Sep 4, 2020 in Education

Structure of Wh-questions in Different Languages


Every single language contains its specific peculiarities in regard to lexis, syntax, phonetics, and other aspects. At the same time, distinct similarities can be easily traced in regard to numerous components of any language. One of such components is wh-questions, which are believed to imply a considerable similarity relating to syntax and rules of their formation. This assumption is also supported with the fact that every single language contains a phenomenon of a so-called wh-island movement, which suggests that wh-word bears a specific lexical value in specific questions. However, it is necessary to pay attention to rules of formation and syntax of wh-questions as long as they represent external and internal cognitive patterns respectively that determine wh-questions in speech. In such a way, an assumption that syntax and rules of formation of wh-questions are the matter of preexisting cognitive perspective of language, which is equal to any nation, emerges on a large scale. Hence, the following paper gives an account of comparative analysis of such languages as English, French, Arabic, and Chinese in regard to syntax and formation of wh-questions.

A choice of these languages is justified by the fact that they are the most widespread international languages so that their analysis will represent the assumption outlined above in full. Moreover, these languages represent completely different civilizations so that a cognitive background of the assumption can be discussed from the objective perspective. By the same token, a value of similarities will have a more reasonable connotation in that regard. It is informative to note that outcomes of this study are not ultimate since the issue is quite complicated. Instead, the following study is particularly focused on a distinct description of all similarities and differences between the English, French, Arabic, and Chinese languages in regard to syntax and formation of wh-questions.

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Theoretical Framework


In order to speak about the formation of wh-questions in the English language, first of all it is necessary to admit that wh-word is placed in the basic initial position. In fact, this is the primary reason for defining related questions in such a way. O’Grady mentions that the placement of wh-word or phrase at the basic position is commonly associated with the effect of wh-island movement, which is proactively discussed in academic communities. This aspect, however, relates to linguistic value of wh-words rather than to its syntactic role, which is why it is necessary to give an account of a general principle of its formation. O’Grady also assumes that any wh-question is formed by adjoining a wh-word or phrase to an auxiliary verb in a respective tense and person or verb to be in a respective form plus the primary verb in respective tense form with appropriate flexion grounded on a person of the subject. This principle of formation is typical of an active voice, while passive voice requires a related form of the main verb. 

As a consequence, a general syntactic structure of English wh-questions is the following: a wh-word or phrase + auxiliary verb or verb to be, subject, predicate (main verb), direct object, and modifiers. For example, What do you eat for breakfast? and Who was your first roommate? are both wh-questions. Generally speaking, O’Grady recognizes the gap in the basic structure that presents a standard direct word order, which is why wh-questions usually do not pose any difficulties for learners in that regard. O’Grady admits that syntactic positioning of a wh-word/phrase in the initial position causes various arguments regarding lexical value of the wh-word since the presence of the same utterance in the clause without wh-question structure presents entirely different meaning. This phenomenon can be traced in other languages so that wh-island movement is a linguistic concern on the international level. Nonetheless, this evidence is still not attached to syntactic implications of wh-questions, thereby making a further discussion of wh-islands unnecessary. 


With regard to wh-questions in the French language, two forms of this question exist. Katz and Blyth suggest that the first form is similar to English as it starts with a wh-word or phrase. However, it does not require an auxiliary verb and respective consideration of tense. For example, Pourquoi est-ce qu’il part? means Why did he leave?. In fact, a wh-word or phrase is followed by est-ce que, which can be technically translated as that is. Then, the formation is also similar to the English language since the gap is filled with a subject, predicate, direct object, and modifiers. The second, inversed, form presupposes a wh-word or phrase plus indirect word order. For instance, Pourquoi part-il? that means Why he left? in a word-for-word translation. This constraint is peculiar not only to the French language, but this aspect will be discussed on a separate note within the paper. At any rate, the formation of wh-questions in the French language determines their syntactic structure, which should be also given an account.

In such a way, a syntactic structure of wh-questions in the French language can follow two patterns. Katz and Blyth admit that the first pattern comprises a wh-word or phrase + est-ce que + subject+ predicate (main verb) + direct object + modifiers. The second pattern is a wh-word or phrase + predicate + modifiers (if present) + object + subject. It is informative to note that the first form is commonly recognized as a written one, while inversed pattern is typical of informal communication. This tendency is recent, which is why it does not have any implications relating to peculiarities of syntax. What is more, the movement of wh-island in the first pattern is also applicable. All in all, the French language has its peculiar rules of formation and structuring of wh-question, but they can be unexpectedly traced in other languages, which even do not form the same language family and cannot be explained from the historical perspective.


Talking about wh-questions in the Arabic languages, they follow a common rule for all dialects. Farwaneh and Ouali note that the formation of wh-questions requires a wh-word or phrase in the front basic position with the following verb in a relevant tense, subject, direct object, and modifiers. Therefore, the Arabic languages utilize a pattern similar to inversed wh-structure in the French language due to the fact that they do not deploy auxiliary verbs in that regard. However, Farwaneh and Ouali make a remark that wh-island movement is also traceable owing to a so-called ¬wh-fronting. In fact, this is the first method of the formation of wh-questions in the Arabic languages. The second method is called wh-clefting as long as it presupposes a word εlli that can be translated as that. Hence, this type of formation is similar to French direct pattern. Clefts also have specific resumptive pronouns, which are attached to indirect objects. That is why syntactic perspective of Arabic wh-questions can be influenced by a nature of their formation. 

Generally speaking, Arabic wh-quetsions have the following structure: a wh-word or phrase + predicate + subject + direct object + modifiers. The placement of a predicate and subject, according to Farwaneh and Ouali, can vary, but a traditional form suggests that a predicate precedes a subject. The second variant of wh-question syntax suggests such pattern as a wh-word or phrase + εlli + predicate + indirect/direct object + modifiers. In order to return to the subject of wh-island movement in the Arabic languages, it is fair to mention a tendency noticed by Farwaneh and Ouali, stating that none of dialects disregard this phenomenon. Overall, Arabic wh-questions can look as follows: Fu εftr-εt? (What did you buy?) as well as like Fu εlli εftr-εt ah mεs? (What did you buy yesterday?). In addition, wh-island movement is present within any wh-question except some cases of an utterance’s presence within a complex clause. That is why the influence of syntax on lexical weight of wh-words and phrases is not apparent. 


Concerning wh-questions in Mandarin Chinese, its unique formation and structure should be indicated. First of all, Jiang claims that a wh-word or phrase present in-situ without front placing in the basic position. By the same token, wh-questions do not deploy auxiliary verbs in Mandarin Chinese so that they can be formed with a standard direct order. Hence, Jiang suggests that wh-questions can be distinguished by the presence of a wh-word or phrase, which is why a rule of wh-island movement is still applicable. In such a way, Mandarin Chinese wh-questions are quite unique in comparison with other languages. In order to be more specific, Jiang argues that a standard wh-word is usually placed in the ending position, which is not determined by specific grammatical constraints. This feature is completely different from a perspective of syntax as long as Jiang admits that a wh-word or phrase does not imply any additional lexical value so that the presence of the wh-word or phrase is not highlighted by its fronted position. It can be explained with the fact that a question can be marked with a specific intonation rather than with placement of a wh-word/phrase in a certain position within the utterance. Thus, syntax of wh-questions is also determined in that regard. 

On a separate note, a wh-word/phrase can be placed in different part of the question grounded on attachment to a certain member of a sentence. The most widespread is object position that presupposes the placement of a wh-word/phrase in the end of the sentence. Jiang also metions that attributive position, however, attaches a wh-word/phrase to itself. The same tendency can be traced with regard to any member of a sentence so that it is fair to note that a wh-word/phrase clearly indicates to which word the entire question is referred, which is why the wh-word/phrase can be partially recognized as a unit that renders a specific lexical meaning and addresses external context of the utterance. Overall, Chinese wh-questions look as follows: 你想要什么电影看?(You want what film to watch?), 她在哪里,她的妹妹工作?(She work where with her sister?). In such a way, a wh-word/phrase can be present within any part of the question. 

Comparative Analysis


Similarity of syntax and formation of wh-questions in English is apparent in relation to French. Eguren, Fernandez-Soriano, and Mendikoetxea stress the fact that this similarity is grounded on a structure of syntax since both languages deploy a wh-word/phrase to the basic front position plus direct word order. This similarity is related to the first form of French wh-questions since its inversed form presupposes indirect word order. In the same vein, Eguren suggest that English wh-questions are similar to the first form of Arabic wh-questions as they also use the structure that comprises a fronted wh-word/phrase and direct word order. Overall, similarity is basic in regard to syntax. Generally speaking, the structure of wh-questions in these three languages can be presented in the following example: What do we drink with lunch?

In fact, this is syntactic and thus structural similarity that determines a particular cognitive pattern for production/perception of wh-questions.

As a consequence, English wh-questions are different from French and Arabic ones to the same extent since their second form presupposes inversed syntax that is not typical of English wh-questions. This type of question does not utlize a pattern outlined by Katz and Blyth, namely a wh-word or phrase + predicate + modifiers (if present) + object + subject. In such a way, Why did he leave? differs from French Pourquoi part-il? in regard to the word order. Likewise, Eguren admit that English wh-questions are completely different from their Chinese equivalents with regard to syntax and rules of formation. In order to return to the subject of comparison of English and Arabic wh-questions, it is appropriate to note that the second form of Arabic wh-questions also differs from English in terms of their formation. The reason is that the second form of Arabic wh-questions uses clefts and word εlli, which is not typical of English wh-questions so that the difference between When do we go to uncle Sam?and Arabic equivalent of When that is we go to uncle Sam? is apparent in terms of formation rules. This difference is traceable in the formation of French wh-questions, which use construction est-ce que. Thus, the question Why did he leave? includes the use of an auxullary verb to do in a respective tense, while French equivalent uses a contruction est-ce que instead. 


Talking about French wh-questions, they are similar to English wh-qhuestions because they follow the same syntactic pattern: fronted wh-word/phrase and direct word order. For instance, Pourquoi est-ce que il part? is similar to Why did he leave? This similarity has been already covered in the previous sub-section, which is why Eguren note the necessity to give an account of similarities with Arabic wh-questions. First of all, syntax of both wh-questions is similar in regard to direct and inversed patterns. Also, a similarity in rules of formation can be observed since both wh-questions require a construction equal to that is. The illustration below clearly depicts this similarity via the same example Pourquoi est-ce que il part?. With regard to Chinese wh-questions, Eguren assume that the similarity cannot be traced in respect to both aspects under comparative analysis. That is why a complete similarity can be confirmed for Arabic wh-questions, which utilize the same syntactic patterns and a common constraint relating to formation. Still, numerous differences are also present.

In fact, there is a partial difference from English wh-questions in terms of syntax owing to the presence of inversed word order in French wh-questions, which is why Pourquoi part-il? is different in comparison with Why did he left? In spite of the fact that Arabic wh-questions demonstrate a complete similarity in syntax and share a similar construction for formation, clefts and resumptive pronouns are claimed by Eguren to present a distinct difference from French wh-questions. Chinese wh-questions are accordingly different in both aspects, namely syntax and rule of formation. All in all, French wh-questions are surprisingly similar to Arabic equivalents, even though some minor differences are still present. Eguren explain such a close similarity of syntactic structures of both wh-questions by the fact that syntax represents an external pattern for a particular type of an utterance. Thus, a distinct structure is equal to various languages as a category of wh-question is present in extra-linguistic reality so that syntax is largely determined by cognitive nature of human speech rather than cultural, ethnic, and other factors. 


Arabic wh-questions have an evident similarity with French equivalents as their syntactic structure is almost the same. In addition, as Eguren suggest, rules of formation are also similar to French wh-questions as long as both languages use that is construction. Hence, Arabic wh-questions are similar to English ones in terms of syntactic patterns, provided that a variant with the direct word order is chosen for a comparison. In order to provide an example, the question Where have you been? is similar to the Arabic equivalent ‘Aun εlli kunt? (Where that is you be)? in syntactic sense. Arabic wh-questions do not have any similar feature with Chinese so that it is necessary to admit that the most drastic similarity of Arabic wh-questions can be observed in comparison with the French language. This aspect has been already discussed in terms of comparative analysis of the French language so that the same syntactic and formation pattern should be presented for Arabic wh-questions. In such a way, a respective similarity to French wh-questions can be traced without involvement of specific constraints from other languages. 

Talking about differences, a partial difference from English wh-questions in regard to syntax is traceable. Eguren confirm that Arabic wh-questions may use indirect word order so that such pattern is not typical of English wh-questions. However, Arabic wh-questions do not entirely share the same formation rules with English wh-questions, which is why this aspect is completely different relating to these two languages; thus, Why does she always cry? and Limadha εlli kanat tubaki dayimaan? (Why that is she always cry?) are also different. The latter question is presented in the scheme below to depict the formation pattern. In addition, a minor difference is traced by Eguren in relation to French wh-questions since they do not use clefts and resumptive pronouns, which is why French and Arabic wh-questions are relatively different in regard to rules of formation. Chinese is completely different in comparison with Arabic wh-questions as no similarities in syntax and formation are apparent. This tendency is visible throughout the entire comparative analysis so that the following sub-section will discuss the main reasons for such a drastic difference between Chinese wh-questions and English, French, and Arabic ones.


Chinese wh-questions have been identified to be different in comparison with English, French, and Arabic so that it is reasonable to provide explanation for such evidence. First of all, a wh-word or phrase in Mandarin Chinese is attached to a key word, which modifies the wh-word/phrase. Eguren claim that this word can be any part of speech and may serve any function within the questions, which is why fronting of wh-word/phrase is not always possible. For example, a syntax of 有谁昨天晚上打电话给你爸爸?(Who your daddy called last evening)? is not similar to Arabic, English, or French wh-questions. Furthermore, a wh-word or phrase does not render such a profound lexical meaning since intention of the utterance is determined by intonation in Mandarin Chinese. That is why English equivalent of Chinese wh-questions will look as follows: 什么是我们午餐喝?(We drink what with lunch?)

Nonetheless, a rule of wh-island movement is applicable to Mandarin Chinese, but its significance is rather weak in comparison with other languages. One more argument in the vein of a different syntactic nature of Chinese is provided by Eguren, stating that Chinese syntax is determined not only by discourse of an utterance but also its relation to graphical representation. In other words, attachment of a wh-word or phrase is heavily dependent on wording of the utterance. Accordingly, speech is closely attached to hieroglyphics that present a specific coding of oral speech. This coding follows a particular pattern so that a word order is also determined by this factor. Eventually, Eguren admit that Mandarin Chinese wh-questions are different from the English, French, and Arabic languages owing to specific peculiarities determined by overall nature of the language. It is becoming abundantly clear that a category of wh-question is actually present in Mandarin Chinese in spite of the fact it is presented in a different way. That is why a large scale of the issues suggests that Chinese differs from other languages in purely linguistic terms. It is certainly true as its relevance to cognitive and other extra-lingual issues is explicit in wh-questions.


All in all, this paper has analyzed wh-questions from the perspective of formation and syntax in the English, French, Arabic, and Chinese languages. The paper has introduced a basic theoretical framework in order to contextualize a further analysis. In such a way, the study has identified that each language includes wh-island movement without any respect to syntactic structuring of an utterance. Therefore, a common similarity between these languages has been identified at the stage of theoretical foundation. Overall, the study has revealed a general rule for formation and syntax among all four languages. A wh-question is placed at the basic position (except Chinese) in order to put emphasis on inquiring intention of the utterance. Further, a direct word order can be applied or a combination of indirect word order and equivalent of that is. The second pattern is typical of the French and Arabic languages.

It is appropriate to make a general comment on the fact that all four languages are similar to each other to the same extent as they are different. An exception can be made with the Chinese language, which demonstrated more differences in formation and syntax of wh-questions. On a large scale, however, a similarity of external structuring of wh-questions can be observed and referred to a global context. Syntax of wh-questions determines question typology and, thus, a particular cognitive pattern, which designates an utterance as a wh-question. Henceforth, it is fair to admit that syntax of wh-questions is largely demonstrated with categorical thinking of human beings, which is preexisting and equal in spite of factors that determine the formation of a particular language. This statement is not applicable to rules of the formation of wh-questions as long as they are more specified in relation to each language.

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