Unintentional questions

In many languages a raising inflection at the end of a statement makes it into a question. A post I read the other day on Invading Holland discusses the authors’ struggles with the Dutch language. Particularly the way he adds a raising inflection to the ends of statements, not because he want to make them into questions, but because he’s unsure if he’s saying them correctly and seeks confirmation.

This is often misinterpreted because rather than answering the unspoken question, i.e. “Did I get that right?”, people tend to doubt his sanity when he appears to ask them questions like “I’ll have a coffee?” or “I’d like to go to the station?”. He calls it the ‘The Unintentional Question Effect’.

When speaking foreign, I’ve also been known to unleash unintended questions on unsuspecting interlocutors, and have noticed others doing the same thing.

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This entry was posted in Language, Language learning, Pronunciation.

9 Responses to Unintentional questions

  1. Daniel says:

    Here at University we see this a lot . . . although it doesn’t come from foreigners. It comes from . . . sorority girls! Actually we studied this in my linguistics class last semester and noticed that it’s a trait amongst women. Normally they will include a rising inflection at the end of their sentences to try to keep attention. Instead of a foreigner being unsure of him/herself, maybe sometimes the rising inflection used at the end of the sentence is in order to keep attention as well . . . .

  2. James says:

    Australians do it too, and apparently there was a Neighbours effect a few years ago where people were picking up the rising intonation at the end of the senence from the TV?

    I catch myself doing the question statement, but only when I have invented some particularly daring Spanish in the middle of a lecture. i find the more formal the register the more likely my inventions are likely to be (I base them on French, and Latinate english vocab and then say them Spanish).

    Normally works?

  3. Ben says:

    Hmm…I don’t usually have this when speaking Arabic (my L2). I get a little bit tough guy – a little gruffer. But when I speak English it comes out much more – I’m Californian, so it’s (sometimes) part of my dialect.

  4. Polly says:

    What about Canadians, eh? Maybe there’s something inherent in the psychology of the culture of the speakers that makes them reluctant to make brazen assertions??? That’s my armchair psychoanalyst take. It seems reasonable???

  5. Jack says:

    I’m Australian and I’ve been told that I make the end of my sentences higher.
    When I was in South Korea, the people in my uni class were asked to introduce ourselves. I said ‘My name is Jack(?), I come from Australia (?) I study linguistics (?)’
    People around me all looked confused because they weren’t sure what was going on!
    I suppose every language will have its own intonation though.
    It sounds very strange when people use one language’s intonation when speaking another.

  6. Jack–how true! The Russian intonation for a question really surprised me because it sounded like the kind of intonation I’d use in English to be very emphatic about something…or more likely, to correct somebody’s incorrect statement.

  7. Seumas says:

    The first time I ever met Australians, I found them incredibly confusing for exactly this reason.

  8. Josh says:

    Like, oh m’god? I totally hate it when, like, girls talk like this? Because it always sounds like they’re asking questions? When they’re, like, totally so not?

  9. James says:

    It´s because they like totally don´t have a very extensive vocabulary, dude.

    intonation is a funny thing. I was talking “blind” to a peruvian yesterday (i.e. he didn´t know who I was before I started and I used a Spanish version of my name so no clues apart from my Spanish). I got a way with it for a while til he asked me if I was a chicano (i.e. mexican living in the USA, at least according to the spanish language dictionary I have). I was very pleased… none of this “you are English” after 3 sentences or (worse) them trying to practice their english on me. My accent he judged “neutral” (I didn´t ask him what gave me away.. very annoyed with forgetting to do that).

    Actually the factors that mean you “get away” with it or not are very interesting. One is how you look. I am normally told that I look either French or Spanish (including by the French and the Spanish), so I can often pull it off that way. The middle and upper classes here dress in a very similar way to Europeans (the working class isn´t that different really, but you do see things here you wouldn´t in the UK).

    Then there´s how you sound. I have cracked (more or less) the pronouciation. I occasionally get my “r”s wrong, and when I am saying hard things my vowels tend to get more anglo, though not too much. Intonation still I don´t feel I have captured.

    Then there´s what you say… the accent will give you away in 2 or 3 seconds, your words take a bit longer (presuming that you are not stumbling over them to the extent of destroying the pronunciation).

    “How are you”
    I am well. And how are you? [fine, and you?]
    Fine but this rain is annoying me
    Yes, indeed, it is a very bad weather, but it is due to change. [well what do you expect? British summer and all that. Anyway it´s meant to get better next week]

    See what I mean?