LINGUIST List 5.1339

Mon 21 Nov 1994

Sum: Wh animal

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Message 1: SUM: Wh animal

Date: Sun, 20 Nov 94 09:03:41 ESSUM: Wh animal
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Subject: SUM: Wh animal

I recently asked about whether one says 'who' or 'what' to ask what
variety of animal in contexts such as:

A. A person walks into a room with a swollen arm. You say: 'Wh- bit


B. You see an animal disappearing into the woods. You say: 'Wh- is

The following languages (thanks to the people listed for the info)
seem to use 'what' only, although in context A gave some of the
respondents did not like either alternative.

Greek (a speaker who wished not to be identified by name)
Finnish, Swedish (Jussi Karlgren)
English, Hebrew (David Gil)
Dutch, French (Bert Peeters)
Georgian (Ivan Derzhanski)
German (John Peterson)
Norwegian, Swedish (Marit Julien)
Danish (Soren Harder)

I would add Polish to this list, based on my own judgements.

Ivan Derzhanski adds Bulgarian to the list, his testimony being
particularly valuable, since he feels a clear contrast between
Bulgarian and Russian here, but Greg Gouzev says that he would use
'who' in context A (but not B).

 On the other hand,

Dale Russell reports that in Cheyenne:

"people are all animate, but so are rocks, trees and leaves (but
not branches) and the sun. Animals are all animate, so far as I
know. Some body parts are animate, roughly those that are
voluntarily movable. Noses are not animate, fingers are. If you
point to a rock and ask "What is this?", a native speaker will
correct you, and say "Who is this?", then answer the question -- at
least that was my experience, in a field-methods type language
learning experience."

Jonathan Bobaljnik reports that Itel'men sometimes uses 'who' and
sometimes 'what' for referring to animals. Unfortunately, there's
very little data on the language, so I can't be very specific about
the conditions determining which you get when.

The clearest example of a language that uses 'who' is Russian (in
a striking contrast to closely related Polish and Bulgarian), as
stated in standard works on this language and confirmed to me by
Alex Eulenberg, Ari Solovyova, and Ivan Derzhanski (but I must add
that Daniel Radzinski reports that at least one speaker he spoke
with gave different judgements). I find particularly interesting
the fact that Russian linguists working on OTHER languages
routinely note this difference between Russian and whatever
language they are describing (I have seen this probably dozens of
times in Russian grammars or dictionaries of various languages of
the former empire).

Barbara Abbott noted a reference I had missed: Chomsky's in
_Current Issues in Linguistic Theory_ (Mouton, 1964), p. 40,
notes that we cannot say "What is eating its dinner? (the cat or
the dog)", and that 'who' is also not natural in that context.
A lot of the respondents indicated similar difficulties in other
languages. I have not kept track of these, but they include French,
Danish, etc., as noted by various respondents (including Frank
Gladney on English).

Cathy Ball says that older forms of English sometimes use 'What are
you?' in addressing a human being.

Special thanks to Osten Dahl who first pointed out to me that
you have to define very particular contexts for this question,
since in many contexts many lgs allow neither 'who' nor 'what'.

Alexis Manaster Ramer
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