Why ask why?

Picture source: http://michigan.247sports.com/ImageUrl/1180443?View=Detailed
Picture source: http://michigan.247sports.com/ImageUrl/1180443?View=Detailed

Why do children who can barely speak yet ask why, when they probably can’t understand the answer?  Why do they ask it over and over again?

Linguists who have talked about this generally think of it as the child having discovered a novel power.  In general, small children can’t really do anything to the world.  Adults, on the other hand, can do pretty much anything–drive, operate a microwave, read, write, produce money, distribute candy, make little children go to bed/get dressed/get in the car seat/you name it.  Small children can do an amazing thing with the word why, though: they can make adults talk.  One little word repeated over and over will make adults talk, and talk, and talk.  On this analysis, the answers don’t matter–what’s important is the child’s ability to affect the world, to “make” adults do something, rather than the other way around.

It’s a hypothesis that can’t be tested, so it’s not a scientifically interesting one, in some sense.  However, it’s an interesting one in another way, because it opens up a subject that’s quite interesting: questions.  We think about questions as being things that one produces in order to get information, but in reality, it’s far more complex than that.  More on this after I have a cup of coffee—it’s reeeeeeally early where I live.

There are many, many ways to translate “question” into French, and this is something that I mess up all the time.  Here are some (but not all!) of the options:

  • la question: a query.
    • Mr. Rodger Cuzner: I’ll ask three quick questions and then I’ll step back and let you guys answer. M. Rodger Cuzner: Je vais poser trois courtes questions à la suite et vous laisser répondre. (Source:www2.parl.gc.ca)
    • For two and a half days the recurring question was: “Where are you from?”  Durant deux jours et demi, la question récurrente aura été : “T’es d’où ?  (Source: circostrada.org)
  • le point, une incertitude: a question in the sense of a matter or doubt.
    • This was not a question in the survey, but the overall survey results imply that people are not yet able to fully use such services to their advantage.  Ce point n’a pas fait l’objet d’une question de l’enquête, mais les résultats globaux indiquent que les personnes ne sont pas encore en mesure de tirer pleinement profit de ces services. (Source: unaids.org)

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