BiasQ: Bias in Polar Questions

Principal investigators:
Prof. Dr. Bettina Braun
Prof. Dr. Maribel Romero
Universität Konstanz

Project description:
Beyond their (arguably common) truth-conditional contribution, different types of polar questions (e.g. Is Jane coming?, Is Jane not coming?, Isn’t Jane coming (too/either)?, Is Jane really coming?) are often claimed to have different use-conditional content, most notably pertaining to two kinds of bias: original speaker bias and contextual evidence bias. The current empirical generalizations on polar questions and their bias are partial­ ­–existing approaches describe some but not all polar question types– and at times contradictory. Three main lines of analysis have been developed: the first line exploits the notion of “usefulness” of the proposition expressed by the sentence radical (line A), the second line relies on the contribution of the verum operator (line B), and the third line models the differences between the questions at issue in terms of speech acts (line C). Each of these lines accounts for a different set of data and assumes a different pragmatic architecture of discourse and conversational moves and goals.
The novelty of the present project lies in the use of experimental production and perception data that will allow us to decide between these analyses or to develop one of them further. Our first goal is to arrive at an empirically founded characterization of the empirical data. Specifically, we will start out with a large-scale, semi-spontaneous production study in German and English, in which we manipulate the two kinds of bias and analyse the linguistic realization of polar questions (positive vs. negation questions, high vs. low negation, intonation). Crucially, pitch accent placement and type as well as boundary tones, which so far have received little attention in the polar questions at issue, will be analysed in detail. The gathered information will be used to design and conduct perception experiments that tackle three subtle and controversial, but theoretically crucial issues, namely: the split between low and high negation questions, the nature of Ladd’s (1981) ambiguity, and the acceptability of high negation questions with either. The second goal is to evaluate, modify or develop the existing analyses further, informed by the new experimental results. Specifically, we plan to develop a unified and comprehensive account of polar questions (including the contribution of intonation) that can explain the cross-linguistic differences between English and German (and possibly among other languages later on) and that can be extended to similar pragmatic effects in other question types (e.g. rhetorical effects wh-questions).