The form of asking questions, epistemic status and epistemic stance


One of the central problems in the analysis of asking questions is how the tools of asking (interrogative utterances in various forms and declarative questions pronounced with various intonations) might relate to asking questions as a social action.

The model and approach underlying the present study come from John Heritage, US sociologist and conversation analyst. Heritage trusts that in a general case the interactants have a different access to the topic of current conversation. This difference is termed as epistemic status. Heritage argues that when a question is formed, epistemic status prevails over morphosyntax and intonation, ultimately determining whether the given utterance will be interpreted as one of asking or giving information. Examples of yes/no questions used in conversation are used as proof of this argument. Another important concept introduced by Heritage is epistemic stance, which marks the moment’s situation in the informational balance, which changes from turn to turn, being controlled by means of turn/utterance structure (e.g. Are you married? and You’re married, aren’t you?).

The present article has two purposes: first, to demonstrate how the epistemic status of the interactants appears as a metagrammatical factor in Estonian communication, and second, to make a list of the formal tools available for expressing the epistemic stance in Estonian yes/no questions and show that the speaker will choose precisely such tools that match his/her epistemic stance in that moment’s situation.

The methods used in the reported study are conversation analysis and quantitative analysis. The examples presented come from Tartu University Corpus of Spoken Estonian.