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Query Details

Query Subject:   Person marking in interrogatives
Author:   Mike Maxwell
Submitter Email:  click here to access email

Linguistic LingField(s):  Morphology
Subject Language(s):  Cubeo

Query:   In consulting with a linguist working on a Colombian language, I ran
across something strange, and I thought I'd see if anything like this
happens in other languages. (I looked through some of the typological
literature, but came up empty handed.) The situation is this: person/
gender/ number marking on verbs seems to work in reverse in
declaratives and interrogatives. Specifically, first person suffixes
in declaratives are used as second person suffixes in interrogatives
(in one tense only, out of several). Here are some examples (using
'u' for a high back unrounded vowel; phonemic nasalization not shown):

(1) da-kaku
I came.

(2) da-be-te-kaku
I didn't come.

(3) da-kaku-ru
did you come?

Either (1) or (2) is an appropriate answer to (3). The glosses are:
1MSgNRP = 'first person masculine singular nonrecent past', NEG=
'negative, DYN= 'dynamicizer' (an affix that shifts the verb between
'stative' and 'dynamic' forms--that's a whole 'nother story), and 2Q=
second person yes-no question (a different suffix appears in first and
third person interrogatives).

The relevant morpheme is -kaku, which seems to mean first person in
declaratives, but second person in interrogatives. The examples are
all in masculine singular, but the same thing reportedly happens in
feminine singular forms and in plural forms: you get -kako in 1st
person feminine singular declaratives and 2nd person feminine singular
interrogatives, and you get -kara in 1st person plural declaratives
and 2nd person plural interrogatives. The corresponding second person
declaratives are all da-awo 'you came' (or da-be-te-awo 'you didn't
come'); note that number and gender are not differentiated in the
second person declarative forms. First person interrogatives are not
common (except for those of us who go around asking ourselves where we
left our reading glasses), but when they do occur they apparently do
not take any specific person markers, just a question marker (which is
also used on the much more common third person interrogatives).

The use of the same person marker for 1st person declaratives and 2nd
person interrogatives only happens in the nonrecent past (well, also
in the habitual aspect, but that's the other story I mentioned, having
to do with stative and dynamic stems). The other tenses seem to use
person markers consistently in declarative and interrogative, or none
at all. (The recent past tense does something else odd with
evidentials in interrogatives, which is yet another story...)

In summary, there are several things odd here: why would the same
person/ number/ gender markers be used in 1st person declaratives and
2nd person interrogatives? And why in just one tense? And why do the
second person interrogatives distinguish gender and number when the
declaratives don't?

I must confess that my initial reaction was that the data was in
error--I blamed it on elicitation techniques. But this appears not to
be the case. Although I can't provide any person observations, the
linguist working in this language assures me she's heard conversations
between native speakers in which sentences like (3) served as a
question, and (1) or (2) as a reply. Also, the -ru suffix that
appears in example (3) appears only on second person interrogatives
elsewhere in the system (although not on all second person

As Hamlet said, ''There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'' Or at least in my philosophy.
Has anyone else seen something like this?

Mike Maxwell
Summer Institute of Linguistics
LL Issue: 10.776
Date posted: 20-May-1999


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