Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Verbs of asking in English and Spanish, Part 1

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Verbs of asking in English and Spanish," Chapter 24 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Source: Sheet music cover, 1917 (public domain)


The difference between the Spanish verbs pedir ‘to ask for a thing or action (a request)’ and preguntar ‘to ask for information (a question)’ takes a while for English-speaking learners of Spanish to master, since in English there is only one verb, to ask, that expresses both meanings. We can refer to these two meanings of ask as (1) the ‘request’ sense and (2) the ‘question’ sense, after two English synonyms for the two senses of the verb to ask. We can see sample sentences with this verb below and their Spanish equivalents:


He asked me what I wanted.

Me preguntó qué quería.
He asked me something.

Me preguntó algo.
He asked me for money.

Me pidió dinero.
He asked me to come.

Me pidió que viniera.
He asked for his son to come.

Pidió que viniera su hijo.
He asked me for the time.

Me pidió la hora.
He asked me the time

Me preguntó la hora.

The fact that the same verb to ask is used for these two senses doesn’t mean that there is possible ambiguity, for the two senses are used in different contexts. Thus, for instance, the request sense of ask is always followed by the preposition for followed by a noun, as in #3, #5, and #6 above, or by an infinitival clause, as in #4 above.

The ‘question’ sense of the verb ask, on the other hand, is typically followed by a noun or some embedded question starting with whether, if, what, when, etc., as in #1. Occasionally, it is followed by a noun, as in She asked the time, but that is just an idiomatic way of saying She asked what time it was. So it is not as if English speakers cannot tell the difference between the two types of actions or as if a sentence with ask could ever be ambiguous as to which of the two senses was meant. One could say that to ask is polysemous, if we compare it to the Spanish alternatives, but one could also say that to ask is vague as to what it is that is being requested: information or action.

Again, Spanish preguntar is used basically to request information and pedir is used to request (ask for) things or actions. A question, such as the yes-no question ¿Qué hora es? ‘What time is it?’ elicits information, so we would describe the action of asking this with preguntar and, thus, we could embed the question under that verb as in Preguntar qué hora es ‘To ask what time it is’. The derived (back-formed) noun pregunta is the equivalent of the English noun question. A request for money or a favor, on the other hand, that is, a request for something tangible or for some action, is always expressed with the verb pedir in Spanish, never preguntar. The related noun is petición ‘request’.


Indirectness: Questions as requests (and statements)

It is easy enough to understand the two types of asking and thus the two Spanish verbs. There are even two sentence types associated with the two types of asking. The prototypical sentence type associated with preguntar is the question, as in ¿Tienes cinco dólares? ‘Do you have five dollars?’, which is a yes-no question. The prototypical sentence type associated with pedir is the command, as in ¡Dame cinco dólares! ‘Give me five dollars!’

Still, the fact that English uses just one verb for the two of them is quite understandable as well. In both cases, you want something from someone and you use words to elicit it. Proof that there is a connection between the two types of asking is that we often use the ‘wrong’ sentence type to obtain what we want. This is most clearly see in indirect speech, in which we typically ask questions in order to request some action on the part of our interlocutor, rather than information.

Although the direct way to ask for action, that is, to get someone to do something, both English or Spanish use the command or imperative sentence type, as in Dame cinco dólares ‘Give me five dollars’, or Ven a la fiesta conmigo ‘Come to the party with me’, in practice that is not how we typically ask people to do things for us. Often we ask for action indirectly, through questions, as in ¿Me puedes prestar cinco dólares? ‘Can you lend me five dollars?’ or ¿Te gustaría venir a la fiesta conmigo? ‘Would you like to come to the party with me?’

Notice that, although in the last two examples of requests questions are used, these are not at all regular questions, in the sense that they are not requests for information, as questions supposedly are, but rather are requests for action. That is, they are indirect requests for action, for someone to do something. If you asked someone Can you lend me five dollars? and they answered Yes, I can (information), but left it at that and didn’t give you the money, they would be behaving rather uncooperatively. That is because the purpose of the question was not the literal one of getting information, as direct questions usually are, but to indirectly make a request.

Using questions to (indirectly) elicit behavior is a derived use of the question sentence type, not the primary one, which is to elicit information. When and how questions—which are primarily was to elicit information—can be used in order to elicit action, or to do things other than elicit information, is to some extent culture dependent and we should not expect this type of indirectness to be used exactly the same way across cultures and, thus, across languages, or even across subcultures that share a language.

Notice that we also often use questions, which are literally requests for information, to make indirect statements, not just indirect commands. Think about the following questions:

1)    Are you going to wear that to the party?
2)    Would you like to stop for a drink?
3)    When are you going to call your doctor about that back pain?

If we think about it, we have no trouble realizing that these are not simple requests for information, as the question format might suggest. It is quite obvious that question #1 should probably be interpreted as a statement (not a question) to the effect that I do not think that what you’re wearing is appropriate for the party. Question #2 should more likely than not be interpreted as an invitation to stop for a drink. Finally, a perceptive listener would probably understand question #3, as a statement to the effect that the addressee should be contacting his or her doctor (probably his) if they have not done so by now. In other words, indirectness allows us to, among other things, make statements, requests, and demands look like questions or, rather, to make statements in the form of questions. Such indirectness allows speakers not to seem too pushy and give the addressee a graceful way out of an uncomfortable situation. (Cf. Part I, Chapter 6, §6.8)

All of this makes one wonder whether there is any relationship between (1) conflating the senses of request and question in one word, the way English does with ask, and (2) the tendency to make requests by means of questions. Could it even have something to do with English speakers being more indirect than Spanish speakers? Although that is extremely unlikely, it is worth examining the differences in level of indirectness among cultures.

It is well known that some cultures are more indirect than others. Americans visiting Spain, for instance, often remark that Spaniards do not use questions to request things in situations where an American would, such as when talking to a waiter at a restaurant or when requesting things such as the salt at the table. It is, of course, very unlikely that there is any connection between using questions for requests and having a single word (ask) for both questions and requests. Still, the question is quite valid and it makes us think about what is going on here.

It is probably true that Spaniards are more direct than Americans, at least in some situations. Thus, it is often shocking to American that people in Spain typically ask for things in a restaurant or a café directly, using imperatives. There is no doubt that Spaniards, in certain situations, are more likely to give what sounds to outsiders as (rude) commands requesting action in situations where an English-speaking American would more likely use a question to make an indirect request. Thus, it is perfectly acceptable in Spain to tell your waiter Tráeme una cerveza ‘Bring me a beer’ (an imperative sentence), whereas an English speaker would most likely use a question, such as Can/could I have a beer? Actually, using the equivalent of Can you bring me a beer? in Spain, would probably sound rather odd to your waiter and some might even be offended by the ‘excessive politeness’.

The truth is that there is nothing intrinsically rude about the Spanish way of asking for things, as long as this is the socially accepted way of doing it. Using a direct ‘command’ form rather than an indirect question when speaking to a person whose job is bring you things doesn’t have to be offensive, unless it is said with the wrong tone of voice, of course, and sounding demanding. If you translate the words directly and do not pay attention to how the request is made and the context in which it’s made, it may seem rude to someone from a culture in which such situations call for conventionalized indirectness.

Actually, using indirectness in a culture where one is expected to be direct in a particular situation, could result in a misunderstanding too. Excessive politeness is a thing and it is associated with socially distancing you from the person you are asking something from, which can be seen as rude. Excessive politeness, when used with people you are close to, such as intimates, but also with people who are there to assist you, such as a waiter, could be seen as a sign of lack of trust and a sign of assuming a certain social distance. In such a culture, a simple Pásame la sal ‘Pass me the salt’ can be the expected way of making a request at a table from a friend or family member, and anything more indirect that that can be seen as a sign that lack of intimacy, and thus seem rude and offensive, even adding a simple por favor ‘please’ to the request.

Of course, none of this is likely to have anything to do with the fact that Spanish has two basic words, pedir and preguntar, whereas English speakers only have one, to ask. Also, it should be mentioned that not all cultures that use the Spanish language behave the same way as mainstream Spanish culture (from Spain) does. A Spaniard will probably seem rude in a situation like the one just described to a Colombian or Peruvian as well, not just to the average American. And, of course, all Spanish speakers use questions sometimes to request actions, not just information, even if Spaniards are less likely to do it in certain circumstances where it is not called for in the culture.

Actually, in informal situations such as the ones we have described, Spanish often uses a type of question to soften the edge of asking for things but which has the property of not sounding excessively polite, which, as we have seen, could seem offensive to Spaniards in some situations. We are referring to a type of question construction that sounds somewhat strange when translated into English because it doesn’t make literal sense.

For example, if you want to ask your waitress for a beer, there is a third form we can use besides the two that we have seen, which are the direct Tráeme una cerveza ‘Bring me a beer!’ and the excessively polite ¿Podrías traerme una cerveza? ‘Could you bring me a beer?’ Note that the latter question, which is likely to be used by an American visiting Spain, would probably sound rather strange to a native Spanish speaker from Spain. Note also that the former is acceptable in Spain, as long as it is not uttered with a demanding tone of voice.

The third way that we are referring to is one in which one would ‘ask’ the question ¿Me traes una cerveza? Notice that because it is a question, it is also an indirect way of asking. Literally, this question translates as ‘Do you bring me a beer?’ or ‘Are you bringing me a beer?’ These questions sound odd when translated directly into English, but they are probably the preferred construction to use in Spain in requests among people who are intimate or who do not want to seem to be aloof and distant. A Spaniard who wants to add an extra edge to this type of request, might add por favor ‘please’ to it, but that is not at all necessary since, again, it is something that makes it sound more formal and thus off-putting in most situations.

Interestingly, it is also possible to give an extra edge of politeness to the command form type of request that we saw earlier. That can be accomplished by adding something at the beginning that softens the request. The simplest such thing to add is the interjection ¡Oye!, ‘Hey!’, lit ‘Hear!’. If we put all these factors together, we could come up with a range of ways to ask for a beer at a café in order of politeness, from least polite to most polite:

¡Tráeme una cerveza! (or just ¡Una cerveza!)
¡Tráeme una cerveza, por favor! (or ¡Una cerveza, por favor!
Oye, tráeme una cerveza.
¿Me traes una cerveza?
¿Me traes una cerveza, por favor?
¿Podrías traerme una cerveza?
¿Podrías traerme una cerveza, por favor?
Table 168: Degrees of politeness in requests in Spain

The default, most neutral option in Spain would probably be the middle one, namely #4. Of course, one could add another layer of politeness to this sequence by changing the form of the verb to usted, another social-distancing mechanism, and thus a way to code politeness.

These options transfer pretty much to any type of situation in which we ask for things and request some type of action. At the dining room table, for example, the most common way of asking for the salt, would probably be ¿Me pasas la sal? lit. ‘Do you pass me the salt?’, though it would not be at all out of place to use a command such as Oye, pásame la sal. Likewise, the most common way of asking a friend (not a stranger) to lend you five dollars would probably be ¿Me prestas cinco dólares? lit. ‘Do you lend me five dollars?’ If you were asking a stranger, or at least someone you’re not close with and who might be willing to lend you the money, you would probably use a more polite indirect question, namely ¿Podría(s) prestarme cinco dólares (por favor)? Note that using the wrong type of request form may also constitute a faux pas or social blunder.

Also, just as Spaniards know how and when to use indirectness (questions) when asking for action, English speakers also know when it is OK to use directness (commands) to ask for things. English speakers are not always indirect, using questions, when trying to get people to do things for them. They too often use imperatives (command sentences) to get people to do things by means of direct requests, if the situation calls for it. There are even situations in which a question would be out of place in English in order to get someone to act. If you are asking someone who just came into your home to sit down, for instance, you would probably use the ‘command’ form Sit down (maybe followed by the softening word please, or at least with a friendly tone of voice), rather than a question such as Could you sit down? or Would you (like to) sit down? A gentle tone of voice in the imperative Sit down! can be enough to make it sound like a request, and not as a command.

Whatever the connection between requesting (making requests) and questioning (asking questions), it is indeed the case that English speakers have a hard time with the difference between the two Spanish verbs pedir and preguntar. It is a difference that is covered early on in elementary textbooks. English speakers tend to be confused by this pair of words, for they don’t see anything unusual about using the same word ask for actions that for a Spanish speaker seem to be obviously different, or different enough to use different words for them.

Actually, the reason why it seems so natural to English speakers to use the same word for what Spanish ‘thinks’ are two different things might also have something to do with the fact that asking a question can be seen as a special type of a request for action, namely a request for giving information. In other words, there is some obvious semantic overlap between requests for information and requests for action.

Take, for instance, a situation in which someone asks another for their opinion about something. This is asking for information, obviously, but it is also a request for action (giving one’s opinion). So in Spanish you can say Me pidió mi opinión ‘She asked me for my opinion’, with pedir, not with preguntar. This puts emphasis on the fact that it is a request. But one could also say Me preguntó mi opinión (same meaning) or Me preguntó qué opinaba ‘She asked me what I thought about it?’ with the verb preguntar, not with pedir. This emphasizes that it is a question. (Notice that you cannot say *Me pidió qué opinaba.)

An unusual case is the one regarding reports of asking for the time. With an embedded question in the sentence, there is no doubt that Spanish must use preguntar, as in Me preguntó qué hora era ‘He asked me what time it was’, which is a request for information. There is a common and idiomatic way to shorten such a sentence, which is by changing the embedded question to the noun phrase la hora ‘the time’. Thus, we often hear things such as Me preguntó la hora ‘He asked me for the time’. Less commonly one also hears, however, the equivalent sentence Me pidió la hora ‘He asked me for the time’, with emphasis on the request.

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