Back to top

Responses to wh-questions in Estonian spoken interaction

Keywords: spoken Estonian, phrasal response, clausal response, specifying question, telling question


The purpose of this article is to research responses to the wh-questions in Estonian everyday conversations.In Estonian, wh-questions are formed with sentence-initial question words (mis ‘what’, kes ‘who’, etc.). The material consists of 103 extracts collected from the Corpus of Spoken Estonian of the University of Tartu. The extracts were analysed using the methodology of conversation analysis.

The data reveals that there are two types of wh-questions in Estonian: specifying and telling questions. Hence, the study provides a confirmation of the view presented in Thompson et al. (2015). A specifying question seeks a single piece of information, while a telling question asks for a longer response: a report, a story, an explanation, etc. (Thompson et al. 2015). In Estonian, the preferred answer for a specifying question is formed with a phrase (nouns, adjectives, noun/prepositional phrases). As the verb can appear alone in Estonian, verbs without other elements were counted as a phrase. A telling question expects a multi-unit clausal response, which could be preceded by a routinized phrase.

A specifying question is formed with question words kus ‘where’, kes ‘who’, millal ‘when’, andquestion phrases with mis ‘what’ (e.g. what time)or kui ‘how’ (e.g. how much)A telling question is formed with question words mis ‘what’, kuidas ‘how’, or miks ‘why’. However, the question word and the question type are not always in accordance. For example, the question word mis ‘what’ can formulate both specifying and telling questions. In this case, the sequential position gives a hint as the specifying question is rather a topic follow-up and the telling question is a topic proffer. Additionally, the choice of words and grammar (e.g. tense) helps to decide the question type.


Andra Rumm (b. 1991), MA, University of Tartu, PhD Student,


B e t z, Emma 2008. Grammar and Interaction: Pivots in German Conversation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

B u t t o n, Graham, C a s e y, Neil 1985. Topic nomination and topic pursuit. – Human Studies, kd 8, nr 1, lk 3–55.

D i n g e m a n s e, Mark, B l y t h e, Joe, D i r k s m e y e r, Tyko 2014. Formats for other-initiation of repair across languages: An exercise in pragmatic typology. – Studies in Language, kd 38, nr 1, lk 5–43.

E v a n s, Nicholas 1993. Code, inference, placedness and ellipsis. – The Role of Theory in Linguistic Description. Toim W. A. Foley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, lk 243–280.

F o x, Barbara A., T h o m p s o n, Sandra A. 2010. Responses to wh-questions in English conversation. – Research on Language and Social Interaction, kd 43, nr 2, lk 133–156.

H a k u l i n e n, Auli 2001. Minimal and non-minimal answers to yes-no questions. – Pragmatics, kd 11, nr 1, lk 1–15.

H a y a s h i, Makoto, K u s h i d a, Shuya 2013. Responding with resistance to ­wh-questions in Japanese talk-in-interaction. – Research on Language and Social Interaction, kd 46, nr 3, lk 231–255.

H e i n e, Lena 2011. Non-coordination-based ellipsis from a Construction Grammar perspective: The case of the coffee construction. – Cognitive Linguistics, kd 22, nr 1, lk 55–80.

H e n n o s t e, Tiit 2012. Küsimuse vorm, episteemiline staatus ja episteemiline hoiak. – Keel ja Kirjandus, nr 8–9, lk 674–695.

H e n n o s t e, Tiit 2013. Pivot constructions in spoken Estonian. – Journal of Pragmatics, kd 54, lk 73–91.

H e n n o s t e, Tiit, G e r a s s i m e n k o, Olga, K a s t e r p a l u, Riina, K o i t, Mare, R ä ä b i s, Andriela, S t r a n d s o n, Krista 2009. Suulise eesti keele korpus ja inimese suhtlus arvutiga. – Eesti Rakenduslingvistika Ühingu aastaraamat, kd 5, lk 111–130.

H e n n o s t e, Tiit, L a a n e s o o, Kirsi, R u m m, Andra, R ä ä b i s, Andriela 2017. Information and confirmation polar questions in everyday Estonian dialogues. – Ettekanne konverentsil Across Borders VII: Cultures in Dialogue. Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum, 27.–29. IV 2017.

K a s t e r p a l u, Riina, H e n n o s t e, Tiit 2016. Estonian aa: A multifunctional change-of-state token. – Journal of Pragmatics, kd 104, lk 148–162.

K e e v a l l i k, Leelo 2010. Minimal answers to yes/no questions in the service of sequence organization. – Discourse Studies, kd 12, nr 3, lk 283–309.

K o i v i s t o, Aino 2012. Sanomattakin selvä? „Ja”, „mutta” ja „että” puhenvuoron lopussa: Lektio. – Virittäjä, nr 1, lk 1–7.

L a a n e s o o, Kirsi 2017. A miks sa torusse ei räägi? Miks-küsilausetega tehtavad suhtlustegevused argitelefonivestlustes. – Eesti Rakenduslingvistika Ühingu aastaraamat, kd 13, lk 89–105.

L e e, Seung-Hee 2013. Response design in conversation. – The Handbook of Conversation Analysis. Toim J. Sidnell, T. Stivers. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, lk 415–432.

M e t s l a n g, Helle 1981. Küsilause eesti keeles. Eesti NSV Teaduste Akadeemia Keele ja Kirjanduse Instituut. Tallinn: Valgus.

M e t s l a n g, Helle 2017. Kommunikatiivsed lausetüübid. − Eesti keele süntaks. Toim Mati Erelt, H. Metslang. (Eesti keele varamu III.) Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, lk 515−536.

R u m m, Andra, H e n n o s t e, Tiit 2018. Multi-unit questions as prosodically single intonational units: the case of Estonian. Käsikiri. Tartu Ülikool.

R ä ä b i s, Andriela 2009. Eesti telefonivestluste sissejuhatus: struktuur ja suhtlusfunktsioonid. (Dissertationes linguisticae Universitatis Tartuensis 13.) Tartu Ülikool: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus.

S c h e g l o f f, Emanuel A. 1996. Turn organization: One intersection of grammar and interaction. – Interaction and Grammar. Toim Elinor Ochs, E. A. Schegloff, Sandra A. Thompson. (Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 13.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, lk 52–133.

S c h e g l o f f, Emanuel A. 2007. Sequence Organization in Interaction. A Primer in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

S c h e g l o f f, Emanuel A., L e r n e r, Gene H. 2009. Beginning to respond: Well-prefaced responses to wh-questions. – Research on Language and Social Inter­action, kd 42, nr 2, lk 91–115.

S c h e g l o f f, Emanuel A., S a c k s, Harvey 1973. Opening up closings. – Semiot­ica: Journal of the Interactional Association for Semiotic Studies, kd 8, nr 4, lk 289–327.

S e l t i n g, Margret, C o u p e r - K u h l e n, Elizabeth 2001. Introducing interactional linguistics. – Studies in Interactional Linguistics. Toim M. Selting, E. Couper- Kuhlen. (Studies in Discourse and Grammar 10.) Amsterdam–Philadelphia: John Benjamins, lk 1–22.

S o r j o n e n, Marja-Leena 2001. Simple answers to polar questions: The case of Finnish. – Studies in Interactional Linguistics. Toim Margret Selting, Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen. (Studies in Discourse and Grammar 10.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, lk 405–431.

S t i v e r s, Tanya, S i d n e l l, Jack, B e r g e n, Clara 2018. Children’s responses to questions in peer interaction: A window into the ontogenesis of interactional competence. – Journal of Pragmatics, kd 124, lk 14–30.

T h o m p s o n, Sandra A., F o x, Barbara A., C o u p e r - K u h l e n, Elizabeth 2015. Grammar in Everyday Talk: Building Responsive Actions. (Studies in Inter­actional Sociolinguistics 31.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.