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Polar answers


How do people answer polar questions? In this fourteen-language study of answers to questions in conversation, we compare the two main strategies; first, interjection-type answers such as uh-huh (or equivalents yes, mm, head nods, etc.), and second, repetition-type answers that repeat some or all of the question. We find that all languages offer both options, but that there is a strong asymmetry in their frequency of use, with a global preference for interjection-type answers. We propose that this preference is motivated by the fact that the two options are not equivalent in meaning. We argue that interjection-type answers are intrinsically suited to be the pragmatically unmarked, and thus more frequent, strategy for confirming polar questions, regardless of the language spoken. Our analysis is based on the semantic-pragmatic profile of the interjection-type and repetition-type answer strategies, in the context of certain asymmetries inherent to the dialogic speech act structure of question–answer sequences, including sequential agency and thematic agency. This allows us to see possible explanations for the outlier distributions found in ǂĀkhoe Haiǁom and Tzeltal.

Corresponding author
Author’s address: N364, Building A20, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006,
Author’s address: 264 Haines Hall, 375 Portola Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1551,
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We are grateful for research support from the Language & Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, and European Research Council Starting Grant 240853 ‘Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use’. We would like to acknowledge the input from three anonymous Journal of Linguistics referees, who helped us clarify our argument, and improve the paper.

Contributor statement: N. J. Enfield and Tanya Stivers wrote the article. All authors collected and transcribed primary data, had input in the coding, did the coding on their data and provided spreadsheets. All authors read and commented on drafts and approved final submission. We are grateful to Fernanda Miranda da Cruz at Unifesp (Federal University of São Paolo) for supplying the data cited in example (8).

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