REMINDER: Invitation - USYD Department of Linguistics Research Seminar

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Sebastian Fedden

Sep 8, 2016, 1:39:51 AM9/8/16
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Dear colleagues,


Our USYD Department of Linguistics Research Seminar continues with a talk by:


Professor N. J. Enfield

The University of Sydney


Polar Answers: a cross-linguistic study


Fri, 9 September 2016, 12.00-13.30

Rogers Room, John Woolley Bldg A20, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006


You’re welcome to bring your lunch to the talk. After the talk we’ll have our Linguistics Afternoon Tea.


You will find the abstract and a CV of our speaker below.







How are polar questions answered? A received view is that there are two basic types of system. (1) ‘Echo/Repetition systems’ confirm by repeating part or all of the question. Q: Are they asleep? A: They are asleep. (2) ‘Interjection systems’ confirm by saying ‘yes’ or equivalent. Q: Are they asleep? A: Yes.


This typology is flawed, on empirical grounds: All languages provide both ways of answering. I present a reappraisal of this typology, based on results of a multi-authored study of how polar questions are answered in conversational corpora in 14 languages. We find the following. First, speakers of all languages use both the interjection and repetition type, so the issue is not which type is used in a language, but rather the relative frequency, and distinct function (if any) of each type. Second, we find that in most languages the repetition type is by far the minority choice, occurring very infrequently (as little as 4% of the time). Even in the languages that rely on the repetition strategy most, it is only used around half the time. We propose to explain this asymmetry with reference to the semantic/semiotic difference between the two strategies. The account explains why the interjection strategy is better fitted to the function of answering polar questions, and hence why it is globally and locally dominant. The approach is functional-typological in so far as it posits functional principles that favor certain solutions and thus account for why those solutions are universally dominant.



Nick Enfield is Professor and Chair of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. His fieldwork-based research on language, cognition, culture, and sociality has centred on Southeast Asia, especially Laos. His most recent books are ‘Natural Causes of Language’ (2014), The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology’ (2014), and ‘The Utility of Meaning’ (2015). He has just published a new book: Umberto Ansaldo and N. J. Enfield. 2016. ‘Is the Language Faculty Nonlinguistic?’ Published by Frontiers in Psychology, freely available as an open access publication:

Dr Sebastian Fedden | Lecturer in Linguistics

School of Letters, Art and Media | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences


N367, John Woolley Bld A20 | The University of Sydney | NSW | 2006

T +61 2 9351 7518  | F +61 2 9351 2434


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