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30 March 2010 @ 09:09 pm
A question for linguists, about language formation in children, sort of  
In Mercedes Lackey's and James Mallory's two trilogies (Obsidian Chronicles and The Enduring Flame), the Elves do not ask direct questions and rarely make direct requests, except under the most pressing circumstances, known as "war manners". Everything is phrased obliquely, so, for example, "Who is riding in the party approaching the city?" might become, "It would be good hearing to know, of your courtesy, if you had seen which riders are approaching".

Children are not expected to have learned proper manners, though, and do ask questions. "Are you a human? Why are you dressed like that? Are you going to stay here?"

But it occurs to me -- if the children never hear questions, how would they learn how to form questions?
dave wdaze39 on April 1st, 2010 07:28 am (UTC)
Having never read the fiction in question, I find myself curious as to the motivation for the custom of indirect inquiry - was it ever clarified why that was considered more polite? (Was it that the other person in the conversation was thereby given the option of choosing not to answer, without it seeming as confrontational as might be the case if a question had been more directly posed?)
Janet Miles, CAP-OMjanetmiles on April 1st, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
You are precisely correct -- in the society as described, a direct question is seen as rude because it forces the person asked to respond. Under war manners, direct questions and requests are permitted to save time and avoid confusion. (I suspect that in an emergency, war manners would supersede courtesy, e.g., "DUCK!" rather than "A wise person might choose to look up at this moment.")

At one point early in the story, the human protagonist tells the Elven queen something like, "I'm sorry, I'm just not very bright. I know you're getting at something, but I'm not going to understand unless you ask me." The queen then says something to the effect of, "Very well, but I would not have you think that you are being treated as a criminal."