University of Oulu

ENFIELD, N., STIVERS, T., BROWN, P., ENGLERT, C., HARJUNPÄÄ, K., HAYASHI, M., ...LEVINSON, S. (2019). Polar answers. Journal of Linguistics, 55(2), 277-304. doi:10.1017/S0022226718000336

Polar answers

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Author: Enfield, N. J.1; Stivers, Tanya2; Brown, Penelope3;
Organizations: 1University of Sydney
2University of California, Los Angeles
3Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
4University of Groningen
5University of Helsinki
6Nagoya University
7University of Oulu
8University of Colorado, Boulder
9University of California, San Diego
10University of Maryland, Baltimore County
11Radboud University
Format: article
Version: accepted version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 0.5 MB)
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Language: English
Published: Cambridge University Press, 2019
Publish Date: 2019-04-09


How do people answer polar questions? In this fourteen-language study of answers to questions in conversation, we compare the two main strategies; first, interjection-type answers such as uh-huh (or equivalents yes, mm, head nods, etc.), and second, repetition-type answers that repeat some or all of the question. We find that all languages offer both options, but that there is a strong asymmetry in their frequency of use, with a global preference for interjection-type answers. We propose that this preference is motivated by the fact that the two options are not equivalent in meaning. We argue that interjection-type answers are intrinsically suited to be the pragmatically unmarked, and thus more frequent, strategy for confirming polar questions, regardless of the language spoken. Our analysis is based on the semantic-pragmatic profile of the interjection-type and repetition-type answer strategies, in the context of certain asymmetries inherent to the dialogic speech act structure of question–answer sequences, including sequential agency and thematic agency. This allows us to see possible explanations for the outlier distributions found in ǂĀkhoe Haiǁom and Tzeltal.

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Series: Journal of linguistics
ISSN: 0022-2267
ISSN-E: 1469-7742
ISSN-L: 0022-2267
Volume: 55
Issue: 2
Pages: 277 - 304
DOI: 10.1017/S0022226718000336
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 612 Languages and literature
Funding: We are grateful for research support from the Language & Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, and European Research Council Starting Grant 240853 ‘Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use’.
Copyright information: © Cambridge University Press 2018. This article has been published in a revised form in Journal of Linguistics This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works.