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Interrogative pronouns

Interrogative pronouns introduce questions. Morphologically simple question words are:

Example 1


The majority of the question items consist of complex forms. These are often combinations of hoe how and an adjective, as in hoelang how long, or wêr where and an adposition, as in wêrom wêr-om why.

It is possible to ask a question in a sentence that only contains the question-word. This is often a question to clarify what the first speaker said before. For example:

Example 2

Jan sil fuort. > Wêrhinne?
Jan is going away. > Where is he going?

Question words are independent arguments, forming a phrase, but some can also occur attributively within a noun phrase (NP). Compare (3a) and (3b):

Example 3

a. Wannear giesto?
When are you going?
b. [Hokker namme] hiesto?
Which name did you have?

The question word in (3b) may also appear independently. It is then used elliptically, and the questioned noun has to be recovered from the context::

Example 4

Wy joegen inoar in namme. - Hokker hiesto?
we gave each.other a name. - which had.you
We gave each other a name. - Which was yours?
[+]Simple forms

Question words can be divided into two groups: simple question words and wh-phrases. The simple forms are a fixed list of five: wa who, wat what, hokker which, wêr where and hoe how. The examples in (5) illustrate the usage of these forms:

Example 5

Wa bisto?
Who are you?
Wat seisto?
What are you saying?
Hokker suertsje wolst ha?
Which sweet would you like?
Wêr bisto?
Where are you?
Hoe giet it mei dy?
How are you doing?

If the interrogative heads an embedded question, the clitical element 't is added, a reduction of the complementizer oft whether:

Example 6

Ik wit net wa't / wêr't / hoe't dy man is
I know no who-COMP / where-COMP / how-COMP that man is
I do not know who / where / how that man is

More on complementizers (whether or not as clitics) following interrogative pronouns is to be found in the syntactic part.

In the list below, some of these simple forms are discussed in more detail.

  • The question-word wa who can have genitive case, resulting in the interrogative possessive pronoun waans? whose?, as in (7):
    Example 7

    Waans hûs is dat?
    whose house is that
    Whose house is that?
    An alternative formulation is with wa plus a possessive pronoun:
    Example 8

    Wa syn hûs is dat?
    who his house is that
    Whose house is that?

    Wa can be used transitively with a complement that refers to a person, but only in questions expressing reproach Hoekstra (1996), as shown in (9):

    Example 9

    Wa minske docht soks no?
    who human does something-like-that now
    Which human being can do something like that?
    When asking about more than one person and informing about which indivuduals, one can say wa en wa? who and who?:
    Example 10

    Hja gongen nei Ljouwert ta. > Wa en wa?
    they went to Ljouwert to > who and who
    They went to Ljouwert. > Who?
  • The question word wat what; what kind of has an extended form watte?, in which a suffix -e is added Hoekstra (1987:54). This form is used in exclamatives in particular. Hence, when someone says ik ha wat moais sjoen I saw something beautiful, one can ask wat? but not *watte?. The form watte is typically used when someone did not understand the speaker. In the same way, the -e can be added to wêr? where?, resulting in wêre?. Possible answers to watte? are dit(te) this or dat(te) that, and possible answers to wêre? are hjir(re) here and dêr(e) there (see demonstrative pronouns). An alternative to the suffix -e in the case of wêr is the addition of the adverb sa so: wêrsa?, also extended to wêrsanne. Possible answers may then be hjirsa or dêrsa.

    Wat may used attributively, then meaning 'what kind of' or 'which'. Examples are given in (11):

    Example 11

    a. Wat man is dat?
    what man is that?
    What kind of man is he
    b. Wat taal prate dy lju?
    what language speak those people
    Which language do those people speak?

    A longer expression with the same meaning is wat foar or wat foar in.

    [hide extra information]

    See for more details about the question word wat what: interrogative what + preposition as nominal quantifier.

  • Next to the question word hokker which, also the form hok which exists, apparently without any semantic difference. This is illustrated in (12).
    Example 12

    a. Fan hok boerd moat ik it iten krije?
    of which plate must I the food get
    From which plate must I get the food?
    b. Fan hokker boerd moat ik it iten krije?
    of which plate must I the food get
    From which plate must I get the food?

    The word hok is special because it is inflected as an adjective; it reflects gender and number of the following noun. Singular neuter nouns require hok. Before common gender or plural nouns, the form is hokke. See the contrast in (13):

    Example 13

    a. Hokke klean wienen foar him?
    which.PL clothes.PL were for him
    Which clothes were for him?
    b. *Hok klean wienen foar him?
    which.SG.N clothes.PL were for him
    Which clothes were for him?

    The originally composite form hokker is not inflected, and can thus be used in every position:

    Example 14

    Hokker klean wienen foar him?
    which clothes were for him
    Which clothes were for him?
    [hide extra information]
    Dutch influence

    Hokker is mainly used in written language nowadays. In spoken language the complex expression watfoar is often used instead. Under the influence of Dutch the use of welke is also increasing.

  • Hoe can also be combined with the indefinite article in a; however only if followed by a singular count noun (15a). Otherwise, it should be replaced by hok or inflected hokke. But when the noun is plural, this is ungrammatical (15b). Hoe'n how a can be replaced by hok(ker) which (15c) and (15d). Hok(ker) may also stand in front of a plural noun, as can be seen in (15d).
    Example 15

    a. Hoe'n auto hat er kocht?
    how.a car.SG has he bought
    What kind of car did he buy?
    b. *Hoe'n auto's hat er kocht?
    how.a car.PL has he bought
    What kind of cars did he buy?
    c. Hokker auto hat er kocht?
    which car.SG has he bought
    What kind of / which car did he buy?
    d. Hokker auto's hat er kocht?
    which car.PL has he bought
    What kind of / which cars did he buy?

    The distribution of hoe'n and hok/hokke is comparable to the demonstrativessa'n so a such and sok/sokke such/such.INFL such.

[+]Complex forms

The inventory of complex forms is far more open-ended, as wêr can be combined with almost any adposition to create a complex question word. Moreover, the form hoe can be used to make question words with adjectives, for example hoelang how long, and hokker can be combined with any noun. A handful of frequent and well-established formations of this sort are considered univerbations and are spelled as one word (16a-c), while other combinations are regarded as separate words (d):

Example 16

a. Wêrom seisto neat?
Why aren't you saying anything?
b. Wannear komsto thús?
When are you coming home?
c. Hoefolle bern hasto?
How many children have you got?
d. Wat foar (in) auto hasto?
What sort of car do you drive?

The form wêrom why may no longer be perceived as complex by many speakers. The form wannear when certainly is not (note also that they are translated as a simple wh-word in English).

Possible combinations of wêr where with a preposition are for example with oer about, yn in and mei with. What we have here is the interrogative counterpart of pronominal adverbs, consisting of a preposition preceded by an R-pronoun like dêr there, hjir here, earne/nearne somewhere/nowhere or oeral everywhere (see also in the syntactic part). The question word is preferably split, for example into wêr...oer, wêr...yn or wêr...mei. Examples are provided in (17)-(19).

Example 17

a. ??Wêroer fertelde er gauris?
where.about told he often
What did he often talk about?
b. Wêr fertelde er gauris oer?
where told he often about
What did he often talk about?
Example 18

a. ??Wêryn stiet dat boek?
?where.in stands that book
Where does that book stand?
b. Wêr stiet dat boek yn?
where stands that book in
Where does that book stand?
Example 19

a. ??Wêrmei wurkest do?
where.with work you
What are you working with?
b. Wêr wurkest mei?
where work.you with
What are you working with?

In Dutch, examples like (a) in (17)-(19) are grammatical, and under this influence they become more accepted in Frisian. In case of preposition stranding, the Frisian sentence stress is often on the preposition:

Example 20

a. Wêr giet dit boek OER?
where goes this book about
What is this book about?
b. *WÊR giet dit boek oer?
where goes this book about
What is this book about?

If the NP refers to a person, the preposition may also combine with the question word wa. In this case, stranding of the preposition is optional, as shown in (21):

Example 21

a. Wa praat ik mei?
who talk I to
Who am I talking to?
b. Mei wa praat ik?
with who talk I
Who am I talking to?

The form wat foar (in) what sort of is special in that it consists of three words that are still regarded as separate. The article in a only occurs if a count noun is questioned (22a), but even here it is optional. We do not find in before mass nouns (22c) and (22d), nor before plurals:

Example 22

a. Wat foar in kompjûter hasto?
what sort a computer have.you
What kind of computer do you have?
b. Wat foar kompjûter hasto?
what sort computer have.you
What kind of computer do you have?
c. *Wat foar in bier hasto?
what sort a beer have.you
What kind of beer do you have?
d. Wat foar bier hasto?
what sort beer have.you
What kind of beer do you have?

In predicative constructions the combination wat foar in can be split, as can be seen in (23):

Example 23

a. [Wat foar in hûn] is dat?
what for a dog is that
What kind of dog is that?
b. [Wat] is dat [foar in hûn]?
what is that for a dog
What kind of dog is that?
c. [Wat] is dat [foar hûn]?
what is that for dog
What kind of dog is that?
[hide extra information]

For splitting complex question words with wêr, see Hoekstra (1990). On the complex issue of their stress assignment, Hoekstra (1991). For preposition stranding in general, Hoekstra (1995).

[+]Elliptic question sentences

It is possible to ask a question in a sentence that only contains the question word, cf. Hoekstra (1987). When the listener for example did not hear what the speaker said, he can ask hin? eh? or wat(te)? what?. But to ask it this way is perhaps a little rude. The examples in (24) are a bit more decent:

Example 24

a. Wat guod?
what stuff
What did you say?
b. Wat ding?
what thing
What did you say?
c. Wat seisto?
what say.you
What did you say?

The latter is also reduced to watsei?.

When a speaker tells a listener something like the following:

Example 25

Hy sil nei Ljouwert ta
He is going to Leeuwarden

the listener can ask

Example 26

Wa sil nei Ljouwert ta?
Who is going to Ljouwert?

but only wa? who? is also possible. The rest of the question sentence is already clear from the context given by the first speaker. Therefore, one question word is enough. Other examples of sentences that only contain question words are given in (27):

Example 27

a. Hja sil trouwe. > Mei wa?
She is going to marry. > With whom?
b. Hy hat in presintsje kocht. > Wat?
He bought a gift. > What did he buy?
c. Wy geane nei Amearika. > Hoe? Hoesa? Wêrom? Wannear?
We are going to America. > How? Why that so? Why? When?
d. Jan sil fuort. > Wêrhinne?
Jan is going away. > Where is he going?
e. Jantsje hat in auto kocht. > Hoe'nen (ien)? Watfoar-ien?
Jantsje bought a car. > What kind of car?
[+]Addition of dat that

In elliptic questions, the word dat may be added, possibly in its function as complementizer.

Example 28

a. Mei wa (*dat) stie Jan juster te praten?
with who that stood John yesterday to talk
Who was John talking to yesterday?
b. A: Jan stie juster mei ien te praten. B: Mei wa dat?

In addition, instead of wa? who one can ask wa dat? who that who?. Other possible combinations are, for example, hoe dat (sa)? how that (so) how (so)? and also if wa occurs in a complex question word headed by a preposition: mei wa dat? with who that with whom?. The exception is interrogative wat what. We do not have *wat dat?.

The element dat has to be inserted immediately after the core question word. We see it therefore after wêr, but not after wêroer, which, consequently, is split up:

Example 29

a. Wêr dat oer?
where that about
About what?
b. ??Wêroer dat?
where.about that
About what?

[hide extra information]

See for a syntactic perspective on this construction elliptical questions in the syntactic part. An important external source is Van Craenenbroeck (2004:chapter 5).

[+]Syntactic aspects

Syntactically, question words are independent phrases. However, the question words hokker which, wat foar (in) what sort of and hoefolle how much/many can also occur attributively within a NP:

Example 30

a. Hokker boek lêsto?
Which book are you reading right now?
b. Wat foar (in) wyn is dit?
What sort of wine is this?
c. Hoefolle bern hasto?
How many children have you got?

When these question words appear without their noun, they are used elliptically. In that case, the indefinite article in a in wat foar in is strengthened to ien, as shown in (31)

Example 31

a. Der lizze hjir trije boeken. Hokker lêsto?
There are three books here. Which one are you reading right now?
b. Dizze wyn is lekker. Wat foar ien is dat?
This wine is nice. What sort is it?
c. Do hast bern, net wier? Hoefolle hasto?
You've got children, have not you? How many have you got?

A question word does not necessarily have to be in the first position of the sentence, it can also stand in situ, that is at the position of the word that has been asked. This is only possible in echo questions, as a reaction to a previous statement. The question word has to be stressed in this case Hoekstra (1989) and Hoekstra (1989):

Example 32

a. Hy hat moai sprutsen
he has beautifully spoken
He has spoken beautifully
b. Hy hat HOE sprutsen?
he has how spoken
HOW has he spoken?

In example (33a) below, Jan's height is given. If one wants to know the exact height of Jan, as in (33b), the question-word hoe and the word that has been asked (in this case grut) are placed at first position in the sentence. When one wants to express doubt or astonishment, or when one did not catch something, sentences like (33c) may be used. The word that has been asked, is replaced by the question word. However, the same content may also be given with the question word in first position, as in (33d), with similar stress.

Example 33

a. Jan is sa grut
Jan is this big
b. Hoe grut is Jan?
How big is Jan?
c. Jan is HOE grut?
HOW big is Jan?
d. HOE grut is Jan?
HOW big is Jan?

If the question word belongs to a subordinate clause beginning with dat that, it may be raised to the front of the main clause:

Example 34

a. Wat tinkst, dat er sjoen hat?
what think.you that he seen has
Who do you think he has seen?
b. Wêr tinkst, dat se weikomt?
where think.you that she comes.from
Where do you think she comes from?

Next to this construction, it is possible that a question word not only occurs at the beginning of the main clause, but is repeated at the beginning of the subordinate clause. This is shown in the examples in (35):

Example 35

a. Wêr tinkst, wêr't se weikomt?
where think.you where.if she comes.from
Where do you think she comes from?
b. Wa tinkst, wa't er sjoen hat?
who think.you who.if he saw has
Who do you think he saw?

It is also possible to have sentences where the question word in the main clause is neutral wat:

Example 36

a. Wat tinkst, wa't er sjoen hat?
what think.you who.if he seen has
Who do you think he has seen?
b. Wat tinkst, wêrom't er soks seit?
what think.you why.if he such says
Why do you think he says such things?
[hide extra information]

More information about syntactic aspects of interrogative pronouns can be found in this topic. The classic article on the copying of question words in complex sentences is Hiemstra (1986). On the conditions for the appearance of clitical 't, see Hoekstra (1989).

  • Craenenbroeck, Jeroen van2004Ellipsis in Dutch dialectsLandelijke Onderzoekschool Taalwetenschap, Utrecht
  • Hiemstra, Inge1986Some aspects of wh-questions in FrisianNowele8 september97-110
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1987Ikke en syenFriesch Dagblad19-09Taalsnipels 47
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1987Hin? Hoedatsa?Friesch Dagblad14-03Taalsnipels 24
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1989Sa, hoe?, wat! (I)Friesch Dagblad14-01Taalsnipels 94
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1989Sa, hoe?, wat! (II)Friesch Dagblad21-01Taalsnipels 95
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1989The split CP hypothesis and the Frisian complementiser system
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1990Wer dat oer?Friesch Dagblad17-02Taalsnipels 136
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1991Oer it beklamjen fan ferhâldingswurden yn it Frysk, it Hollânsk en it IngelskUs Wurk4067-103
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1995Preposition stranding and resumptivity in West GermanicHaider, Hubert, Olsen, Susan & Vikner, Sten (eds.)Studies in comparative Germanic syntaxStudies in natural language and linguistic theory31DordrechtSpringer Netherlands95-118
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1996Transitive pronouns and gender syncretism in Fering-Öömrang (North Frisian)Nowele2745-66