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4.4 The partitive interrogative construction

An example of a partitive interrogative is given below. The construction comes in two variants:

Wät is dät foar aan?
what is that for one
What kind of person is that?
Wät foar aan is dät?
what for one is that
What kind of person is that?

The construction as a whole consists of three elements:

  • The interrogative pronoun wät ‘what’
  • The preposition foar ‘for’
  • The content NP

The two variants of the construction are as follows:

  • The three elements make up one overarching NP at the beginning of the clause. Or:
  • The interrogative pronoun is split off from the remaining PP
    • The question word occurs at the beginning of the clause
    • The remaining PP is found inside the VP

The examples below makes it clear that the content NP consists of a noun. The content NP may also contain APs and it may contain the indefinite article in the singular.


The partitive question wät ‘what’ is ambiguous between a kind interpretation and a specific object interpretation. No other question word can be used to introduce this construction. Although the question word seems to be singular, it is actually not specified for number in this construction. To illustrate, consider the following two sentences:

Wät foar ‘n Stoul waas dät?
what for a chair.SG was.SG that
What (kind of) chair was it?
Wät sunt dät foar Wundere?
what are.PL that for miracles.PL
What (kind of) miracles are they?

The examples make it clear that it is the content noun which determines the number of the construction as a whole, of the NP as a whole, regardless of whether the question word is separated from its PP headed by foar ‘for’ or not. In the pair of examples above, the question word has been split off from the NP as a whole in the second example, but not in the first example.

The pair of examples above involves cases in which the interrogative functions as part of the subject (or subject predicate). Below are two cases in which the object is questioned by means of the partitive question construction:

Wät hieden ze deer aal [foar Reeuwen]?
what had they there all for tools
What kind of tools did they have there?
Wät foar Läkkeräien skuul iek kriege?
what for dainties would I get
What kind of dainties would I get?

The question word has been split off from the PP in the first example. In the second example, the NP as a whole is found at the beginning of the clause.

A peculiar subcase of this construction has the word wäkke ‘which, some’ in the position of the content noun. Two examples are given below:

Wät sunt dät foar wäkke?
what are that for which/some
Who are those people? / What kind of people are they?
Hie wüül jädden wiete, wät foar wäkke dät dät wul wieren.
he wanted eager know what for which/some that that indeed were
He would like to know what (kind of) people they might be.

The example above also has two instances of the word dät ‘that’, which is odd. One could think that the first instance is a redundant use of the complementiser, but complementisers hardly ever occur following interrogative phrases in Saterland Frisian. The example makes it clear that the interrogative partitive may also occur in embedded contexts in which interrogatives are selected. It is unclear whether this partitive construction can also occur as a free interrogative (relative), for example in free choice relatives (not illustrated). Like other interrogatives, the partitive question construction may also be used as an exclamative:

Wät dät nit aal foar Näies rakt!
what it not all for new.PA gives
All the new things there are!

The example also shows that a partitive adjective can function as the content noun of a partitive question construction. This underlines the fact that partitive adjectives may be viewed as an indefinite nominalisation.

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