The Syntactic Structure of Questions in Pidgins

The input languages of pidgins (and creoles) are often characterized by different word orders for questions and statements.

(Where given, a click on the link will direct you to the relevant pidgin/creole text containing the examples presented here.)

  • E.g. English:

  • Yes/no question: John is an engineer <-> Is John an engineer? (subject-verb inversion)

  • Wh-question: John teaches English <-> What does John teach? (subject-auxiliary inversion plus movement of the object noun phrase to the beginning of the sentence).

  • Yes/no questions in pidgins: typically reveal the same word order as the corresponding statements and their status as a question may be signaled by intonation instead.

  • E.g. Fanakalo:

Wena azi kuluma lo Singisi?
You know speak the English
‘Can you speak English?’

  • Sometimes explicit question markers are used (e.g. for emphasis):

  • E.g. Fanakalo:

Wena una lo skafu, na?
You want the food, QUESTION
‘Do you want food?

  • Wh-questions in pidgins: some pidgins use a question word which is then the first element in the sentence.

  • E.g. Fanakalo:

Yini lo msebenzi wena azi?
What the work you know
‘What sort of work can you do?’

In other pidgins the question word shows the same position as the corresponding word or phrase which it replaces would have in a statement.

  • E.g. Tok Pisin:

Yu lukim wanem?
You see what
‘What do you see?’

(Information taken and adapted from Sebba, 1997)