Coming up with new kinds of pragmatics is sort of fun, but it's hard to tell when an idea is incompatible with how people work psychologically.

For instance, what are the limits or universals around asking and answering questions?

I had an idea the other day for a particle that can be used to refuse to answer a question without giving an excuse such as I don't know, but that also isn't rude.

I can think of a couple of non-specific ways of refusing to answer a question in English, but they're all rude or combative.

1. None of your business.
2. Don't ask me that.
3. What a great question.
4. No comment.

The idea behind the question-refusal particle is that it shifts some of the social burden of asking appropriate questions from the asker to the recipient. The other part of the idea is that, in the larger pragmatics/[fake culture] surrounding this language, asking a question that the recipient cannot decline to answer is considered inherently hostile. Therefore, most questions in an ordinary conversation would not come with an expectation of being answered merely considered.

Let's assume with a generic verb-initial language with a few case suffixes for the purposes of this question

y/n.ques INT-see-FIN-REALIS   story-ACC
Did you see the movie (lit: story)?

No comment.

Is it unrealistic to design such a language and then insist by fiat that the various ways of explicitly not-answering a question are not rude?

  • Have a look at Grice's maxims, which describe some of that: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative_principle Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 19:44
  • @OliverMason, the article itself does mention some differences between different cultures, like Malagasy speakers apparently do not share information as readily as English speakers do. Unfortunately, all of the sources cited are either print books or behind a paywall, so I haven't found more information yet about the Malagasy example. Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 1:11
  • Asking a question in way such as you propose (considered hostile because the recipient has to answer it somehow) isn't particularly novel or unknown. Consider the classic trap question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" Another is "Are you lying now or were you lying then?" Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 15:32
  • @KeithMorrison I meant that in the con-culture surrounding the language, the norms around asking questions are different. In a casual conversation in American English, not-answering a question is not routine. In order to be polite, you should provide an excuse that's related to the meaning of the question. I meant that, in the con-culture in question, asking a question that you must/should respond to in a non-rude way is impossible since asking a question that you must/should respond to is considered inherently rude, in the same way that generic nonresponses are inherently rude in English. Commented Sep 5, 2020 at 22:29

1 Answer 1


Consider the following:

"I can't answer that." "I'd rather not say." "I don't understand the question." "It's not that simple." "It depends."

All of these are examples of non-answers which, as far as I'm concerned, are not rude. So I see no problem with designing a language that just has a non-rude particle for any or all of those situations.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.