The question-response system in Mandarin conversation

Wei Wang

Abstract

This article provides an overview of the question-response system in Mandarin Chinese from a conversation analytic perspective. Based on 403 question-response sequences from natural conversations, this study discusses the grammatical coding of Mandarin questions, social actions accomplished by questions, and formats of responses. It documents three grammatical types of questions, that is, polar questions (including sub-types), Q-word questions, and alternative questions. These questions are shown to perform a range of social actions, confirmation request being the most frequent. Also, this article reveals that the preferred format for confirming polar answers is interjection, while that for disconfirming polar answers is repetition. It provides a starting point for future studies on Mandarin questions and responses as well as a reference point for further crosslinguistic comparison.

Keywords:
Publication history
Table of contents

1.Introduction

Question-response sequences are ubiquitous in social interaction. They provide a fundamental vehicle through which various social actions are accomplished, such as information request, confirmation request, invitation, repair, suggestion, and challenge (Bolden and Robinson 2011Bolden, Galina B. and Jeffrey D. Robinson 2011 “Soliciting Accounts with Why-interrogatives in Conversation.” Journal of Communication, 61(1), 94–119. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Curl 2006Curl, Traci S. 2006 “Offers of Assistance: Constraints on Syntactic Design.” Journal of Pragmatics, 38, 1257–1280. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Curl and Drew 2008Curl, Traci S. and Paul Drew 2008Contingency and Action: A Comparison of Two Forms of Requesting. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 41(2), 129–153. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Egbert and Vöge 2008Egbert, Maria and Vöge, Monika 2008 “Wh-interrogative Formats Used for Questioning and Beyond: German warum (why) and wieso (why) and English why.” Discourse Studies, 10(1), 17–36. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Heritage 2010 2010 “Questioning in Medicine.” In Why do you ask? The Functions of Questions in Institutional Discourse, ed. by A. F. Freed & S. Ehrlich, 42–68. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar; Koshik 2003Koshik, Irene 2003 “Wh-questions Used as Challenges.” Discourse Studies, 5(1), 51–77. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 2005 2005Alternative Questions Used in Conversational Repair. Discourse Studies, 7(2), 193–211. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Taking a conversation analytic (CA) approach, recent studies have been fruitful in revealing how question-response sequences are organized in both normative and non-normative ways. It has been found that questions place powerful constraints on answers in different ways: (1) questions set topical and action agendas for answers; (2) they incorporate the speaker’s presuppositions and epistemic stances; and (3) they are designed with preferences for certain answer types (Heritage 2002Heritage, John 2002 “Designing Questions and Setting Agendas in the News Interview.” In Studies in Language and Social Interaction, ed. by P. Glenn, C. LeBaron, & J. Mandelbaum, 57–90. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar, 2010 2010 “Questioning in Medicine.” In Why do you ask? The Functions of Questions in Institutional Discourse, ed. by A. F. Freed & S. Ehrlich, 42–68. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar, 2012 2012 “Epistemics in Action: Action Formation and Territories of Knowledge.” Research on Language and Social Interaction 45(1): 1–29. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Raymond 2003Raymond, Geoffrey 2003 “Grammar and Social Organization: Yes/No Interrogatives and the Structure of Responding.” American Sociological Review, 939–967. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Schegloff 2007 2007Sequence Organization in Interaction: Volume 1: A Primer in Conversation Analysis. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). These constraints, however, can be resisted, challenged, or even transformed (Bolden 2009Bolden, Galina B. 2009 “Beyond Answering: Repeat-Prefaced Responses in Conversation.” Communication Monographs 76(2): 121–143. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Hakulinen 2001Hakulinen, Auli 2001 “Minimal and Non-Minimal Answers to Yes-No Questions.” Pragmatics. Quarterly Publication of the International Pragmatics Association 11(1): 1–15. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Hayashi and Kushida 2013Hayashi, Makoto, and Shuya Kushida 2013 “Responding with Resistance to Wh-Questions in Japanese Talk-in-Interaction.” Research on Language and Social Interaction 46(3): 231–255. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Heritage and Raymond 2012Heritage, John, and Geoffrey Raymond 2012 “Navigating Epistemic Landscapes: Acquiescence, Agency and Resistance in Responses to Polar Questions.” In Questions: Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives, ed. by J. P. de Ruiter, 179–192. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Keevallik 2012Keevallik, Leelo 2012 “Compromising Progressivity: ‘No’-Prefacing in Estonian.” Pragmatics: Quarterly Publication of the International Pragmatics Association 22 (1): 119–146. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Kim 2013Kim, Hye Ri Stephanie 2013 “Ani ‘No’-Prefaced Responses to WH-Questions as Challenges in Korean Conversation.” Japanese/Korean Linguistics 20: 383–398.Google Scholar, 2015Kim, Stephanie Hyeri 2015 “Resisting the Terms of Polar Questions through Ani (‘No’)-Prefacing in Korean Conversation.” Discourse Processes 52 (4): 311–334. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Sorjonen 2001Sorjonen, Marja-Leena 2001Responding in Conversation: A Study of Response Particles in Finnish. Amsterdam/Philadephia: John Benjamins. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Stivers 2018 2018 “How We Manage Social Relationships Through Answers to Questions: The Case of Interjections.” Discourse Processes 56(3): 191–209. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Stivers and Hayashi 2010Stivers, Tanya, and Nick J. Enfield 2010 “A Coding Scheme for Question–Response Sequences in Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 42(10): 2620–2626. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).

Extending the scope cross-linguistically, Enfield et al. (2010)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, and Stephen C. Levinson 2010 “Question-Response Sequences in Conversation across Ten Languages: An Introduction.” Journal of Pragmatics 42: 2615–2619. CrossrefGoogle Scholar present a series of works on the question-answer systems of ten typologically different languages in search of universals in human behavior. The ten languages are examined in terms of formal coding of questions, social actions accomplished through questions, normative organization of responses, preference for answer types, and the role of visible behaviors. Combining qualitative analyses of interaction and quantitative coding of relevant categories, these studies reveal both similarities and particulars that exist in the question-answer system across languages.

As a continuation, Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar offer a comparative perspective on how polar questions are answered in fourteen languages. They focus on two distinctive grammatical formats of answer, that is, interjection (e.g. uh huh, yes, mm) and repetition, which repeats part or all of the question. Their cross-linguistic comparison indicates a strong statistical preference for interjectional answers, which are argued to be pragmatically unmarked.

So far the Mandarin question-response system has not yet been examined in a way that allows for cross-linguistic comparison, despite a few studies having discussed specific aspects of the system (see Section 2 for a brief review). Not enough is known about how Mandarin speakers design and deploy questions in everyday conversation, how different formats of questions are employed to accomplish different social actions, how questions are responded to, and how different responses have different interactional import. Applying the coding scheme proposed by Stivers and Enfield (2010)Stivers, Tanya, and Nick J. Enfield 2010 “A Coding Scheme for Question–Response Sequences in Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 42(10): 2620–2626. CrossrefGoogle Scholar to Mandarin data, the present study offers a more comprehensive introduction to the Mandarin question-response system with two particular aims. The first is to reveal the grammatical coding of Mandarin questions, the social actions accomplished by them, and the basic response types based on a large collection of question-response sequences in natural conversations, paving the way for cross-linguistic comparison. Second, it aims to use the CA approach to re-examine some much debated issues about Mandarin questions, such as question classification, sentence-final question particles, and interjectional answers. While an article-length study like this cannot provide an adequate discussion on these issues, the goal here is to contribute some CA insights to complement the previously discourse-functionally motivated solutions to some long-standing grammatical debates.

The remainder of this article is organized as follows: Section 2 reviews prior studies on Mandarin questions and answers; Section 3 introduces the data and analytical methods used in this study; Sections 4, 5 and 6 investigate question types, social actions, and response types respectively; Section 7 concludes this study.

2.Previous studies on Mandarin questions and responses

The topic of Mandarin questions has been approached from different theoretical orientations. While formal linguists have attempted to reveal the rules in which different interrogative structures and their meanings are generated (Cheng 1984Cheng, Robert L. 1984 “Chinese Question Forms and Their Meanings.” Journal of Chinese Linguistics 12(1): 86–147.Google Scholar; Dong 2009Dong, Hongyuan 2009Issues in the Semantics of Mandarin Questions. PhD dissertation, Cornell University.Google Scholar; Gasde 2001Gasde, Horst-Dieter 2001 “Yes/No Questions in Mandarin Chinese Revisited.” ZAS Papers in Linguistics 24: 47–101. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Huang 1991Huang, C.-T. James 1991 “Modularity and Chinese A-Not-A Questions.” In Interdisciplinary Approaches to Language, ed. by C. Georgopoulos and R. Ishihara, 305–332. Springer. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; McCawley 1994McCawley, James D. 1994 “Remarks on the Syntax of Mandarin Yes-No Questions.” Journal of East Asian Linguistics 3 (2): 179–194. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), functionalists have offered insights on how questions are used in real-life communication – their grammatical formats and pragmatic functions.

Li and Thompson (1981)Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar, for instance, propose a classification of Mandarin questions, consisting of four types:

  • Question-word questions (hereafter ‘Q-word questions’);

    (1)

    你请吃饭?
    Ni  qing   shei chi fan
    you invite who  eat food
    Whom did you invite to eat?
    

  • Disjunctive questions (including both alternative questions formatted with haishi ‘or’ and A-not-A questions);

    (2)

    你去还是他来?
    Ni  qu haishi ta lai
    you go or     he come
    Will you go, or will he come?
    

  • (3)

    喜欢不喜欢他的衬衫?
    Ni  xihuan bu  xihuan ta de chenshan
    you like   neg like   he gen shirt
    Do you like his shirt or not?
    

  • Particle questions (those ending with a final question particle);

    (4)

    你能写中文字
    Ni  neng xie   Zhongwen zi        ma
    you can  write Chinese  character qp
    Can you write Chinese characters?
    

  • Tag questions.

    (5)

    我们去吃水果,好不好
    Women qu chi shuiguo, hao  bu  hao
    we    go eat fruit    good neg good
    Let’s go eat some fruit, OK?
    

This early study, despite its fundamental contribution to the study of the Mandarin question-answer system, does not reflect the full range of questions in natural conversation due to its source of data, namely the researchers’ own introspective knowledge of the language. Building on this work, a number of later studies center on identifying the pragmatic functions of different types of questions (Chu 1998Chu, Chauncey Cheng-Hsi 1998A Discourse Grammar of Mandarin Chinese. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar; Shao 1996Shao, Jingmin 1996Xiandai Hanyu Yiwen Ju Yanjiu [Questions in Mandarin Chinese]. Shanghai: Huadong Shifan Daxue Press.Google Scholar; Shao and Zhu 2002Shao, Jingmin and Yan Zhu 2002 “The Affirmative Inclination of the Shi-Bu-Shi+VP Question and Its Typological Significance.” Chinese Teaching in the World, 2, 23–36.Google Scholar; Tsai 2011Tsai, I-Ni 2011Grammar as Situated Practices: Conversational Practices of Two Mandarin Yes/No Question Formats in Talk-in-Interaction. PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.Google Scholar).

Compared to the much larger body of research on Mandarin questions, responses have received significantly less attention. Li and Thompson (1981)Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar consider the ‘fittedness’ between question and answer, suggesting that ‘the natural answer’ varies according to their corresponding question type: (1) for disjunctive questions, either ‘A’ or ‘not A’ constitutes a natural response; and (2) particle questions can be answered with the verb phrase in the question or its negative counterpart; alternatively, particle questions can also be answered with interjections such as dui ‘right’ or bu dui ‘not right’, or the copular shi ‘be’ or bu shi ‘not be’. This finding is echoed in Turk (2006)Turk, Monica J. 2006Projection in Mandarin Chinese Conversation: Grammar and Social Interaction in Question-Answer Sequences. PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.Google Scholar and Tsai (2011)Tsai, I-Ni 2011Grammar as Situated Practices: Conversational Practices of Two Mandarin Yes/No Question Formats in Talk-in-Interaction. PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.Google Scholar.

Additionally, scholars have found that negative response tokens such as bu shi and mei you have grammaticalized such that they can do different kinds of interactional work beyond negation (Chiu 2012Chiu, Hsin-fu 2012 “Méiyou-/Búshì-(’No-’) Prefaced Turns in Talk Show Interaction-Constitutive Elements of Entertainment Broadcasts in Taiwan.” Language and Linguistics 13 (3): 391–435.Google Scholar; Wang 2008Wang, Yu-Fang 2008 “Beyond Negation – the Roles of Meiyou and Bushi in Mandarin Conversation.” Language Sciences 30 (6): 679–713. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Wang et al. 2007Wang, Yu-Fang, Pi-Hua Tsai, and Meng-Ying Ling 2007 “From Informational to Emotive Use: Meiyou (‘No’) as a Discourse Marker in Taiwan Mandarin Conversation.” Discourse Studies 9 (5): 677–701. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Yu 2004Yu, Anne Jui-Ying 2004 “Discourse Functions of Negative Meiyou in Taiwan Mandarin.” Unpublished MA Thesis, National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei.Google Scholar; Yu and Drew 2017Yu, Guodong, and Paul Drew 2017 “The Role of Búshì (不是) in Talk about Everyday Troubles and Difficulties.” East Asian Pragmatics 2 (2): 195–227. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), although these inquiries are not necessarily confined to question-answer sequences.

In the past two decades, a growing number of studies have taken a CA approach to examine various aspects of Mandarin questions and/or responses based on naturally occurring conversations. Three main themes have emerged so far. The first concerns the relationship between question and answer. Turk (2006)Turk, Monica J. 2006Projection in Mandarin Chinese Conversation: Grammar and Social Interaction in Question-Answer Sequences. PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.Google Scholar analyzes the projection mechanism in Mandarin question-answer sequences and explores the ways in which the grammar of the questions influences the grammatical shape of their responses. Wang (2020)Wang, Wei 2020 “Grammatical Conformity in Question-Answer Sequences: The Case of Meiyou in Mandarin Conversation.” Discourse Studies 22 (5). CrossrefGoogle Scholar probes into the grammatical conformity between question and answer in Mandarin, revealing that conforming answers and non-conforming answers have distinctive interactional imports. The second line of scholarship deals with different grammatical designs of questions, in relation to epistemics, sequence organization, and action formation. Tsai (2011)Tsai, I-Ni 2011Grammar as Situated Practices: Conversational Practices of Two Mandarin Yes/No Question Formats in Talk-in-Interaction. PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.Google Scholar discusses the interactional relevance of two question formats (i.e. -ma particle questions and A-not-A questions), focusing on how these two formats are oriented to by both speaker and hearer and how the associated question-answer sequences unfold accordingly. Also examining these two question formats, Kendrick (2010)Kendrick, Kobin H. 2010Epistemics and Action Formation in Mandarin Chinese. PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.Google Scholar mainly addresses the epistemic dynamics incorporated in them and how they are involved in the formation of social actions. In a subsequent study, Kendrick (2018) 2018 “Adjusting Epistemic Gradients: The Final Particle Ba in Mandarin Chinese Conversation.” East Asian Pragmatics, 5–26. CrossrefGoogle Scholar analyzes a final particle ba, as used in questions, assessments, and informings, and discovers that it consistently downgrades the speaker’s epistemic status across different sequential environments. In the same vein, Tsai (2019) 2019 “A Multimodal Analysis of Tag Questions in Mandarin Chinese Multi-Party Conversation.” In Multimodality in Chinese Interaction, ed. by Xiaoting Li and Tsuyoshi Ono, 300–332. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter. CrossrefGoogle Scholar investigates tag questions, arguing that they assert independent epistemic access while simultaneously seeking confirmation from the party with higher epistemic authority. The last theme of the literature concerns non-verbal resources used in Mandarin question-response sequences. Li (2014)Li, Xiaoting 2014 “Leaning and Recipient Intervening Questions in Mandarin Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 67: 34–60. CrossrefGoogle Scholar finds that Mandarin speakers recurrently lean toward their co-participant when initiating a ‘recipient intervening’ question and do not release the leaning body until a response is provided. She thus argues that leaning can serve as another resource to mobilize responses.

In sum, previous studies have offered insights on the specific workings of Mandarin questions and responses in everyday conversation, yet a more comprehensive study is needed to understand the full range of questions and responses in Mandarin, their statistical distribution and preference, as well as their similarities and uniqueness compared with other languages. Built on existing Mandarin literature and cross-linguistic works (Enfield et al., 2010Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, and Stephen C. Levinson 2010 “Question-Response Sequences in Conversation across Ten Languages: An Introduction.” Journal of Pragmatics 42: 2615–2619. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Enfield et al., 2019Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), the present study investigates the Mandarin question-response system more broadly and inclusively with the hope of laying some groundwork to bring Mandarin into the cross-linguistic discussion in this regard.

3.Data and analytic methods

The data of this study come from two sources: five face-to-face everyday conversations from the my own collection and two telephone conversations from the CallFriend Mandarin Corpus (Canavan and Zipperlen 1996Canavan, Alexandra, and George Zipperlen 1996CALLFRIEND Mandarin Chinese-Mainland Dialect LDC96S55. Web Download. Philadelphia: Linguistic Data Consortium.Google Scholar), adding up to eight hours in total duration. All the conversations were recorded in the United States. The participants were native speakers from different parts of Mainland China.

Following Stivers and Enfield’s (2010)Stivers, Tanya, and Nick J. Enfield 2010 “A Coding Scheme for Question–Response Sequences in Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 42(10): 2620–2626. CrossrefGoogle Scholar inclusion criteria, the present study has identified 403 question-response sequences. It should be pointed out that the term ‘question’ is defined more broadly in Stivers and Enfield (2010)Stivers, Tanya, and Nick J. Enfield 2010 “A Coding Scheme for Question–Response Sequences in Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 42(10): 2620–2626. CrossrefGoogle Scholar. In classic CA literature ‘question’ is distinguished from ‘interrogative’: the former is understood as a social action, while the latter is considered a grammatical form. However, in order to maximize cross-linguistic comparability, Stivers and Enfield (2010)Stivers, Tanya, and Nick J. Enfield 2010 “A Coding Scheme for Question–Response Sequences in Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 42(10): 2620–2626. CrossrefGoogle Scholar adopt a more inclusive criterion:

A question had to be either (or both) a formal question (i.e., it had to rely on lexico-morpho-syntactic or prosodic interrogative marking) or a functional question (i.e., it had to effectively seek to elicit information, confirmation or agreement whether or not they made use of an interrogative sentence type). (2621)

The current study follows this criterion. To avoid confusion, it should be clarified that Section 4 identifies all possible grammatical formats that are able to accomplish the social action of questioning in Mandarin; Section 5 examines the full range of social actions that these formats are able to perform; and Section 6 discusses response types to the action of confirmation seeking, focusing specifically on responses to polar questions that carry out this action.

The questions and responses were coded according to the scheme proposed by Stivers and Enfield (2010)Stivers, Tanya, and Nick J. Enfield 2010 “A Coding Scheme for Question–Response Sequences in Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 42(10): 2620–2626. CrossrefGoogle Scholar – including formal coding of questions, social action of questions, normative preference for response, and relative preference for answer types – except that visible behavior was not coded, as the CallFriend data do not provide visual information.

Analyses of sequences were done in the framework of conversation analysis (Goodwin and Heritage 1990Goodwin, Charles, and John Heritage 1990 “Conversation Analysis.” Annual Review of Anthropology 19(1): 283–307. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Lerner 2004Lerner, Gene H. 2004Conversation Analysis: Studies from the First Generation. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Sacks et al. 1974Sacks, Harvey, Emanuel A. Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson 1974 “A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation.” Language, 696–735. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Schegloff 2007 2007Sequence Organization in Interaction: Volume 1: A Primer in Conversation Analysis. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). All data were transcribed with the conventions developed by Jefferson (2004)Jefferson, Gail 2004 “Glossary of Transcript Symbols with an Introduction.” In Conversation Analysis: Studies from the First Generation, ed. by Gene H. Lerner, 13–34. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

4.Question types in Mandarin

As reviewed in Section 2, Li and Thompson (1981)Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar classify Mandarin questions into four categories. While this classification has been a frequent reference, there are two problems with it. First, particle questions and tag questions, despite being syntactically distinctive, share a fundamental semantic-pragmatic similarity, i.e. they project a response of a particular polarity. This fact recommends the regrouping of them together as polar questions. Second, according to Li and Thompson (1981)Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar, disjunctive questions include A-not-A questions and alternative questions with haishi ‘or’. In fact, the two subtypes have more differences than commonalities. A-not-A questions make relevant a polar response, while haishi questions typically provide two options for the respondent to choose from, which are not necessarily polar responses. For this reason, A-not-A questions are subsumed under polar questions in the present study and haishi questions form another category with a more universal label, alternative questions. Additionally, there is another subtype of polar questions not discussed in Li and Thompson (1981)Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar, that is, declarative questions. They do not have any interrogative marking and are highly context reliant (see Section 4.1.2 for details).

Therefore, three types of Mandarin questions can be identified: polar questions, Q-word questions, and alternative questions. My data show that polar questions are the most prevalent type (67%, n = 270), followed by Q-word questions (28%, n = 113) and alternative questions (5%, n = 20). Table 1 below shows the distribution of all question types. Next, I discuss each of the three question types.

Table 1.Distribution of Mandarin question types
Tokens Percentage
Polar 270  67%
Q-word 113  28%
Alternative  20   5%
Total 403 100%

4.1Polar questions

Mandarin has three syntactic ways to construct polar questions: by adding a sentence-final question particle, by transforming the predicate into an A-not-A form, or by adding a question tag. A declarative sentence can also serve as a polar question with certain prosodic and/or sequential features. Particle questions account for the absolute majority (58%), and declarative questions come next with 23%. Table 2 presents the numbers and percentages of the subtypes of polar questions.

Table 2.Distribution of polar questions by subtype
Tokens Percentage
Particle 157 58%
Declarative  63  23%
A-not-A  30  11%
Tag  20   8%
Total 270 100%

Particle questions

The predominant way of forming polar questions in Mandarin is by adding a sentence-final particle to a statement. The unmarked question particle is ma (Chao 1968Chao, Yuen Ren 1968A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar; Chu 1998Chu, Chauncey Cheng-Hsi 1998A Discourse Grammar of Mandarin Chinese. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar; Li and Thompson 1981Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar), which accounts for 67% of all particle questions in my data. The rest includes a (including its phonetic variants ya and la), ba, and, ha (see Table 3).

Table 3.Distribution of particle questions by question particle
Tokens Percentage
ma 104  66%
a/ya/la  25  16%
ba  17  11%
ha   8   5%
other   3   2%
Total 157 100%

Different from ma, these particles are not exclusively used for question marking; they are used in statements as well. Rather than plainly questioning, these particles modulate the epistemics of questions in different ways.

Consider the particle a, which has been traditionally thought as softening the query (Chao 1968Chao, Yuen Ren 1968A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar; Chu 1998Chu, Chauncey Cheng-Hsi 1998A Discourse Grammar of Mandarin Chinese. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar; Li and Thompson 1981Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar; Lu 2005Lu, Wen-Ying 2005Sentence-Final Particles as Attitude Markers in Mandarin Chinese. PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Google Scholar). Wu (2004)Wu, Ruey-Jiuan Regina 2004Stance in Talk: A Conversation Analysis of Mandarin Final Particles. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. CrossrefGoogle Scholar and Wu and Heritage (2017)Wu, Ruey-Jiuan Regina, and John Heritage 2017 “Particles and Epistemics: Convergences and Divergences between English and Mandarin” In Enabling Human Conduct, ed. by Geoffrey Raymond, Gene H. Lerner and John Heritage, 273–298. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. CrossrefGoogle Scholar show that this particle indexes an incongruity of knowledge or information between what the previous speaker just said and what the a speaker presumes to be true. This observation is supported by my data, in which a is found to initiate a repair or to convey the questioner’s surprise, both arising from an information gap between the interlocutors.

Extract (6) below exemplifies that how a indexes such a gap. Prior to this extract, Yi advised Kai against the last unit along a corridor when choosing an apartment. Kai inquires about the reason (line 1), which clearly puts herself in a less knowing position (K-) regarding this matter (Heritage 2012 2012 “Epistemics in Action: Action Formation and Territories of Knowledge.” Research on Language and Social Interaction 45(1): 1–29. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). After explaining to Kai about the general principles of feng shui (lines 3–5, omitted), Yi produces a negatively framed question (line 6), ‘you don’t know these?’, with a final particle a indicating the speaker’s surprise arising from Kai’s lack of knowledge in this regard.

(6)

question particle a indexing knowledge incongruity between participants (ZYLK)

01   Kai:   走廊最后的房间有什么原由吗?=
            Zoulang zuihou de fangjian you shenme yuanyou ma?=
            corridor last  sp  room    have what  reason  qp
            Is there any reason for the last room in a corridor?=
02   Yi:    =一般走廊最后一个房间是阴气比较重.
            =Yiban zoulang zuihou yi ge fangjian shi yinqi bijiao
            zhong.
            usually corridor last one cl room  cop  yin-energy
            relatively heavy
            =Usually the room at the end of a corridor has relatively
            heavier yin energy.
((lines 03–05 omitted))
06   Yi: →   你不知道这些
            Ni  bu   zhidao zhexie a?
            you neg   Know   these qp
            You don’t know these?
07   Kai:   ^我不知道,我只知道说:房子(.)就是床不能靠墙放.
            ^Wo bu zhidao, wo zhi zhidao shuo: fangzi (.) jiushi bu
            neng kao    qiang fang.
            I  neg  know  I only know   dm   house     dm     neg can
            against wall put
            ^I don’t know, I only know that: house (.) well bed cannot
            be put against the wall.

The next most frequent particle, ba, has been considered a marker soliciting agreement and indexing uncertainty (Chu 1998Chu, Chauncey Cheng-Hsi 1998A Discourse Grammar of Mandarin Chinese. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar; Li and Thompson 1981Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar), or lowering the speaker’s epistemic status, thereby softening the tone (Kendrick 2010Kendrick, Kobin H. 2010Epistemics and Action Formation in Mandarin Chinese. PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.Google Scholar, 2018 2018 “Adjusting Epistemic Gradients: The Final Particle Ba in Mandarin Chinese Conversation.” East Asian Pragmatics, 5–26. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Lu 2005Lu, Wen-Ying 2005Sentence-Final Particles as Attitude Markers in Mandarin Chinese. PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Google Scholar) when used at the end of a polar question. My data, in line with previous findings, suggest that ba essentially puts a proposition on the table to which the questioner lacks epistemic commitment and thus seeks confirmation from the recipient. And ba questions are by design tilted toward an affiliative answer.

There is another question particle, ha, observed in my data. Similar to ba, it seeks the confirmation from the recipient regarding the proposition advanced by the questioner; yet it embodies a higher epistemic stance than ba, suggesting a stronger likelihood of securing agreement (Yin 1999Yin, Shichao 1999 “Shuo Yuqici Ha he Ha Ziju [On Modal Particle ha and ha-sentences].” Fangyan [Dialect], 2, 95–103.Google Scholar; Yang and Wiltschko 2016Yang, Xiaodong, and Martina Wiltschko 2016 “The Confirmational Marker Ha in Northern Mandarin.” Journal of Pragmatics 104: 67–82. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). The emergence of ha as a question particle is very recent and has been argued to be a result of dialect influence11.It has been reported that ha is widely used in Northern Mandarin, especially in Beijing, Tianjin, and Northeastern Mandarin varieties, and has been observed entering Standard Mandarin recently (Yin 1999Yin, Shichao 1999 “Shuo Yuqici Ha he Ha Ziju [On Modal Particle ha and ha-sentences].” Fangyan [Dialect], 2, 95–103.Google Scholar; Yang and Wiltschko 2016Yang, Xiaodong, and Martina Wiltschko 2016 “The Confirmational Marker Ha in Northern Mandarin.” Journal of Pragmatics 104: 67–82. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). (Yin 1999Yin, Shichao 1999 “Shuo Yuqici Ha he Ha Ziju [On Modal Particle ha and ha-sentences].” Fangyan [Dialect], 2, 95–103.Google Scholar). Therefore, it is not as common and widespread as the other question particles.

In addition, previous studies discussing ne have generally agreed that ne signals that the current question is in connection with the co-participant’s previous claim, expectation, or belief (Chao 1968Chao, Yuen Ren 1968A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar; Chu 1998Chu, Chauncey Cheng-Hsi 1998A Discourse Grammar of Mandarin Chinese. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar; Li and Thompson 1981Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar; Lu 2005Lu, Wen-Ying 2005Sentence-Final Particles as Attitude Markers in Mandarin Chinese. PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Google Scholar; Qin 2012Qin, Longlu 2012A Conversational Study of the Particle Ne in Mandarin Chinese. MA thesis, University of Alberta, Canada.Google Scholar).

Declarative questions

The next most frequent type, declarative questions, are syntactically declarative sentences. What makes them recognizable as questions is usually prosody (Couper-Kuhlen 2012Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth 2012 “Some Truths and Untruths about Prosody in English Question and Answer Sequences.” In Questions: Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives, ed. by Jan P. de Ruiter, 123–145. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; see Zeng et al. 2004Zeng, Xiao-Li, Philippe Martin, and Georges Boulakia 2004 “Tones and Intonation in Declarative and Interrogative Sentences in Mandarin.” Paper presented at the International Symposium on Tonal Aspects of Languages: With Emphasis on Tone Languages , Beijing, China. for Mandarin declarative question prosody) or their underlying action (Enfield et al., 2019Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). When a speaker makes an assertation primarily within the recipient’s domain of authority (Stivers and Rossano 2010Stivers, Tanya, and Federico Rossano 2010 “Mobilizing Response.” Research on Language and Social Interaction 43(1): 3–31. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), it is routinely treated as a question that attracts a response (i.e. a confirmation or a disconfirmation). Extract (7) provides an example of a declarative question (in line 1).

(7)

declarative question (LJWHJJ)

01   Jia:   →   Alhambra也有华人区?
                Alhambra ye  you  huaren  qu?
                pn      also have Chinese region
                Alhambra also has a Chinese area?
02   Jing:      嗯,对呀.
                En,  dui  ya.
                inj  right mp
                Uh-huh, right.

A-not-A questions

A-not-A questions present two choices of opposite polarity – one affirmative and one negative. The A slot can be occupied by either a verb (Extract 8), an adjective (Extract 9), an adverb, or even an aspect marker (Chen and He 2001Chen, Yiya, and Agnes Weiyun He 2001 “ Dui Bu Dui as a Pragmatic Marker: Evidence from Chinese Classroom Discourse.” Journal of Pragmatics 33 (9): 1441–1465. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Li and Thompson 1981Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar). Verbs are found to be the most frequent occupants of the A slot (90%, n = 27), with 有没有 you-mei-you ‘have-not-have’ (n = 12) and 是不是 shi-bu-shi ‘be-not-be’ (n = 7) being the prevailing verb configurations.

(8)

A-not-A question formatted with a verb (ZYLK)

01              (5.0)
02   Kai:   →   对哦你>有没有<在学校参加志愿者活动?
                Dui  o  ni  >youmeiyou< zai xuexiao canjia
                zhiyuanzhe huodong?
                well mp you have-neg-have at school participate
                volunteer activity
                Well >have you< participated in any volunteer
                activities at university?
03   Yi:        没有 °我太懒°.
                Meiyou °wo tai lan°.
                neg-have I  too lazy 
                (I) haven’t °I’m too lazy°.

(9)

A-not-A question formatted with an adjective (LLM)

01   Chen:      你住几个人的寝室?
                Ni   zhu   ji     ge ren    de qinshi?
                you  live how-many cl people sp  dorm
                You live in a dorm room of how many people?
02   Ling:      三:个:.
                
                                                        San: ge:.
                three cl
                Three:.
03   Chen:   →  你住得觉得舒服不舒服
                Ni  zhu  de juede   shufu    bu   shufu?
                you live sp feel comfortable neg comfortable
                Do you feel you live comfortably or not?
04   Ling:      我觉得挺好的因为我的roommate都是学:,
                Wo juede ting hao de yinwei wo de roommate dou shi
                xueba:,
                I feel pretty good sp because I sp roommate all cop
                straight-A-student
                I feel it’s pretty good because my roommates are all
                straight A students:,

Tag questions

Tag questions have been traditionally defined as a statement plus a short A-not-A tag such as shi-bu-shi or dui-bu-dui (Li and Thompson 1981Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar). My data show that there are other types of tags such as 是吧 shi ba ‘yes?’ and 对吧 dui ba ‘right?’ attached to a statement to form a confirmation-seeking question (see Extract 10).

(10)

tag question with dui ba ‘right?’ (LLM)

01   Chen:   →   你说的是十个周对吧?
                 Ni shuo de shi shi ge zhou  dui  ba?
                 you say sp cop ten  cl week right qp
                 You are saying (it’s for) ten weeks right?
02               (0.5)
03   Ling:       .
                 Dui.
                 right
                 Right.

4.2Q-word questions

Q-word questions are formed with interrogative pronouns such as shei ‘who’, shenme ‘what’, zenme ‘how, why’, weishenme ‘why’, and nali ‘where’. See Table 4 below for the distribution of Q-word questions. Shenme ‘what’ (36%) is the most frequent interrogative pronoun used in Q-word questions, followed by zenme ‘how’ (19%), weishenme ‘why’ (11%) and nali/na’er ‘where’ (11%), consistent with cross-linguistic findings.

Table 4.Distribution of Q-word questions by interrogative pronouns
Tokens Percentage
shenme ‘what’  41  36%
zenme ‘how’  29  16%
weishenme ‘why’  12  11%
nali / na’er ‘where’  12  11%
shenme shihou ‘when’   8   7%
duoshao / ji ‘how many’   7   6%
shei ‘who’   5   4%
nage ‘which’   4   4%
duojiu / duochang shijian ‘how long’   2   2%
Total 157 100%

It should be noted that Mandarin nominal interrogative pronouns (e.g. shei, shenme, nali) may also function as indefinite pronouns denoting notions such as ‘whoever’, ‘anyone’, ‘whatever’, ‘anything’, ‘wherever’ and ‘anywhere’ (Chao 1968Chao, Yuen Ren 1968A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar; Li 1992Li, Yen-hui Audrey 1992 “Indefinite Wh in Mandarin Chinese.” Journal of East Asian Linguistics 1(2): 125–155. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Li and Thompson 1981Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar). A review of non-interrogative uses of Mandarin interrogative pronouns can be seen in Lee et al. (2017)Lee, Heeju, Danjie Su, and Hongyin Tao 2017 “A Crosslinguistic Study of Some Extended Uses of What-Based Interrogative Expressions in Chinese, English, and Korean.” Chinese Language and Discourse 8(2): 137–173. CrossrefGoogle Scholar.

In my data, it is common to find interrogative pronouns serving as indefinite pronouns in polar questions, as in (11). Shenme in this case is used as an indefinite pronoun, meaning ‘any’.

(11)

interrogative pronoun shenme as an indefinite pronoun (LLM)

01   Ling:→   什么问题吗?
              You shenme wenti    ma?
              have what  question qp
              Are there any questions?
02            (3.0)

4.3Alternative questions

The last question type is alternative question, which is formatted with haishi ‘or’. Alternative questions typically offer two options for the respondent to choose from (see Extract 12).

(12)

alternative question (CallFriend_5636)

01   B:       你你在哪儿呢现在?
              Ni  ni  zai nar  ne  xianzai?
              you you at where mp  now
              Where are you, now?
02   →        在家还是在学校?
              Zai jia haishi zai xuexiao?
              at  home  or   at  school
              At home or at school?
03   A:       在家.
              Zai jia.
              at  home
              At home.

Alternative questions can also take the form of ‘A or what’, where one option is provided and followed by an interrogative pronoun. This type of question provides only one option as the candidate answer and leaves the other option open to the respondent (see Extract 13 below).

(13)

alternative question (CallFriend_5636)

01   B:   →   你是指语言方面还是什么?
              Ni  shi zhi   yuyan   fangmian haishi shenme?
              you cop refer language aspect  or     what 
              Are you referring to the language aspect or what?
02   A:       °嗯°.
              °En°.
              inj
              °Uh-huh°.

To sum up, polar questions are the most diverse and complex category among all Mandarin questions. Within this category, particle questions show the highest level of diversity. The question particles not only encode questionhood but also communicate interactional nuances such as modulating the epistemic stance embodied in the question, signaling the connection with the recipient’s prior utterance or position, and projecting the type of response. Some new question formats have been discovered through the examination of conversational data. Tag questions can be formatted with dui ba ‘right?’ and shi ba ‘yes?’ in addition to the regular A-not-A tags. Alternative questions can take the ‘A-or-what’ form, opening one option for the recipient. Also, the non-interrogative use of interrogative pronouns has been observed, in particular, forming polar questions with a question particle (e.g. Extract 11).

5.Social actions performed through questions

In my data, confirmation request (53%, n = 215) stands out as the most prevalent social action performed by Mandarin questions, followed by information request, repair initiation, and assessment. The Other category includes less frequent actions such as suggestion, invitation, and accusation. As can be seen in Table 5, Mandarin Q-word questions and alternative questions are predominantly used for information requests (94% and 85% respectively), while polar questions are mainly built for confirmation requests (79%).

Table 5.Distribution of social actions by question type
Social action Polar Q-word Alternative Total
Confirmation request 215 (79%)  0 (0%)  2 (10%) 215 (53%)
Information request  32 (12%) 106 (94%) 17 (85%) 157 (39%)
Repair initiation 10 (4%)  2 (2%) 1 (5%) 13 (3%)
Assessment  7 (3%)  0 (0%) 0 (0%)  7 (2%)
Other  6 (2%)  5 (5%) 0 (0%) 11 (3%)
Total 270 (100%) 113 (100%) 20 (100%) 403 (100%)

Among polar questions, tag and declarative questions are mostly used for confirmation requests. Particle questions, although largely employed for confirmation requests, can still serve as a vehicle for requesting new information (10%). A-not-A questions, which have been traditionally considered free of questioner assumption (Li and Thompson 1981Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson 1981Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar), can in fact incorporate assumptions, as in confirmation requests. In addition, more than half of A-not-A questions are built for information requests. See Table 6 for their distribution. Four examples are then provided below to illustrate each of these social actions.

Table 6.Distribution of social actions by subtypes of polar questions
Social action Tag Declarative Particle A-not-A
Confirmation request 20 (100%) 58 (92%) 124 (79%) 13 (43%)
Information request 0 0 16 (10%) 16 (53%)
Repair initiation 0 3 (5%) 7 (5%) 0
Assessment 0 0 7 (5%) 0
Other 0 2 (3%) 3 (2%) 1 (3%)
Total 20 (100%) 63 (100%) 157 (100%) 30 (100%)

Extract (14) shows a confirmation request done through an A-not-A question. Prior to this fragment, Mao showed Chen a text message from their mutual friend Zhang, based on which Chen inferred that Zhang was unhappy. Incorporating this assumption, Chen’s question (line 1) seeks confirmation from Mao, who is a more knowing party.

(14)

A-not-A question requesting confirmation (LLM)

01   Chen:   →   是不是不开心了?
                 Ta shibushi    bu kaixin le?
                 he cop-neg-cop  neg happy mp
                 Is he unhappy?
02   Mao:        他没有不开心啊,他没有不开心, 他很开心.
                 Ta meiyou  bu kaixin a, ta meiyou bu kaixin, ta hen
                 kaixin.
                 he neg-asp neg happy mp, he neg-asp neg happy, he very
                 happy.
                 He isn’t unhappy, he isn’t unhappy, he is very happy.

Information requests can be seen in Extract (12) and (13) in Section 4.2.

The next example, (15), shows a Q-word question being used as an other-initiation of repair. Kai makes a statement that drinking tea can be addictive (line 1). At line 2, Yi repeats the auxiliary keyi ‘can’, followed by the interrogative pronoun shenme ‘what’, and thus locates the particular spot where the trouble occurs. While this instance targets a specific item in the prior utterance, shenme, when used alone, can initiate open-class repair as well, indicating problems of hearing or understanding. Polar questions, by contrast, are frequent vehicles for other-initiation of repair that identifies a specific trouble source.

(15)

Q-word question as repair initiation (ZYLK)

01   Kai:      我觉得喝茶可以上瘾.
               Wo juede  he   cha keyi shangyin.
               I  think drink tea can  get-addicted
               I think drinking tea can get addictive.
02             (0.5)
03   Yi:   →   >可以什么<?
               >Keyi shenme<?
                can  what
               >Can what<?
04   Kai:      可以上:.
               Keyi shangyin:.
               can  get-addicted
               Can get addictive:.

Among all question types, only polar questions – more specifically particle questions – have been observed to be employed for assessments. In Extract (16), Kai asks Yi, a female international student in a US university, whether she eats in the residential dining halls (line 1), and Yi responds affirmatively (line 2). An assessment is offered subsequently by Yi in line 5, in the form of a rhetorical question, which does not seek confirmation but conveys a proposition of the opposite polarity, i.e. that there is no place worth eating in the nearby area, as an account for why she typically eats at the residential dining halls. Note that this assessment is formatted with shenme, which serves as an indefinite pronoun here meaning ‘any’ (see Section 4.2). Yi’s assessment, partially overlapped with Kai’s just-initiated turn, compels Kai to abandon her unfinished turn and motivates a response from her. At line 6, Kai produces a negative form, mei you, to align with Yi’s stance (line 7).

(16)

polar question as assessment (ZYLK)

01   Kai:     你是一般都是在学校宿舍那边吃吗?
              Ni  shi yiban  dou  shi zai xuexiao sushi nabian chi ma?
              you cop usually all cop in  school  dorm  there  eat qp
              Do you usually eat in the (dining halls) of the school
              dorms?
02   Yi:      >对啊<.
              >Dui   a <.
               right mp
              Right.
03            (0.5)
04   Kai:     我觉[得,
              Wo jue[de,
              I  think
              I thi[nk,
05   Yi:   →      [不然这里(.)这这一片有什么值得吃的吗hh?
              [
                                                    Buran zheli(.)zhe zhe yi pian you shenme zhide chi de ma
              hh?
              otherwise here this this one area have what worth eat sp qp
              [Otherwise here(.)this this area has anything worth eating
              hh?
06   Kai:     没有=.
              Meiyou=.
              neg-have
              No=.
07   Yi:      =对呀.
              =Dui ya.
              right mp
              =Right.

6.Response types

When a question is produced, three types of responses are possible: (1) an answer, which directly addresses the question; (2) a non-answer response, which fails to directly deal with the question (including other-initiation of repair); and (3) no response (Stivers and Enfield 2010Stivers, Tanya, and Nick J. Enfield 2010 “A Coding Scheme for Question–Response Sequences in Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 42(10): 2620–2626. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). My data show that, in Mandarin, answer (n = 327, 81%) is statistically preferred over non-answer and no response (see Table 7), consistent with the patterns found in other languages.

Table 7.Distribution of response types in Mandarin questions
Answer Non-answer No response Total
327 66 10 403
81% 16% 2% 100%

While answers are generally constrained by their prior questions, the aspect and/or the extent of being constrained vary across question types. Polar questions, among all types, are the most constraining because they reduce the relevant answers to two alternative tokens, for instance, prototypically yes and no in English (Raymond 2003Raymond, Geoffrey 2003 “Grammar and Social Organization: Yes/No Interrogatives and the Structure of Responding.” American Sociological Review, 939–967. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Thus, I consider responses to polar questions in this section.

6.1A typological perspective on polar answers

Sadock and Zwicky (1985)Sadock, Jerrold M., and Arnold M. Zwicky 1985 “Speech Act Distinctions in Syntax.” In Language Typology and Syntactic Description, ed. by Timothy Shopen, 155–196. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar classify languages into three types based on how polar questions are answered:

  1. a ‘yes-no’ system, in which an interjectional answer such as yes or no matches the question’s polarity;

  2. an ‘agree-disagree’ system, in which an interjectional answer indicates the agreement or disagreement with the questioner’s proposition, regardless of the question polarity (e.g. Q: Do you not see them? A: Yes [= ‘Yes it’s true, I do not see them’]);

  3. an ‘echo’ system, in which the answer repeats the main verb in the question with or without additional materials (e.g. Q: Do you not see them? A: I do not see them).22.Examples in (2) and (3) are quoted from Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar.

Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar criticize Sadock and Zwicky’s proposal for obscuring a more basic two-way distinction, that is, interjection and repetition, since both ‘yes-no’ and ‘agree-disagree’ systems utilize interjectional responses. Enfield et al. (2010)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, and Stephen C. Levinson 2010 “Question-Response Sequences in Conversation across Ten Languages: An Introduction.” Journal of Pragmatics 42: 2615–2619. CrossrefGoogle Scholar and Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar report that languages generally employ more than one strategy, and interjection is the cross-linguistically preferred response type. In what follows, I examine Mandarin polar responses, both confirming and disconfirming, to find out whether this global preference holds for Mandarin.

Following Stivers and Enfield (2010)Stivers, Tanya, and Nick J. Enfield 2010 “A Coding Scheme for Question–Response Sequences in Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 42(10): 2620–2626. CrossrefGoogle Scholar and Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, I define interjection-type answers as answers that do not assert a proposition in and of themselves but do confirm or disconfirm one. Repetition-type answers are defined as answers that repeat fully or partially the elements without qualitative semantic alternation. All other types of answers are labeled Other, which mainly includes transformative answers (Stivers and Hayashi 2010Stivers, Tanya, and Makoto Hayashi 2010 “Transformative Answers: One Way to Resist a Question’s Constraints.” Language in Society 39(1): 1–25. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).

6.2Interjectional responses to Mandarin polar questions

First of all, it is necessary to delimit interjectional responses because interjection in Mandarin is a fussy category that lacks a clear and consistent definition. Traditionally, interjections are understood as stand-alone particles that are syntactically independent from the sentence and do not have fixed lexical tone (Chao 1968Chao, Yuen Ren 1968A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.Google Scholar), such as wei (when answering phone calls), en (signaling assent or acknowledgement), e (a marker of hesitation), and o (indicating a change of state), just to list a few. Not all interjections can be polar responses. In Chao’s list, only en and a (with low falling tone) can be used as polar answers. I term this group of interjections, which do not function otherwise, as primary interjections.

On the other end of the delimitation problem is a group of emerging interjections from other lexical classes that are frequently used to respond to polar questions, such as hao ‘good’, dui ‘right’, xing ‘alright, okay’, shi ‘be’ (Chui 2002Chui, Kawai 2002 “Ritualization in Evolving Pragmatic Functions: A Case Study of Dui .” Language and Linguistics 3 (4): 645–663.Google Scholar; Lü 1980/2004Lü, Shuxiang 1980/2004Xiandai Hanyu Babai Ci [800 Words in Modern Chinese]. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.Google Scholar; Wang et al. 2010Wang, Yu-Fang, Pi-Hua Tsai, David Goodman, and Meng-Ying Lin 2010 “Agreement, Acknowledgment, and Alignment: The Discourse-Pragmatic Functions of Hao and Dui in Taiwan Mandarin Conversation.” Discourse Studies 12 (2): 241–267. CrossrefGoogle Scholar), and their negative counterparts bu, 不是 bu shi, and 没有 mei you, among others. I consider them secondary interjections, because their interjectional uses are derived from their lexical semantics. The distinction between primary and secondary interjections is in accord with earlier studies on English interjections (Ameka 1992Ameka, Felix 1992 “Interjections: The Universal yet Neglected Part of Speech.” Journal of Pragmatics 18(2–3): 101–118. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Norrick 2009Norrick, Neal R. 2009 “Interjections as Pragmatic Markers.” Journal of Pragmatics 41(5): 866–891. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).

However, one issue arises from the definition of secondary interjections. When secondary interjections respond to questions that are formatted with the corresponding adjective/verbs, should they be considered interjectional or repetitional responses? For example, as an answer to the question ni shi Beijing ren dui bu dui? ‘are you from Beijing, right?’, how should dui ‘right’, as an answer, be analyzed?

My solution is to recognize cases like these as repetitional answers. When secondary interjections respond to questions that do not contain the corresponding adjectives/verbs, they are considered interjection-type responses. Admittedly this is an analytical decision, yet it is supported both theoretically and empirically. First, secondary interjections are in the process of pragmaticalization (Diewald 2011Diewald, Gabriele 2011 “Pragmaticalization (Defined) as Grammaticalization of Discourse Functions.” Linguistics 49 (2): 365–390. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Heine 2013Heine, Bernd 2013 “On Discourse Markers: Grammaticalization, Pragmaticalization, or Something Else?Linguistics 51(6). 1205–1247. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). One characteristic of pragmaticalization is the expansion of occurring contexts. That is, the further into this process, the more diverse the context in which these markers can occur. In this case, they are expanding to answer questions that they are not grammatically fitted to. This is both evidence for their pragmaticalization and for the validity of analyzing them as interjections when they do not repeat any part of the prior question. Empirically, not all interjections have the same level of pragmaticalization; some are more full-fledged than others. For instance, meiyou is found in Wang (2020)Wang, Wei 2020 “Grammatical Conformity in Question-Answer Sequences: The Case of Meiyou in Mandarin Conversation.” Discourse Studies 22 (5). CrossrefGoogle Scholar to occur more often as an interjectional response (68%) than as a repetitional response (32%). By contrast, bushi is found in the same study more frequent as a repetitional response (79%) rather than an interjectional response (21%), suggesting a lower degree of pragmaticalization.

Example (17) shows a primary interjection, en, responding to a question formatted with the copula verb shi. The polar question in (18), likewise designed with the copula shi, is responded to by a secondary interjection dui ‘right’. (19) shows a secondary interjection responding negatively to a polar question.

(17)

primary interjection in a confirming response (LJWHJJ)

01   Jia:       ^哎我(.)我现在真的很喜欢用微商的东西>°我跟你说°<.
                ^Ai wo(.)wo xianzai zhende hen xihuan yong weishang de
                dongxi
                >°wo gen ni shuo°<.
                inj I     I   now  really very like use WeChat-goods sp
                things
                I  to  you  say
                ^Ah I (.) I now really like to use WeChat goods >°I’m telling you°<.
02              (0.3)
03   Jing:      的有用吗?
                Shi zhende youyong ma?
                cop really useful  qp
                Are (they) really useful?
04   Jia:   →   嗯.
                En.
                inj
                Uh-huh.

(18)

secondary interjection in a confirming response (ZYLK)

01   Yi:        你室友是台湾人啊?
                Ni    shiyou  shi Taiwan ren   a?
                your roommate cop  pn   person mp
                Is your roommate from Taiwan?
02   Kai:   →   对:: [台湾的,
                Dui:: [Taiwan de,
                right  pn    sp
                Right:: [Taiwan,
03   Yi:              [有没有矛盾啊?
                      [You-mei-you  maodun   a?
                      have-not-have conflict mp
                     [Do you have conflicts?

(19)

secondary interjection in a disconfirming response (CCMMZM)

1     FY:      是是是欧洲人吗?=
               Shi shi shi Ouzhou   ren   ma=
               cop cop cop Europe  person   qp
               Is is is he from Europe?=
2     CC:→     =没有 h国[人,
               =Meiyou (h)Zhongguo [ren,
                neg     China  person
               =No, (he is) (h) Chin[ese,

6.3Repetitional responses to polar questions

Repetition-type responses repeat part or all of the prior question. Minimally, they include part of the predicate of the question (see Extract 20 below) with the only exception being tag questions, whose repetitional answers consist minimally of the verb/adjective in the tag (see Extract 21). Repetition can be non-minimal, including other parts of the preceding question, as shown in (22).

It has been argued that repetitional responses assert higher epistemic and social entitlement than interjectional responses (Heritage and Raymond 2012Heritage, John, and Geoffrey Raymond 2012 “Navigating Epistemic Landscapes: Acquiescence, Agency and Resistance in Responses to Polar Questions.” In Questions: Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives, ed. by J. P. de Ruiter, 179–192. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Raymond 2003Raymond, Geoffrey 2003 “Grammar and Social Organization: Yes/No Interrogatives and the Structure of Responding.” American Sociological Review, 939–967. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Schegloff 1996Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1996 “Confirming Allusions: Toward an Empirical Account of Action.” American Journal of Sociology 102 (1): 161–216. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Stivers 2005Stivers, Tanya 2005 “Modified Repeats: One Method for Asserting Primary Rights from Second Position.” Research on Language and Social Interaction 38 (2): 131–158. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). If we look into repetitional responses, non-minimal repetitional answers exert even more agency and claim more epistemic rights over the information at issue than minimal repetitions.

Compare (20) and (22). The response in (20) repeats the auxiliary only, whereas that in (22) repeats both the subject and the verb. In (20), Kai tells Yi that she is taking Japanese Linguistics this semester (line 1). This raises Yi’s doubts about Kai’s qualification for taking that course (line 2), since to her knowledge one needs to pass Japanese 3 as a prerequisite. To respond to Yi’s particle question, Kai deploys a minimal repetitional answer (line 3), keyi ‘can’, repeating only the auxiliary in the question. This format assents to Yi’s agency as well as the terms of her question.

By contrast, in (22), Jia’s non-minimal answer wo zhidao a ‘I know’ (line 2) asserts independent epistemic access to the information in question, challenging the questioner’s presupposition that Jia may not know the city of Guangzhou. The final particle a evokes a contrast between the speaker’s actual epistemic stance and what has been assumed by the interlocutor, and therefore reinforces speaker’s pre-existing knowledge or experience regarding the matter in question.

(20)

minimal repetitional answer (ZYLK)

01   Kai:     噢我还选了一门那个:Japanese Linguistics, CM123.
              Ou wo hai   xuan  le yi men nage: Japanese Linguistics,
              CM123.
              inj I also choose asp one cl dm  Japanese Linguistics  CM123
              Oh I also enrolled in the: Japanese Linguistics, CM123.
02   Yi:      你可以选吗?
              Ni keyi  xuan  ma?
              you can choose qp
              Can you enroll (in that course)?
03   Kai:→    可以.
              Keyi.
              can
              (I) can.
04   Yi:      不是说要过了三吗?
              Bushi shuo   yao  guo   le  san  ma?
              neg   say have-to pass asp three qp
              Don’t (they) say that (one) has to pass (Japanese) 3?
05   Kai:     hh 为什么我选到了?
              hh weishenme  wo   xuan dao le?
                 why        I  choose comp asp
              hh how come I (was able to) enroll in it?

(21)

minimal answer repeating the question tag (CallFriend_4257)

01   B:       嗯, 他太太也要来对吧?
              En, ta taitai  ye  yao  lai   dui  ba?
              inj his wife also  will come right qp
              Well, his wife will also come right?
02   A: →     对.
              Dui.
              right
              Right.

(22)

non-minimal repetitional answer (LJWHJJ)

01   Jing:    知道广州吗?
              Ni zhidao Guangzhou ma?
              you know   pn       qp
              Do you know Guangzhou?
02   Jia: →   我知道啊.
              Wo zhidao a.
              I  know  mp
              I know.

6.4Transformative responses to polar questions

Despite the constraints set by questions, respondents can actively resist them using various strategies. Among them, transformative answers retroactively modify the grammatical design and/or agenda of the prior question, essentially addressing “a somewhat different question than was originally posed” (Stivers and Hayashi 2010Stivers, Tanya, and Makoto Hayashi 2010 “Transformative Answers: One Way to Resist a Question’s Constraints.” Language in Society 39(1): 1–25. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 2).

Extract (23) shows a transformative response with a term replacement. Kai asks Yi whether Yi’s friend studies French out of interest (line 1). The key term gan xingqu ‘be interested’ is replaced in Yi’s response with a different formulation, juede Fawen bijiao youyong ‘feel French is relatively useful’.

(23)

transformative response (ZYLK)

01   Kai:     她是因为感兴趣所以去学吗?
              Ta  shi  yinwei    ganqingxu  suoyi  qu  xue  ma?
              she cop because  be-interested so    go learn qp
              Is (it) because she is interested so she learns (French)?
02   Yi: →    ^她是觉得法文比较有用.
              ^Ta  shi juede Fawen   bijiao   youyong.
              she cop think French relatively useful
              ^She thinks French is relatively useful.

6.5Distribution of polar responses

The distribution of the three polar response types is summarized in Table 8. Mandarin interjectional answers (39%, n = 88) do not significantly outnumber repetitional and transformative answers. This seems to contradict the findings of Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, i.e. that interjection is the statistically preferred type. Since Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar focus on confirming responses only, separating confirming from disconfirming responses in my data allows for valid comparison. When this is done, interjections are observed to be used more often than repetitions in confirming responses, whereas repetitions are favored in disconfirming responses (see Table 9).

Table 8.General distribution of the grammatical types of polar responses
Interjection Repetition Transformative Total
88 79 57 224
39% 35% 26% 100%
Table 9.Answer formats in confirming vs. disconfirming responses
Interjection Repetition Transformative Total
Confirming 65 44 10 119
56% 36%  8% 100%
Disconfirming 12 34 26  72
17% 48% 36% 100%

The distributional difference in confirming and disconfirming responses is not surprising if we consider the sequential features of different responses. Interjectional responses do not convey any propositional content; instead, they are retrospectively tied to the prior question and thus rely on the specific formulation offered by the prior speaker. This makes interjectional answers inherently acquiescent to the design and the agenda of the question. This explains why interjections are more frequently used in confirming answers. By contrast, repetitional answers assert the proposition in themselves, thus claiming more epistemic authority over the information at issue (Heritage and Raymond 2012Heritage, John, and Geoffrey Raymond 2012 “Navigating Epistemic Landscapes: Acquiescence, Agency and Resistance in Responses to Polar Questions.” In Questions: Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives, ed. by J. P. de Ruiter, 179–192. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). Therefore, this format is often deployed to deliver a disconfirming response, challenging the questioner’s agency or the epistemic gradient presumed by the questioner. Even more radical in this regard are transformative answers, which problematize the terms or the agenda of the prior question. It is the most incongruent answer type. That is why transformative answers are the second favorite format (36%) for disconfirming responses, behind only repetition (48%).

Another issue arises if we compare Mandarin interjections (in confirming answers) more closely with Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar. In eleven out of the fourteen languages investigated in their study, interjections account for over 80% of responses to polar questions. Among the three languages in which interjections account for less than 80% of responses in their study, the ‘repetition-prominent’ status of Brazilian Portuguese (55%) has been shown to be simply a result of different categorizing methods. The lack of statistical preference for interjectional response in ╪Ākhoe Hai||om (51%) and Tzeltal (34%) has been explained in terms of their cultural norms (e.g. resistance to coercion). Why, then, does Mandarin likewise have an only marginal statistical preference for interjection (56%)? While a full discussion would merit a separate article, I offer some preliminary explanations here.

First, Mandarin lacks a set of generic polar interjections like yes and no in English. Shi and bushi, usually translated as yes and no, are not true equivalents to yes and no; instead, they are secondary interjections, which are primarily used as copular verbs. In the current study, shi and bushi are counted as interjections only when they respond to questions formulated without shi. Second, in languages where generic polar interjections can be used to answer all polar questions, the choice between an interjectional format and a repetitional format is pragmatically or interactionally driven. In Mandarin, however, such a choice is not completely interactionally motivated because some question formats place grammatical constraints on the response shape. For instance, A-not-A questions, although they are polar questions, essentially put two options on the table for the respondent to choose from. Take for example, ni qu bu qu Beijing? ‘are you going to Beijing?’ An interjectional answer, shi or bushi, would cause confusion as to which polarity the respondent is aligning with. However, a repetitional response, qu ‘go’ or bu qu ‘not go’, can avoid such confusion and make an unequivocal answer. To sum up, the lack of generic polar interjections and the special grammatical constraints imposed on responses are factors, possibly among others, that contribute to the relatively lower percentage of interjectional answers in Mandarin.

7.Conclusions

This study has provided an overview of the Mandarin question-response system, in particular the ways in which Mandarin speakers design their questions and responses as well as deploy questions to accomplish social actions.

It has been found that polar questions, among all the question types, exhibit most diversity and complexity. They are found in four formats, i.e. particle questions, declarative questions, A-not-A questions, and tag questions, which are employed rather differently for social actions. While the majority of tag questions (100%) and declarative questions (92%) are used for confirmation requests, more than half of A-not-A questions are built for information requests. As for polar answers, previous studies have demonstrated that interjection is the pragmatically unmarked option and thus enjoys cross-linguistic preference over repetitional response. In Mandarin, however, interjections do not significantly outnumber repetitions as in many other languages. Two characteristics of Mandarin polar answers have been discovered in the present study. First, Mandarin does not have generic polar interjections like yes and no, and instead has two sets of interjections: primary interjections such as en and a, which confirm a proposition acquiescently, and secondary interjections such as shi ‘be’ and dui ‘right’, which have developed or have been developing from other lexical classes. Second, the statistically preferred format differs between confirming and disconfirming responses: the former favors interjection while the latter favors repetition.

This study sheds new light on some existing linguistic debates such as Mandarin question classification, question particles and interjectional responses by incorporating CA insights. Applying the cross-linguistic coding framework developed by pioneering studies to Mandarin data, the current study makes it possible to compare the Mandarin question-response system with those of other languages. It is my hope that this article will serve as a starting point for future studies on Mandarin questions and responses as well as a reference point for further cross-linguistic comparison.

Notes

1.It has been reported that ha is widely used in Northern Mandarin, especially in Beijing, Tianjin, and Northeastern Mandarin varieties, and has been observed entering Standard Mandarin recently (Yin 1999Yin, Shichao 1999 “Shuo Yuqici Ha he Ha Ziju [On Modal Particle ha and ha-sentences].” Fangyan [Dialect], 2, 95–103.Google Scholar; Yang and Wiltschko 2016Yang, Xiaodong, and Martina Wiltschko 2016 “The Confirmational Marker Ha in Northern Mandarin.” Journal of Pragmatics 104: 67–82. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).
2.Examples in (2) and (3) are quoted from Enfield et al. (2019)Enfield, Nicholas J., Tanya Stivers, Penelope Brown, Christina Englert, Katariina Harjunpää, Makoto Hayashi, Trine Heinemann, Gertie Hoymann, Tiina Keisanen, and Mirka Rauniomaa 2019 “Polar Answers.” Journal of Linguistics 55(2): 277–304. CrossrefGoogle Scholar.

Abbreviations

The abbreviations used in the morpheme-by-morpheme glossing line are as follows:

asp

aspect marker

cl

classifier

cop

copula verb

comp

complement

dm

discourse marker

gen

genitive

inj

interjection

mp

modal particle

neg

negative marker

pn

proper noun

qp

question particle

sp

structural particle

voc

vocalization.

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Address for correspondence

Wei Wang

Department of Modern and Classical Languages

University of Houston

3553 Cullen Boulevard Room 612

Houston, TX 77204

USA

wwang49@uh.edu

Biographical notes

Wei Wang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at the University of Houston. She received her PhD in Chinese linguistics at UCLA. Her research, informed by conversation analysis and discourse-functional linguistics, focuses on the intersection of grammar, prosody, and social interaction as well as second language pragmatics.