Darwin-L Message Log 5:227 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<5:227>From loring@maroon.tc.umn.edu  Mon Jan 31 02:08:51 1994

Date: Mon, 31 Jan 1994 01:21:41 -0600 (CST)
From: loring@maroon.tc.umn.edu
Subject: Re: DARWIN-L digest 134
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

>From a recent posting, re the interrogatives found in human languages:

"What we have in these interrogative pronominals is something that is a
fundamental feature of the behaviour of those creatures that first used
language.  Plotting their history and relationships might be a manageeable
and meaningful task.. .
Iain Davidson"

An early commentary from the same writer noted that there is no place on
the sign board used by bonobos and chimps for any of the "Wh-" question
words, and remarked on the observation that these animals do not seem to
possess the attribute of questioning (or words to that effect)

We've already seen the tendency for a language to
have a "family" of question-words, similar in sound
(like the examples given from Indo-European languages and from
Thai), but there is something else to consider.  Cross-language similarities
in form of question-words are usually due to common ancestry; that
is, there is nothing inherently interrogative about the Indo-European [kw]
sound that is found (mutated by sound changes) in question-words in
languages of that family.
Is there, however, something universally interrogative about -intonation-?
There are two characteristic questioning intonations in American English,
one for wh-questions, and one for yes-no questions (try humming "Are you
going home?" and "what is that noise?"  The distinction probably won't show up
for British speakers, but it should for Americans)  These
intonation patterns for questions allow us to identify the difference
between "Got a new watch." and "Got a new watch?"  My question is whether
_all_ human languages utilize interrogative intonation patterns, which
are enough alike as to enable even nonspeakers of a language to discern that a
question is being asked, just from patterns of pitch.
And now, we can move on to animals. Do they use question intonation in
their "vocalizations"?  Do we anthropomorphize our dogs' and cats' whines
and meows, to interpret them as inquiries as it suits us?  Do these
animals actually "ask" each other questions via intonations?
Can they tell that _we_ are asking questions?  How would we tell?

This is in the spirit of inquiry into the nature of the intellect.  I
would bet money that people can easily be found who will swear that their
cats say "Meow?" and who claim that these cats are asking questions (or
making requests).  I would argue that of course people think that; people
expect intelligent others to ask questions, and if they think their cats
are intelligent, they think their cats ask questions.

(By the way, the words "request", "inquire" and "question" contain that
Indo-European [kw]; that's because English borrowed the words from Latin)

Anne Loring
linguistics grad student (with philosophy and cognitive science minors!)

Your Amazon purchases help support this website. Thank you!

© RJO 1995–2022