In Malay, the wh-phrase in interrogatives remains in-situ, but may move to the left periphery of the clause.


Malay: Awak makan ayam
Gloss: You  eat   chicken
Eng: You eat chicken

Wh-in-situ interrogative

Malay: Awak makan apa?
Gloss: You  eat   what
Eng: What did you eat?

Preposed Wh-phrase

Malay: Apakah yang awak makan?
Gloss: What   that you  eat
Eng: What did you eat?

The use of in-situ wh-phrases is characteristic of conversational everyday Malay, whereas preposed wh-phrase constructions are used in more formal registers. It doesn't seem to me that the prepositioning of the wh-phrase is due to topicalisation or focus movement.

When the wh-phrase is preposed, the interrogative corresponds to a pseudocleft in English, e.g. "what was it that you ate?". The noun that the relative clause modifies is dropped.


Is this pseudoclefting transformation without the intention of putting the wh-phrase into focus common in other languages?

(The next question is based on the following tree diagrams)

enter image description here

Is it plausible to say that there is a zero-copula that links the wh-phrase with the relative clause in the sentence as in tree 1, or is it more plausible to say that there is no zero-copula and that the complementizer is a nominalizer (as argued by some) as in tree 2?

My take is that the complementizer is still a complementizer, not a nominalizer, due to the fact that the noun modified by the relative clause is optional. E.g.:

Malay: Apakah (benda) yang awak makan?
Gloss: What   (thing) that you  eat?
Eng: What is the thing that you ate?

In cases of predication, can there ever be no linker or copula?

This makes it enticing to say that there is the copula 'ialah', although unpronounced, in the structure. This is to serve as a linker for the wh-phrase and the nominal predicate. However, I can't find any evidence to support my claim about there being a zero-copula besides the fact that copulas are largely optional in Malay. My intuition is that tree 1 seems more plausible.

Tree 2 seems a bit strange to me because I've never seen a [+wh][-pred] wh-phrase followed by a [-wh][+pred] complementizer as in tree 2 before, but I'm not so sure about this.

2 Answers 2


I don't know enough linguistics to answer your second question, but the pseudocleft question formation reminds me of the way formal questions are formed in French.

French: Tu manges une crêpe.
Gloss: you eat a crepe

Informal interrogative (wh-in-situ):
French: Tu manges quoi?
Gloss: you eat what?

Formal interrogative (preposed):
French: Qu'est-ce que tu manges?
Gloss: What is it that you eat?

The fixed expression "Qu'est-ce que" with the accusative relative pronoun "que" is used to ask a question about the object of a verb, while "Qu'est-ce qui" with the nominative relative pronoun is used to ask about the subject of a verb. Questions with a preposed wh-phrase can also exhibit simple inversion of subject and verb, as "Que manges-tu?", but this is another level up in formality and isn't common in spontaneous spoken language.

  • Thanks. This does seem parallel to pseudocleft interrogatives in Malay though Malay doesn't have that additional level of formality. Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 10:46
  • 1
    I would say that "Qu'est-ce que tu manges?" is at best semi-formal. The formal/literary equivalent is "Que manges-tu?"
    – fdb
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 11:28


Italian: (Che) cosa mangi?  
Gloss: (what) thing you-eat

The in-situ wh-phrase is not used ('Mangi cosa?' seems akward).

The register is either informal (che ommitted) or formal.
More often found in progressive form:

Cosa stai mangiando?

enter image description here

Sorry but the mandarin part is a bitmap because of this. Please feel free to comment and I will amend/edit accordingly.

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