It seems a very trivial matter: when I read out a sentence to a Dutch speaker, s/he will immediately be able to tell whether that sentence is or isn't a question. Intuitively, we as language users have no problem with the term question. But where does that intuition come from? At first sight it seems a rather general language intuition: based on the word order of a clause we immediately know whether or not it is a question. But that intuition doesn't align with how people use language. Frequently we find pieces of talk like the following:
A: It is a good line-up?
Although A does not use an interrogative, B responds with yeah. In other words, B responds as if the utterance by A was a request for confirmation or information. And these types of talk are not the exception. Such declarative questions are used almost as often as their interrogative counterparts.
A purely linguistic definition of the concept question thus raises issues. But how can we then distinguish between what is and what is not a question? During a lecture for first year bachelor students, I asked a student if she could explain of the following sentence, why she called it a yes/no question:
Are you going to do something fun tonight?
The student's anwer was that you can respond with yes or no. That answer may seem a bit simplistic, but it is in line with the way in which we in Conversation Analysis look at language use: a response provides insights into how a speaker has understood the prior utterance by his.her conversational partner. In the following fragment, as in the first dialogue, we can see based on B's response, that she has understood A's utterance as a yes/no question.
A: Do we have to turn on the dishwasher?
The solution the student provided differs surprisingly little from the one some colleagues at the Max Planck Institute came of up with: in a special issue of the Journal of Pragmatics about questions the defined questions as utterances that function as questions. From that perspective we are currently trying to see of there are some linguistic elements that speakers make use of. Earlier research has shown that certain conjunctions like want ('because')and dus ('so') – even when dus is used as an adverb – can play a role. But first we have to find out which utterances function as question, then we can address the issue of what a question looks like