Language Log has a great post today about the naturalness and inevitability of language change. The post's author, John McWhorter, points out one of the greatest peculiarities of English - the use of the verb "do" to form questions - the declarative "Jane likes cheese" becomes in the interrogative "Does Jane like cheese?"
This grammatical feature is absent from English's closest relatives, the other Germanic languages like German, Dutch, and Frisian. It's also absent from English's ancestor, Old English, and from the Latin and French that are widely known to have enriched English's Germanic vocabulary over the centuries. McWhorter believes that it comes from the Celtic group of languages, which existed side by side with and mingled with English for centuries, and is one of the few language families in the world that uses "to do" in this way. McWhorter uses this example to illustrate the nature of language change, and he makes some interesting points - but the article took my thinking in a different direction.
It's quite fascinating to stop and think across languages about the different ways that declarative sentences are transformed into yes-or-no questions. French does this in one of two ways, either by inverting the order of the subject and the verb, inserting a dummy pronoun where necessary; or by the addition of a special phrase that turns the sentence into a question. So "Marie mange du fromage" (Marie eats cheese) becomes either "Marie mange-t-elle du fromage?" or "Est-ce-que Marie mange du fromage?" (Does Marie eat cheese?) Hindi uses a structure like the second French option, adding the question-marker word "kyaa" to the beginning of the sentence: "siitaa paniir khaatii hai" (Sita eats cheese) becomes "kyaa siitaa paniir khaatii hai?" (Does Sita eat cheese?)
Three languages, three ways to make a question out of a declarative sentence. To native speakers of English - especially those who do not have much exposure to other languages - our use of the verb "to do" may seem perfectly natural and logical. But it's certainly not inherently more logical or natural than any of the others. (Indeed, Hindi's strikes me as the cleanest and easiest of the three for a non-native to master.) Other languages likely have still other ways of creating yes-or-no questions from declaratives. All are equally arbitrary.
It is important when one is struggling with the vagaries of a new language to try to put oneself in the frame of mind of a non-native speaker of English, and really appreciate how complex and different the rules of all languages really are. To me that is their joy and endless fascination.