Ambiguity in Arabic Negative Polar Questions

Negative polar questions, negative yes-no questions, binary questions, nominal negative polar questions, verbal negative polar questions, alternative negative polar questions, Hijazi Arabic, Arabic intonation, pragmatic function.


  • Reima Al-Jarf
    Full Professor of English and Translation Studies, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
May 17, 2023


Negative yes-no (polar) questions in Colloquial Arabic (CA) are formed by intonation without adding yes-no question particles, in which case, a statement is uttered with a rising intonation, whether this polar question is negative or affirmative. This case is more common in CA than written MSA. Sometimes, the same negative polar question is uttered with different intonations, giving different meanings. This article investigates the multiple meanings of negative polar questions in Hijazi Arabic (HA), the kinds of ambiguities resulting from using different rising intonations, and how negative polar questions are answered. A sample of negative polar questions in HA was collected. Each was uttered with different rising intonations by a sample of students enrolled in a Semantics and Pragmatics course at the College of Languages and Translation and recordings of those were made. The student informants were asked about the meaning conveyed by each intonation of the same negative polar question. Results showed that ما شريت فستان الأسبوع الماضي؟ Didn't you buy a dress last week?” is a negative polar question formed with a change in intonations. It is ambiguous and may render the following meanings: (i) a neutral question about whether she bought the dress or not, replying with the truth-value of the situation, or is replying to the polarity used in the question. The answer would be either "Yes" or "no", or an echo answer: "Yes I bought it" or "No I didn't buy it"; (ii) a confirmation question to which the reply is "yes" only; (iii) a confirmation question to which the reply is "no" only; (iv) disapproval: "Didn't you buy a dress last week? Why do you want to by another dress? (v) an exclamation: Wow! You have bought a new dress, although you bought one last week! What a surprise! The context makes it clear which meaning each intonation implies. Detailed results of the interpretation of a sample of ambiguous spoken negative polar questions are reported.