The pragmatics of reversed-polarity questions in Máíhɨ̃ki (Western Tukanoan)

Amalia Skilton


Overview: Reversed-polarity questions (Koshik 2002) are constructions that have the morphosyntactic form of questions, but are pragmatically interpreted as assertions of the opposite polarity (such as the English Isn't it raining?). These constructions are ubiquitous in Máíhɨ̃kì (Western Tukanoan, Peru; previously known as Orejón). Primary field data shows that, in this language, native speakers frequently interpret both negative (1) and positive (2) polar questions as declaratives of the opposite polarity.

(1) ĩ́dàrì mánì dɨ́òhõ̀mààɨ̀.
ĩ́ -dàrì mánì dɨ́ò -hõ̀ -mà -àɨ̀
"Here he killed him and threw him in the water" (declarative reading)
"Didn't he kill him and throw him in the water here?" (interrogative reading)

(2) hékà ɨ́á bèèrè.
hékà ɨ́á bèè -rè
firewood small.qty carry.on.back -1PL.PST.INTERR
"We carried a lot of wood" (declarative reading)
"Did we carry a small quantity of wood?" (interrogative reading)

Previous work on reversed-polarity questions in other Western Tukanoan languages has described negative polarity constructions similar to (1) as indirect evidentials (Wheeler 1987) or as conjectural constructions combining evidential and weak epistemic modal meanings (Bruil 2014).

Problem: Conveying evidential status and epistemic modality are somewhat marginal functions of reversed-polarity questions in Máíhɨ̃̀kì. Out of 269 reversed-polarity questions in a ~110,000-word corpus of recorded texts, less than 50 tokens could be felicitously glossed as having conjectural or inferential evidentiality or weak epistemic modality. The remaining reversed-polarity questions in the corpus were found primarily in agonistic and potentially-agonistic discursive contexts of critical evaluation of individual behavior; self-defense against explicit criticism; discussion of potentially controversial behavior; and assertion of socially contested, though not epistemically uncertain, beliefs.

Discussion: Through detailed analysis of passages from the corpus, I show that speakers of Máíhɨ̃̀kì use reversed-polarity questions not as a grammatical means of indicating evidential or epistemic status, but as a more general interactional strategy in which the speaker, through use of an interrogative verb form, prompts her interlocutor to issue a preferred response consisting of a declarative verb of the opposite polarity. Reversed-polarity questions therefore retain one part of the pragmatics of typical interrogatives: they explicitly solicit a response from the interlocutor, albeit a scripted response of affilitiation with the speaker's stance toward the proposition expressed by the question. This request for affiliation acts to mitigate the threats involved in introducing a proposition which -- whether because of its epistemic status, or because it touches a morally or epistemically controversial subject -- may disrupt the interaction.

Theoretical Implications: In both Máíhɨ̃̀kì and many Indo-European languages, reversed-polarity questions may be interpreted either as epistemically weak conjectures (e.g. Romero and Han 2004) or, especially in agonistic contexts, as emphatic assertions (Heritage 2002, Koshik 2002). This paper offers a unified pragmatic analysis accounting for both functions, as well as for the apparent development of reversed-polarity questions into evidentials in Western Tukanoan. Furthermore, the study provides the first in-depth pragmatic study of reversed-polarity questions in a non-Indo-European language, adding to cross-linguistic understanding of this question type.

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