Tuesday, December 23, 2008


#5: question

My favourite episode of the cult TV series The Prisoner involved an omniscient computer (The General) that could answer anything, or at least until No. 6 fed it the simple question 'Why?' thereby causing it to overheat and implode spectacularly in a fit of seeming rage at its own impotence. Of course, upon quieter reflection the correct answer is, as any child will know when challenged to justify something, the simple and devastatingly effective 'Because!'.

My question is:
What is a question?

At first it appears to be a rather stupid thing to ask. It's perfectly obvious, isn't it? We have a perfectly good shared understanding of what a question is when we encounter one. But try defining it yourself and see if you avoid getting into the mess of contortions and confusion as Wikipedia have, or indeed virtually any dictionary. It just seems to have no definable set of exclusive properties or form. For example, we could call it 'an expression that invites a reply' - well, sometimes yes, sometimes no - and additionally there are expressions that invite replies that aren't questions. Therefore not good enough. How about we call it 'an expression of interrogation'? Cop-out. What does twankle mean? It means peltch. Er, OK, so what does peltch mean? It means twankle. Thanks for nothing.

It's as elusive as whether the light inside your refrigerator switches off when you close the door. How can the notion of a question, of which we seem to universally recognise, so readily elude precise linguistic explanation? It's something that's puzzled me for years, and I now have what I believe is an elegant definition. You see a question isn't at all what it appears to be. Excuse me while I place my miniature DV camera in the fridge and close the door.


J.-P. Caron said...

"It just seems to have no definable set of exclusive properties or form."

Well, it´s just like everything else. It seems that at least since Wittgenstein we can´t really talk seriously about such entity-defining properties, and those who still try to rehabilitate such metaphysics end up making some rather bizarre thought contortions in order to do so.

Kinda like putting your right finger in your right nostril from the left side of your head. (I think it was Tarkovsky who said that, although in a completely different context. :P)

Jeff said...

When I was a kid I spaced out on this for awhile. One thing I speculated was that the way the voice goes up at the end of an asked question means that the asker is imparting a sense of urgency faced with the dilemma of their own ignorance. Questions are about things you don't know about.

The cadence of the voice at the end-part of the question does a kind of Up-Down-Up thing that resembles a frustrated moan, perhaps at being unable to determine the appropriate emotional state to convey. Up? no, down? No, further up??!!


the mullah said...

this up-and-down thing is a feature mainly of US english, and quite other meanings can be conveyed, and other means of questioning things, perhaps on a deeper level, can be derived by not using it. try it! if you look at films from the 1940's and before, this doesn't happen almost at all in US english, and so I suspect it's a recent invention. I have also noticed that people use it all the time in certain US states, as if *everything* was a question.

in all the other languages I've come across, it doesn't happen, and in some others, such as chinese, tonality expresses meaning in a very different way than in western languages.

lastly, the formation of a question in english is based on its grammatical structure, and doing this vocal effect in some other languages would be impossible, because the item in the structure that tells you that the statement is a question is not where it is in english, and would be inappropriate.

cemenTIMental said...

You could just press the switch inside the door.

Richo said...

So, William, what were you answering in my recent interview if not questions...?!

William Bennett said...

and your point is....?

Richo said...

Actually, you touched on this very same subject in one of your answers in the interview. And I would contend that a question is simply to ask something that will elicit a response or gauge somebody's knowledge or experience about any given topic. I don't think it's any more elusive than an answer, either. Given that an answer can be a return or response to a question, where does that leave it when also rounded off by a question mark?

Interesting to see so many answers to the question you originally posed, though!

William Bennett said...

Richo, yours is an example of the form a question might take, not a self-contained definition - there are other types of questions that don't belong to this group, and there are non-question forms to elicit exactly those same types of cited responses (use of the word 'ask' isn't valid because it collocates with 'question' - as in 'ask a question' - note my elliptical example)

Richo said...

Fully comprehend your pulling this along another corridor of meta-speak, but the cul-de-sac it leads to loses sight of the objective.

My 'proper' job is chiefly concerned with raising questions, or encouraging the students to ask them themselves. In over two years, I've only ever once been asked what a question is (although the person concerned was only at an elementary level with English at the time!). Perhaps the true definition can be found within the form? The same way that, say, the definition of 'schwa' is?

William Bennett said...

'corridor of meta-speak'? 'cul-de-sac'? 'objective'? with respect, I'm not sure you do in fact understand the nature of the original posting (or its series)...

that said, successful language 'teaching' involves being able to define, defining being that the learner can confidently recognise whether a given thing belongs, or does not belong, to a set (a single example of form does not achieve that goal)

whether we adjudge certain things like 'question' or 'schwa' or 'meat cleaver' as worthy of defining or not is an irrelevance if we don't know how

Richo said...

I DO understand this series you're posting, and indeed the concept of metaphysics or, more precisely, meta-language. I find it a rather invigorating topic for any discussion or debate. However, although the definition of 'question' changes according to its verb or noun form, I'd contend the definition IS the form a certain sentence takes, and I've HAD to explain this in my vocation before now.

So, yes, I'd contend that 'question' can be defined, even if 'a question' can itself assume many guises (in certain instances relying on intonation, even, as touched upon by others here) and spiral into all manner of different areas.

I know it's not completely black and white, but then, ultimately, nothing really is.

William Bennett said...

I'm sorry, Richo, you're talking about something completely different!

Richo said...

Okay, William! One to be continued, I hope, over another drink or meal sometime. Meantime, here's the angle I was coming in from, I guess:

Is this a question?

No, it is a pronoun. Unless 'this' is itself followed by a question mark.

Ultimately, I just don't completely agree that a question is quite as elusive as you would like to believe when it comes to defining it!