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Wh-questions in Estonian everyday conversation

Keywords: spoken Estonian, everyday dialogue, questions, social action, wh-questions, conversation analysis

The purpose of the article is to research the social actions of wh-questions in Estonian everyday conversations and find out whether there is a connection between the form of the question and the social action. Wh-questions are formed with question words (mis ‘what’, kuidas ‘how’, kes ‘who’ etc.) and the question does not contain an answer. The material consists of 271 extracts collected from the Corpus of Spoken Estonian of the University of Tartu. The extracts were analysed using the methodology of conversation analysis.

There were four social actionsperformed by the wh-questions analysed: Request for information (144), Rhetorical question (65), Repair (55), and Outloud (5). Hence, not all of the wh-questions are related to the prototypical role of seeking information. Moreover, a wh-question can perform more than one action at the same time. For example, it can function as a Request for information and simultaneously convey a statement.

What is more, social actions have central performers among form variants. Requests for information and Rhetorical questions are typically formed as sentences and Repairs as phrases. As Repairs are closely linked to prior talk they can be formed by minimal linguistic units. However, a preferred type of Repair (viz. other-initiated self-repair) is formed as a phrase, whereas a dispreferred type – self-initiated other-repair – is formed as a sentence. While Requests for information use a different range of q-words, Rhetorical questions are formed mainly by the q-words mis ‘what’, or miks ‘why’; and Repairs by the q-words mis ‘what’, kus ‘where’, or the particle ah ‘huh’.

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