Monday, 29 June 2015

Discussions--Series 27--ELT Professionals Around the World

Please take a look at Post 68 and then come back here. Thanks.

Discussions--Series Twenty-Seven
Topic 94
Naghizade Mohammad
Lack of an important wh question in English
Take this sentence as an example: he is the SECOND child of his family. suppose you are going to ask a question whose answer is the SECOND. what wh question you use here? do not you think this word question is absent in English and you have no choice other than making a combined word question with what.

Mohammad, since you are talking about a person (also living thing) you would use the word "Who" to ask about that. "Who is the second child of your family?"

In some languages, there could be a lack of words to express some idea - from the perspective of another language speaker but every language always has a way to express ideas. That's the nature of what language is - a finite number of words that can be put together in an infinite number of ways to communicate something.

English has a "dual" interrogative, meaning "which of two" - though it is no longer used as such. It is "whether", the wh- equivalent of "either" and "other". That is why "whether" always refers to a choice.

As for the question - if the answer is to be "second", and we don't know which position the child is (first, second, third, fourth, [...], last), then the question doesn't need a specific wh word : "which" position is he in the family? And the word is NOT "what", it is "which".

If you assume he is the second, and you want to confirm that, then it is not a wh question, it is a yes-no one.

..., all the questions you put here were somehow yes no question or alternative questions(choose one among two choices). what is the date today also has nothing to do with this question and can not resolve the issue, I think, as David said, no choice we have but finding another way to express our thought. Yes, no question is one way.

I am not sure, of course, but it seems that the question pertains to a synonym of the Hindi word, "kaunsa", meaning, roughly, "which one". So, if you had 48 children, and I saw one of them, I could ask you "Yeh kaunsa hai?" meaning, roughly, "Which one is this?" But "which one" in English may not refer only to the birth-order. It can also mean "Is this your wife's child?" or something else entirely. A 1-word English translation would be something like "whichth" and such a word, of course, does not exist, in English or perhaps in any Romance language or any language as deeply influenced by Romance languages as English.

Standard English grammar has a wh-question for this: Which child is he in order of birth? Which president was he in order of term of office?

Standard English grammar has a wh-question for this: Which child is he in order of birth? Which president was he in order of term of office?

The word "which" can also be used on its own - particularly when the reference is clear from context. The word "one" is in effect a nominaliser - to make it clear we are referring to a singular countable. This was a "native" English development.

Which is it?

Which is he/she? First, second, third ... the one at the end, the beginning ... the tall one, the short one?

Which one is it?

Which one is he/she?

Syntactic/Grammatical-Semantic of "whichth" exist in German (de wie vielte "the how muchth"), and other languages - French (Tu viendras le combien? - What date will you come - roughly "on the how much will you come?). It has nothing to do with any Romance language influence, but rather each language might or might not create such forms through internal development.

Where such grammar is concerned, English has little or no Romance influence. English is as Germanic in its grammar as all other Germanic languages, and where there has been influence, it is in (1) very formal and very academic language (certain uses of "of", for example), and (2) prefixes and suffixes, which are essentially vocabulary borrowing (re-, -able, etc.). Where tense, pronouns, relatives and the rest are concerned, English is very Germanic. This is what makes it relatively difficult for Roance speakers to learn, because the English they actually learn is Germanic in grammar, and only 30% Romance in vocabulary - and in more colloquial/everyday English, even less "Romantic".

The "myth" that English has been heavily influenced by Germanic is mainly a vocabulary count one; however, of the 100 most common words in English, only 2 are not Germanic, and in total only a third of words in English - in all registers - are of French origin, then on top of that Latin as well as some Spanish, Portuguese and Italian loans exist. The more formal and academic, the more "Latinate" the vocabulary is, though the grammar is only moderately more "Latinate". The dictionary might be 50% Latinate (including words that are really Greek) - but the dictionary is never a good measure of what words are really used in English or any highly literate language like that.

There is also another assumption, that German and Dutch and other Germanic languages have NOT had French or Latinate influence. In some ways, they have had as much - and in ways we often do not recognise. English has borrowed the Latin word "depend" - and we use it in a Germanic strucure (depend ON something). German has translated the Latin word (de-pendere "off-hang" > abhangen (ab = off) - er haengt ab "he depends on", and has also the Latin semantics (off rather than "on"). Normally, German also uses "an" like in English to express total dependence.

Language influence is a very complex business, and most people who talk about it unfortunately have not really investigated what it means - often because we naturally have read or heard this from writers/people who we assume know what they are talking about.

The kin terms in the three Germanic languages mentioned are interesting:

English : father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, uncle, aunt
German : Vater, Mutter, Bruder, Schwester, Sohn, Tochter, Onkel, Tante
Dutch : vader, moeder, broeder/broer, zuster, zoon, dochter, oom, tante

The first six in all are all Germanic, however in English and German the last two are from French. In Dutch, "oom" "uncle" is Germanic, but "tante" is French. The difference between "aunt" and "tante" is time and dialect of borrowing - "aunt" is from Old Norman French ("aunte"/"ante"), while "tante" is later, adn from Isle de France French (ta ante "your aunt" > "tante"). The native English word for uncle is/was found in regional dialects, particular the south and south-west, namely "neam" (< "min eam" "my uncle").

Just an example to show how complex the discussion of Romance influence - any linguistic influence - can be.

Or - which is he, oldest, second oldest, youngest?

Another one is : Where does he come in the family - first, second, third ... last?

I wonder if it's a matter of culture. Asking for the position of a child is a common enquiry in Thamizh and Thelugu--two South Indian languages.

Many have asked me the same question several times and I could only say: which nth child are you/is s(he)? It seems to me this serves the purpose best and the others are elaborative in nature--that is you have to several words to get across the meaning.

Is such enquiry common enough among native speakers of English?

Another thing that comes to my mind is relationship with others or strangers. We tend to use uncle, auntie, one word expressions for (elder/younger) brother/ sister as naturally as we'd use them to our relatives. This is a cultural thing, too.

No, K R Lakshminarayanan, I hold that the wh-question I gave is standard in native English grammar, and that a review of literature and news archives would bear that out. It's grammar, not culture.

...  is right that natives may avoid the wh-question and naturally gravitate to a yes/no for cultural reasons. But the wh-question is available.

I would ask what number child he is. Anyway, I wouldn't know how to ask this in Spanish , which is my first language.

Mary - KRL is right - there is a cultural element involved. It is a pretty common one in Dravidian societies (of southern and central India) as well as Australian Aboriginal and Papuan societies - which are all probably distantly realted (all are part of the so-called Australoid race - an outmoded term). Australian Aboriginal people and Dravidians have the same mitochrondrial DNA (i.e. they have common female ancestors), and there seems to have been another Dravidian influx to Australia around 5000 years ago (all shown by genetic studies - as well as the interesting fact that the dingo is the same dog as the southern Asian dog - with the same name as commonly found in India ("kutaka" and variants of that).

In the Australian language I speak, and neighbouring Australian and Papuan langauges are similar - as are many languages in South East Asia, the Far East and so on - there are separate terms for hings like oldest child or oldest son, oldest daughter, youngest child or youngest son, youngest daughter, and often for the second, third, etc. In my language, for example - kuthaig is oldest child, sipapa second child in family, ngugamuz 2nd oldest daughter, dhœdhalaig - middle child, and so on. The general term for child is kazi.

The child's position in the family has cultural significance - the oldest son, for example, potentially becomes the clan leader, and the second oldest his "deputy" - it is a society where there are always two leaders, the oldest brother and the next oldest. This is also reflected in the gods - the two chief gods are brothers, Thœgai the oldest, and Kang his brother - they are agriculture and weather gods.

"What is his birth rank?" if you insist on a "wh" question perhaps.I agree with those who believe the element of culture is involved in this regard.

I think the cultural answer is the right one. In our (western) society a person's place in the family line is not all that important. Certainly not as in other societies. For example in Indonesian when talking about brothers or sisters it is usual to talk about whether they are older or younger, being more important than if they are male or female. In Australia we would usually just talk about brothers or sisters and make no distinction of place in the family.

If it is important to know then we would usually ask if you are the eldest or youngest, remembering that most families in Australia are 2 children or less (on average). Of course we can also ask if someone is the middle child if there are three siblings.

The joy of English is that there is always a different way to structure a question.

That is the joy of every language - there is in general always more than one way to skin a cat.

"suppose you are going to ask a question whose answer is the SECOND. what wh question you use here?"

The following have been suggested:
i. "which" position is he in the family?
ii. 'what's the child's birth order?
iii. Is your child the first born, middle born or last born?
iv. A more natural question: Is she/he the eldest?
the most common question would be: Is she/he the oldest/eldest?
v. Standard English grammar has a wh-question for this: Which child is he in order of birth?
vi. Is s/he the first/second/ third ...child?
vii. which is he, oldest, second oldest, youngest?

I thank the co-discussants for the variety.

A. But my question still stands:
Is (Was) such enquiry COMMON enough among native speakers of English to have (had) a common way of asking?

B.iii, iv, vi may not fetch the desired answer if the response is a mere ‘no’ unless of course the choices are provided in the enquiry.

C. Are (were) i, ii, v, vii alternatives just grammatically or are (were) they in use?

D. What do you think of:
which nth child are you/is s(he)?
(This conveys the thought crisply and economically, too.)

Fiction has been my best guide and in none of the thousands of novels that I've read and that have been set in the last century and describe social life in some detail I could find an answer. I'm a non-native user of English and seek your help.

A. in the right context, yes. For example, it comes up when knowledge of exact position is needed. My mother is one of seven chuldren in her family - and so when talking about the uncles and aunties, often we do mention first or second - and Aunty X - where does she come - 5th or 6th?

C. I know why you say "grammatically" - but it is the wrong word to use. Semantically is a better term, seeing we are not talking about grammar here, but about valid use of language - which is based on semantics and all that that entails. For example, the more formal the words used, the less commonly they are actually used. "Birth order" is "abnormal" from this point of view.

i. "which" position is he in the family? : correct in all ways - as long as the context makes it clear we are referring to age position (oldest/first, next oldest/second, etc.).

ii. 'what's the child's birth order? : "abnormal" - it applies technical (medical) jargon in a way that does not sit comfortably in normal speech (e.g. when triplets are born, there is a birth order - which was born first, then second, then last).

v.. Standard English grammar has a wh-question for this: Which child is he in order of birth? - this also is strange - perhaps better would be "Which one is he in order of age" rather than "birth". But it is also formal rather than standard. Somewhat technical.

vii. "Which is he, oldest, second oldest, youngest?" - this is very common, normal, everyday, formal.

"Which nth child are you/is s(he)?" - this doesn't work at all.

"Where do you come//What position are you ... in the family - oldest, second oldest, youngest?"
"What are you - oldest, second oldest, middle ...?"
"You have a lot of brothers and sisters, I see. Where [in the order] do you come -oldest, second oldest ...."

Thanks, Rod. But then what's wrong with 'which nth child are you?' would like to know. Words are created everyday, new structures appear, new punctuation uses happen, new grammar comes into being.

It is unnatural and contrived, and takes more effort to understand than simply "where do you come in the family?" or things like that.

More importantly it doesn't mean what you want it to mean. It means that there are more than one nth child, and which one of those nth children are you. This is because "which" asks bout choices in general - which is its strength.

Words are NOT created every day, NOR do new structures appear everyday, NOR does new grammar appear everyday - or any of the others things you mention.

Language changes amazingly slowly - and radical developments like these are much much less common than people seem to believe, and the things you mention happen naturally, and very rarely on purpose. Also - such changes happen naturally according to need. English simply does not have the need for such a wh-form, because we can do the same thing much more clearly and efficiently with existing material.

I was reminded of this yesterday in the Times, which as a centre fold had the facsimile of Times of yesterday's date 200 years ago, when the report of the winning of the Battle of Waternloo had come through. It was perfectly understandable with relatively little change compared to formal English now.

Thanks, Rod, for everything.

You are welcome KRL.

I read the comments so I agree with the nice comments provided by KR Lakshminarayanan and Rod Mitchell.

The only option regarding this case is "in what order birth".?

Who is the second child of this family?

I think it really is just the cultural assumption that we are not very interested in the child's position in the family- the only reasons we might ask is because we generally believe that being the oldest or youngest has an influence on personality- we tend to expect an oldest to be more independent and solitary and a youngest (who we often refer to as the baby of the family) to be more Mummy-ish and sociable and less mature. Interest in this in the UK centres around our obsession with children being independent- parents are regarded as successful in relation to how early their children leave home. A rather patronising comment is sometimes made 'Is she/he still living at home?' Implying parents have failed in their parenting!
But I love whicth - pity we can't vote for new words to invite into the language!

What is your birth order in the the family? Are you the eldest in your family? How many brother and sisters to do you have? Really? Where do you fall in the birth order? It is true that Americans don't really care, unless to discuss controlling characteristics (eldest), misfit characteristics (middle child), or entitled characteristics (youngest). Those rankings are rather like astrology, only believed by a few.

"in what order birth" is not an option - that is not an English structure.

"In what order in the family does he come?" - but even this fdoes not really make sense when you think about it.

Again, "what is your (or his) birth order in the family?" is the accepted phrasing for this question. I am a native speaker and English professor. It isn't that hard a question, really-- we Just need to know the term "birth order".

It's not the question word that is lacking or if it is it's lacking in every language that I know. What may be lacking is the word or phrase that is the sign of 'birth order in the family' for want of a better phrase. Imagine that the perfect word existed. You would still ask either what X are you (in your family? or where is your X in your family? We don't ask this question very often (who cares?) but if we did then a phrase like 'birth order' would sound perfectly natural with regular use.

I am also a native speaker - and I would not consider it really acceptable in everyday speaking because it is too clinical? Not that I wouldn't blink an eye if I see it in context, particularly in that field of how birth order in the family can affect you psychologically or in any other way.

In other words, I myself would never use that phrasing EXCEPT in siuch a context.

I have been asking this question a lot in my class. I have students from the Middle East and they come from large families with a lot of siblings. I am interested to know where they are in the family so I ask them are you the oldest, youngest or in the middle? There is no reason to ask except that I am curious. Sometimes we might ask that of people out of curiosity and may be thinking of how that has affected them. At any rate, it's unlikely we will adopt a new question word about that because it's not so culturally important.

Who is the second child in your family? .... please raise your hand ya... ( maybe it ia an optional question... i m sorry for making mistake... lovely to join in the discussion)...

Or "who is the second child in his/her family?'

In many cultures, knowing birth order is important. Simply asking "Are you the first-born?" is sufficient to get you the answer - No, I'm second/third, etc. Recognising that sometimes, the first-born may be a girl and that for the family, what may count is the first-born son, even if he is not the oldest in the family.

Anyone second child in his/ her famiky?

I'm the third of five, and my husband's the youngest of nine.

Very thought provoking exercise. I am the 6th child of 9 siblings. My school teachers and colleagues used to ask me: "Are you the first son to your parents?" "Which position are you compared to your siblings?"

Well, I hope my "wh" question gives an acceptable answer to the question raised.

You may ask
* What place do you occupy among your siblings?

* What rank do you possess in your family?

* What is your place among your brothers and sisters?

These are some of my suggestions.I do not assert that these are the correct one. It's just a suggestion. 

Which child of the family is he?

Discussing birth order isn't and never has been a major priority with English speakers (except perhaps for royalty). Can you invent such a word for general use? Make a word, define it and tell us how to use it in a question and what kind of answers it would elicit. However, I can hardly imagine any situation in which it would be a necessary word to have.

It's not important that every question should start with 'wh' question. You can also ask
How do you rank among your siblings?

How many brothers and sisters do you have ? then ,What number are you in your family ?This is the question that I frequently use to ask my students.

I use "What number are you in your family?"

Here, lots of you have focused on birth order which I put here as an example to illustrate what I meant. what English lacks in general is a question word to ask for order in all situations. using what + order or number in many situations does not work.

Here's one wh- question starting with 'Where...............................?'
Where do you stand in your sibling series ?
At which number do you stand/ count in your family?
What is the order of your appearance in the family ? ( like they say while introducing dramatist personae!!!!)

I think every language has its pros and cons. No language is free from it. Another word I would like to present is the pronoun 'you'. In English language, when you are addressing someone as 'you', the person can be singular male, singular female, plural males, plural females or plural males and females both. You come to know about the gender and number after reading a little more in the passage or conversation.
Look at Arabic. How do the pronoun 'you' stand in Arabic?
Anta [you-male]
Anti [you-female]
Antum [you-males]
Antuma [you-females]

With falling birth rates around the world and more and more 'only children', the question, however it is framed, will be less and less frequently asked!

The problem is not necessarily confined to the order of birth. It is also related to the the order of merit in a class or for that matter in a competition. I agree that whichth has no equivalent in English adding that every language has its own peculiarities which is also another way of saying that every language has its own potential as well as limitations. 

As far as I know, relatively few languages have a "whichth" or "whatth".

Mohammad speaks a language that has it; for him it is therefore "logical". Those of us who don't speak such a language find it "illogical" (I use both of these terms NOT with a mathematical logic meaning, but a human speech semantics meaning).

Just like English has a present continuous and a present perfect - which many other languages don't have. For us these are so logical that when we learn other languages, we want to find the equivalent, and if there isn't an equivalent, we over-use what appears to be the closest in the new language. For the speakers of that language, having a present continuous and a present perfect are "illogical". For us English speaking learners of that language - let us say French - to say French is missing a very useful device or two is us imposing our language logic (in a potentially offensive way) on that of another language with another logic.

In language analysis there is always that interesting area of both personal development as well as the furthering of linguistic knowledge - how much does our own language affect our perceptions of language in general (unfortunately some, like Chomsky and many another effective monolingual, don't seem to realise this) - and, therefore, if we see any "gaps" - do we see gaps ONLY because our own language has an item?

Notice I am not going to disparage English for not having such a question word, nor I want to make a change. moreover, this is not the drawback of English. however, what i'm saying is that in different situations different ways have to be used to convey the same concept, yet in some situations it may be misunderstood. having such a word could have resolved the issue.

once I asked a student what number are you in your family, he said number 10. I asked how many siblings do you have? he said 2. the number he was referring to was the number behind his sport shirt owing to his passion toward Messi

That is all too true, Mohammad - having such a word could resolve issues.

However, as far as I know - and I come from a "clan society" [Irish-Scottish] where big families traditionally are the norm - and my wife is one of seven children - she is Italian, another traditonally big family society - and my Australian indigenous friends/family also "big family" peoples, we have never ever had any problems discussing who comes where in the order of the children, which of my aunties and uncles is second oldest, and so on. For Australian and Papuan tribal societies (and others), it gets even more complex, because all the children in the clan are considered classifcatory brothers and sisters, which means in a village over 50 kids could be graded by age firstly in their immediate nuclear family, then in the clan as a whole.

Speakers of these languages normally do not even have a distinction between "what", "which" or even "how" - and still have no problems at all working it all out.

And this is the same for all cases where positional ordering is discussed. What is even more interesting, is that most Australian and many Papuan languages (and many others) do not even have numbers beyond 1, 2, sometimes 3, sometimes 4 and rarely 5. But people still manage to do things like arrange to meet after a specific number of days for a meeting. On the other hand - and this is perhaps a blessing, how old someone is in exact age is not important. BUT - the position in the age hierarchy on the other hand is - everyone's position and therefore rank in society is based on relative age, by knowing who is older and who is younger.

There are so many different ways of skinning a cat (sorry Katerina).

Naghizide - you could say the kid gave the correct answer. The question was ambiguous.

If I asked that quesiton to a native English speaking kid, I would have said something like "where do you come in your family?" or "Are you the oldest in the family?" or something else like that. As others have already mentioned.

How the question is asked is culturally important - but more importantly syntactically and semantically directs the answer. The direction also has a cultural bias - position in the family is not a number, it is a relative age thing - it is an ordinal ting.