The December 2007 issue of Oceanic Linguistics (on Project Muse) contains a squib by Frank Lichtenberk about a typologically unusual interrogative word in Toqabaqita (wherein q = glottal stop), a language in the southeast Solomon Islands.
In that language, the Proto-Oceanic question word *sapa ‘what?, which?’ has two reflexes: the independent word taa (with one long vowel) ‘what?, which?’ and the suffixed noun tafa- ‘which part of person’s or animal’s body?’ According to Bernard Comrie, the latter type of interrogative is very rare among the world’s languages. However, Lichtenberk shows that it follows quite naturally from the way alienable vs. inalienable possession is grammatically distinguished in many Oceanic languages.
Toqabaqita is typical. Alienable possession is indicated by a separate possessive word, as in waqi qoe ‘basket thy(sg)’, while inalienable possession is indicated by a suffix on the noun denoting the possession, as in gwau-mu ‘head-your(sg)’. (I’ve simplified the glosses here and below.) The types of possession considered to be alienable or inalienable vary a bit from language to language, but whole-part and kinship relations are typically marked as inalienable.
Toqabaqita is a little more unusual in marking the same distinction in questions of ‘what’ and ‘which’.
- Taa no thathami-a? ‘What you want-it’ = ‘What do you want?’
- Tafa-mu ne fii? ‘What-your(sg) it hurt’ = ‘Which part of your body hurts?’
However, similar patterns turn up in a few other Oceanic languages, like Nadrogā Fijian (in which c = voiced th):
- Mu-cā e raci-a? ‘Your(sg)-what it hurt-it’ = ‘Which part of you hurts?’
When the question asks for a kinship term, it often translates into a question like ‘What relation is X to Y’, as in Pohnpeian (where h marks vowel length) and Kiribati (where /t/ is pronounced [s] before /i/).
- Depehne-i? ‘What.relation.its-my’ = ‘Where/What is it/he in relation to me?’
- Ra-m Te Mautake ‘What-your ART Mautake’ = ‘What relation is Mautake to you?’
This got me thinking about interrogative verbs, ones that translate into ‘do-what’ or ‘what-happen’. I know of several languages that have such verbs, mostly in the New Guinea region, but when I googled ‘question verbs’, I found (Te taetae ni Kiribati), a Peace Corps textbook for Kiribati, which seems to have the most elaborate set of question verbs I’ve ever encountered. Here’s a quick summary.
- Ngaa ‘be where’ – E ngaa to kai-ni-b’ati? ‘It be.where the stop-of-bus?’
- Aera ‘do what’ – Kam na aera? ‘You(pl) will do.what?’
- Uara ‘be how’ – Ko uara? ‘You be.how?’
- Nakea ‘go where’ – Ko na nakea? ‘You will go.where?’
- Kangaa ‘do/be how’ – E kangaa ana taeka? ‘It be.how his words?’ (= said what)
- Rikea ‘pass where’ – Ko na rikea? ‘You will pass.where?’ (= take which route)
- Iraanna ‘do how’ – Ko iraanna ni kateia? ‘You do.how of build.it?’