The word order of Estonian main clause wh-interrogatives


Keywords: Verb Second (V2), language contact, language history, Germanic ­languages, prosody, corpus study

Estonian is a verb-second (V2) language: in certain types of sentences, the finite verb tends to be the second constituent. The V2 feature of Estonian is most likely to have developed under Germanic influence. However, there are differences between Germanic and Estonian V2 order. The word order of Estonian main-clause wh-interrogatives is one of the major exceptions to the V2 order. Main-clause wh-interrogatives are always V2 in Germanic but predominantly verb-final in Estonian. The paper describes two corpus studies – a synchronic and a diachronic one – that aimed to clarify the proportion, nature and development of the V2 order in Estonian main-clause wh-interrogatives.

The synchronic study showed that the proportion of the V2 order in present-day Estonian main-clause wh-interrogatives is approximately 22%. The V2 order is thus considerably less frequent in wh-interrogatives than in declaratives, but it is subject to similar prosodic exceptions in both. The V2 order is nevertheless more frequent in main-clause wh-interrogatives than in embedded wh-interrogatives and relative clauses, giving evidence of a Germanic-like asymmetry between main and embedded clauses.

The results of the diachronic study suggest that the V2 order has never been borrowed as the predominant order of Estonian main-clause wh-interrogatives. To explain why the V2 feature was borrowed to a different extent into declaratives and wh-interrogatives, we hypothesise that their word order had already diverged before the V2 order was borrowed. According to the hypothesis, wh-interrogatives had retained the historical verb-final order, which remained unaffected by the V2 order, while declaratives had already lost the verb-final order.


Heete Sahkai (b. 1972), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Senior Researcher (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn), heete.sahkai@eki.ee

Anne Tamm (b. 1968), PhD habil., Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary, Associate Professor (Reviczky u. 4, 1088 Budapest), tamm.anne@kre.hu

Anders Holmberg (b. 1951), PhD, Newcastle University, School of English Literature, Language, and Linguistics, Emeritus Professor (Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU), anders.holmberg@newcastle.ac.uk