LINGUIST List 12.1825

Mon Jul 16 2001

Sum: Wh-questions in Arabic

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. O.L. Zavitnevich, Wh-questions in Arabic

Message 1: Wh-questions in Arabic

Date: Fri, 13 Jul 2001 16:06:12 +0100 (BST)
From: O.L. Zavitnevich <>
Subject: Wh-questions in Arabic

For Query: Linguist 12.1699

Earlier this month I posted a question about the formation of wh-questions
in Arabic and Arabic dialects. I am very grateful to all who
replied to my queiry. Here is the summary of the information that I got:

In Modern Standard Arabic the question word appears sentence initially
(to the right of the sentence):
"qara?a al-waladu kitaaban" (The boy read a book)

mann (who) qara?a kitaaban?
limaaDa (why) qara?a al-waladu kitaaban?
maaDa (what) qara?a al-waladu?
?ayna (where) qara?a al-waladu kitaaban?

However, constructions of the following type is possible
qara?a kitaaban mann (who)?
qara?a al-waladu maaDa (what)?,

"qara?a al-waladu maaDa (what)"? may be used in scholastic settings to
elicit answers from pupils.

In Tunisian Arabic, the sub-dialect of Sfax, the examples from MSA become
as follows

(i) shkun (who) qara ktaab? (who read a book?)
(ii) ?alash (why) qara iT-Tfil ktaab? (why did the boy read a book?)
(iii) ?ish (what) qara iT-Tfil? (what did the boy read?)
(iv) wiin/fiin qara iT-Tfil l-ktaab? (where did the boy read the book?)

The position of a wh-phrase affects the meaning of a sentence, thus:
iT-Tfil qara ktaab shkun (who) ? (whose book did the boy read?)

the meaning changes into asking about the genetive.

In North African Arabic (Algerian dialect) wh-question-phrases
always have to be topicalized, and thus appear sentence-initially.

Moroccan Arabic is similar English. Wh in-situ is possible only in Echo

Egyptian Arabic mainly uses wh-in-situ strategy, clause-initial
position is not very common only in idiomatic expression like "eh da"
`what is this supposed to be?' (angrily) instead of normal "da eh" `what
is this?'

Other sourses:

Shalom Lappin and David Johnson, Local Constraints vs Economy, CSLI
Monographs in Linguistics Series, CSLI, Stanford, CA, 1999, contains an
extensive discussion of wh-questions in Iraqi Arabic.

Modes of Intorregation, by Lina Choueiri and Joseph Aoun in the
semitic archives hosted by the ling dept at USC on Lebanese Arabic


Olga Zavitnevich
Cambridge University
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