?’
famagnu fe yaxgu.
‘the big one (elephant) is red’

The second WH-word, podnum 'how many/much', is either postposed or preposed to its noun. If postposed, agreement occurs (e.g. andew ambodnum 'how many women.AUG'), but if preposed, agreement does not occur (e.g. podnum andew 'how many women.AUG'). Agreement forms are given in the table below. Note that agreement is quite distinct from that for oxum: rather than a suffix applied to a changing series of determiner stems, podnum appears to be itself a stem to which prefixal noun class agreement and consonant mutation is applied.

It seems that podnum can only be used with plural nouns, even when inquiring about mass quantities. As such, only the plural agreement patterns are given in the table below.

I'm checking on this assertion right now. --MF

Plural agreement forms of podnum
Class Plural podnum Prox. Det. gloss
ox/w rew fodnum we woman
ol/ax xa-ƥox xa-podnum axe dog
l/ak a-qomb a-podnum ake turtle
f/k qaarit podnum ke friend
n/k qoox podnum ke bull
al/k peel podnum ke lake
al/ak a-koong a-podnum ake monkey
ong/fn fo-ndew fo-mbodnum ne woman-DIM
gal/gak (g)a-ndew a-mbodnum ake woman-AUG

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