Jump directly to main navigation Jump directly to content Jump to sub navigation

Project Members

  • Michael Cysouw
  • Christian Girke

Typology of Content Interrogatives

Every language has specific words that are used to ask for a specific answer. For example, the English word who asks for a human being, or when for a time. This project investigated what kind of different categorizations languages have in the structure of these content interrogatives.

It has long been assumed that all human languages at least differentiate between a word like who, asking for a human (or sometimes all living beings) and a word like what, asking for non-humans (or non-living beings). However, now that more and more information about the world's languages has become available, it turns out that there are many languages that do not have such a distinction (though not making this distinction is still a minority pattern among the world's linguistic diversity). Likewise, there are many distinctions that might seem natural from a European perspective, but that are not found in other languages, or other languages make distinctions that are unattested in Europe. As in Tamil, where eval asks for a masculine human being and evan asks for a feminine human being (though there is also a general word yār that can be used when the gender is not known).

Investigating the structure of content interrogatives among the world's languages offers a window on the structure of the ontological categorization in the world's languages. Structures recurring in many languages indicate methods of categorizations that are apparently of central importance to humans. Recurrent similarities in form between different interrogatives suggest similarity in the categories expressed. In this way, the current project is related to the investigation of human categorization.


Cysouw, Michael. 2007. Content interrogatives in Asheninca Campa: corpus study and typological comparison. International Journal of American Linguistics : 73.