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Scott AnderBois: “What is a Question? An Answer from Yucatec Maya”

May 20, 2011 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm  |  Stevenson Fireside Lounge


Scott AnderBois

The act of questioning is central to human conversation, but how do we know if a given sentence is a question in the first place? Looking at English, there are two reasonable accounts we might give. First, questions are defined by their semantics: i.e. questions have a particular kind of meaning which is distinct from that of other sentences, and, in particular, from assertions. Alternatively, questions might be defined by their syntax: i.e. the form of questions make use of particular elements (e.g. question words like `who’, `what’, and `why’) which distinguish them from assertions.

This talk addresses the title question from the perspective of Yucatec Maya, an indigenous language of Mexico spoken by roughly 800,000 people. Questions in Yucatec Maya often have no single element in their form which distinguishes them from assertions. Rather, they consist of particular combinations of elements, each of which occurs on its own in sentences which are clearly not questions. To understand why such sentences are questions, then, requires a particular understanding of the meaning of these elements individually, and of how these meanings interact in a given sentence. In so doing, we not only shed light on the nature of questions across languages, but also on the nature of the elements from which questions are built.

Scott AnderBois is a fifth year grad student in Linguistics. His dissertation research investigates the grammatical properties of questions and related constructions, such as indefinite pronouns (i.e. words like ‘someone’, ‘something’) whose function is to introduce issues for immediate or future conversation. In order to address these general questions, Mr. AnderBois has been engaged in primary fieldwork on the properties of these constructions in Yukatek Maya, an indigenous language of Mexico, currently spoken by approximately 800,000 people in the Yucatán Peninsula. Whereas questions in English are clearly identified by the presence of question words like ‘who’ and ‘what’, analogous questions in Yukatek Maya are formed by placing a word which otherwise means ‘someone’ or ‘something’ in a particular position within the sentence. Expanding on this exploration of the tight relationship between indefinite pronouns and questions in Yukatek Maya, Mr. AnderBois’s research sheds light on the meanings of both constructions as a general phenomenon in human language.

This event is made possible by the UC Society of Fellows and the UC Humanities Network.  Staff support provided by the Institute for Humanities Research, UC Santa Cruz.


May 20, 2011
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm


Stevenson Fireside Lounge
Humanites 1 University of California, Santa Cruz Cowell College
Santa Cruz, CA 95064 United States
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