- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) the rearrangement of the subject and auxiliary verb of a sentence, often as a means of forming a question
With the latest Haggard Hawks book, Why Is This A Question?, now released and out in the wild, we’ve been sharing a few choice tales and tidbits from it over on Twitter. One has caused somewhat more of a stir than all the others so far—and no, it’s not the one about foul-mouthed Basque whalers. It’s this one:
So the syntax-shuffling method we English speakers use to form simple questions (changing ‘You are hungry’ into ‘Are you hungry?’) is, globally, among the rarest described features of any major language.
It’s easy to see why this might seem too unbelievable to be true, and the responses to that tweet have duly ranged from amazement to distrust. Yes, it’s certainly true that English has other ways of forming questions. And yes, other languages use this method too—notably some of the other Germanic languages (English’s closest relatives) like German and Swedish, and a number of the Romance languages, like French. So a French speaker can likewise either state Vous avez faim (‘You are hungry’), or perform a little syntactic switcheroo and ask Avez-vous faim? (‘Are you hungry?’).
With so much of the Western and English-speaking world seemingly using this word-jumbling technique, then, is this really as rare as that tweet makes out?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is—well, also yes.
What we’re dealing with here is a feature of English called subject–auxiliary inversion. Auxiliary verbs are those that ‘help’ the main verb in a sentence (the would in ‘I would like pizza’), but in this question-forming context we can widen those goalposts to include any form of the grammatical copula too—that is, any form of the fundamental verb be. So to make a question out of a statement in English, all we need to do is swap the subject with the its auxiliary (‘Would I like pizza?’), or the relevant form of be (‘Are you hungry?’).
When neither an auxiliary nor be are at hand, we have to do something else—specifically, call on another feature of English called do-support. ‘You drink coffee’, for instance, doesn’t work quite so well simply reshuffled into ‘Drink you coffee?’, so instead we throw a form of the verb do into the mix too, ending up with a more grammatically palatable ‘Do you drink coffee?’ That way, an auxiliary still takes first place in the sentence. Other languages don’t need this little extra grammatical spice (‘Trinkst du Kaffee?’ would be a perfectly acceptable formation in German, for instance), because their question-forming inversion isn’t limited just to auxiliary verbs.
So subject–auxiliary inversion isn’t the only way we form questions in English, and nor is English the only language that uses syntactic inversion to form questions. But how rare is it? To better understand that, we need to put a few things into perspective.
First up, depending on where and how you draw the line between a language and a dialect (another knotty issue we wade into in Why Is This A Question?), there are only around 40–50 Germanic languages in use today. Even if every one of those were to use this same question-forming technique—and even with French and a handful of its Romance cousins added onto that total—we’re still struggling to reach the high two-figures here.
Surely there must be more languages elsewhere that we can add onto our list too, you might ask? Well, yes there are: research has so far found one in Indonesia (Manggarai) that has inverted questions, as well as another in the western Pacific (Palauan), and two more in South America (Warekena and Hup). All told, even if we expand our search far outside of Europe, there are just four other languages we know of worldwide that use a rejigged word order to ask questions.
Now bear in mind that there are at last count 7,151 languages in use in the world today. A feature we have so far found in barely sixty of them would therefore represent less than 1% of that global total. Which, for added context, makes our everyday method of forming questions in English about as rare as the click consonants of southern Africa. As always with facts and stats like this one, ultimately, context is key to appreciating just how extraordinary something apparently very ordinary truly is.