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In comments to this question, there's a kind of discussion regarding how "Why?"-questions should be perceived by the Linguistics community.

As far as I understood, those who think that such questions are offtopic, argue that questions like "Why [such thing has occurred]?" are impossible/hard to be answered, due to the nature of Linguistics and, most probably, many other humanities

On the other hand (and I'm also inclined to believe) that "why-" and "how-" questions are actually the only ones that are on-topic with StackExchange sites like this.

In fact, a quotation from Good Subjective, Bad Subjective blog post:

Great subjective questions inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”. The best subjective questions invite explanation. If you’re asking for a product recommendation of some kind, you want answers to contain detailed information about the features and how they can be used, and why you might want to choose one over the other. “How?” and “Why?” has more lasting value than a bunch of product-feature bullet points or a giant enumerated list, no matter how extensive. In contrast, the bad subjective questions let answerers get away with hit-and-run answers that maybe provide a name and a link — but fail to provide any sort of adequate explanation, context, or background.

Indeed, "why-" questions, like the linked one, may attract answers that contain controversial hypotheses, or some researches that are not (yet) mainstream of modern science, but in any case they would serve two most crucial goals of the StackExchange network:

  1. Provide with valuable information;
  2. Invite the readers think for themselves.

So, my question is, what is our attitude towards "why-" questions?

  • I just want to note that the Good Subjective, Bad Subjective post is both old and not necessarily applicable to every site. – curiousdannii Jun 4 '15 at 10:36
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    I added the featured tag for showing the question link on the main site. – Alenanno Jun 4 '15 at 10:45
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I think there is a misunderstanding on the why.

I have asked Why-questions myself in the past and the meaning behind it is not like asking someone "why did you do X?", as if looking for a conscious reason, but rather it investigates the reason(s) behind certain changes or no changes at all.

Compare:

  1. Why does Sardinian is more similar to Latin than Italian?
  2. Why do we have plosives/fricatives?

The answer to (1) is concrete: Because being on an island the population was more isolated, therefore having less changes at a slower rate. This is a reasonable linguistic question, maybe simple, but certainly not off topic.

I could also ask it as "How did Sardinian happen to be more similar to Latin than Italian?" and I'm basically asking the same thing. So I think that focusing on the words "how" and "why" in the question is misleading. (1) is certainly different from (2) however, which has no answer except maybe for "because we do".

In conclusion: My suggestion would be to look at each case and evaluate whether the question has merit regardless of the "why" being there or not.

  • 1 is shorthand for "why is Sardianian considered more similar to Latin than Italian". That's a question that can be addressed because presumably the people who consider it so have published some arguments for it. It's still a conscious question. – curiousdannii Jun 4 '15 at 10:47
  • @curiousdannii It's not "considered", some Sardinian varieties use Latin expressions verbatim (use of ego to say "I"), while Italian shows bigger changes. See for example endings in -u (loss of -s), while Italian -us -> -o. – Alenanno Jun 4 '15 at 10:49
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    Language families don't have labels attached to them. People have to argue, based on evidence like you just gave, and that's why it's appropriate to ask "why" questions about them. "Similar" is always going to be a value judgement cast by sentient reasoner. – curiousdannii Jun 4 '15 at 10:51
  • @curiousdannii I just named a few examples, but it's undisputed that Sardinian is closer to Latin in many areas, i.e. more conservative. See also this answer of mine. But anyway, the point of my answer is that "why" is irrelevant, as long as the question is concretely answerable. – Alenanno Jun 4 '15 at 10:54
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It seems to me that the community generally accepts "why" questions just as they accept "what", "when", or "does" questions, although individuals may be less than accepting. I personally find that "why" questions have the greatest potential to generate speculative opinion answers, but "what" questions can also generate speculation. "Why" questions are special because they require an abstract theory that predicts the facts, whereas "what", "when" and "does" can rely more on direct observation. (Until you get to the "what do you mean by 'phoneme / adjunct / prefix'?" problem, which "why" questions also face).

It would be useful, from the perspective of informing the curious public, to know whether a particular question is in fact beyond our ability to answer. For example, the question "Why was the Latin word for "goat" caper?" can be answered by referring the matter to the fact that the proto-Indo-European word for "goat" was kapro, but the question "Why was the proto-Indo-European word for "goat" kapro?" cannot be answered. Hence I see value in giving a brief answer of the type "That's beyond the reach of our scientific knowledge".

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Questions which invite speculation are never a good thing. Still it's impossible to limit the site to only questions which have clear definite answers because you'd need to know every answer before you ask a question.

The linked question is problematic for a few reasons:

  • If you're going to have a 'good' subjective question, then the question needs to be strong, but this question is unsure whether the unified or divided verbs are primary. The quote says it was one widespread in the Germanic languages, but the question asks why English evolved it.
  • The question asks why it's special, but there's nothing special about it. Words never map 1-1 between languages!
  • "Why" questions are generally poorly phrased. Sometimes they can be replaced with "hows", but not always. "Whys" should be reserved for questions where there's some kind of sentient causer involved. Now some language change is deliberate, but questions about proto-languages just have too little data to go on.
  • Thank you for the answer. Please be assured I did not have any intent to question your point; instead, I want to know what the community thinks on this topic. Also, "Words never map 1-1 between languages" looks like a good answer to the original question (when expanded, of course). The answer may refer functional approach where "to know", indeed, has lots of distict meaning, so the Q is not about "other languages", but is about English where these words are semantically close. – bytebuster Jun 4 '15 at 14:22
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    I don't think there's anything wrong with frank speculation; that's necessary in order to generate hypotheses. It's labelling it as fact that causes the trouble. As long as we are always able to retrace our technical steps to statable presuppositions, no problem. The real problem with "explanations" (which I agree are desirable in principle) is that it is really a personal experience, and therefore variable. To me and to many others, ft = mv explains a vast number of phenomena; to still others, it's just letter soup and couldn't be recognized as even an attempt at an explanation. – jlawler Jun 4 '15 at 20:24
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It's never useful and is always destructive to lay down methodological rules to constrain what questions may be asked or what answers may be given. Because the best questions and the best answers are surprising. If you try to limit from the outset questions and answers to those of the sort you expect, you've already ruled out the best questions and the best answers. This is a terrible thing to do.

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    But this is the way how SE works. We can't — and, most likely, have no sufficient expetise to — change the core rules. Strict rules were actually the reason why the quality of Q&A here is betther than on the other Q&A sites. I can't sincerely think of how we could cancel any rules and expect for "supriprising best answers". – bytebuster Jun 11 '15 at 20:18
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    @bytebuster, there can never be a rule, or lack of a rule, that will lead you to expect surprising best answers. I'm sure you can see why. However, you can make rules that make surprises more difficult. Most rules do that. – Greg Lee Jun 11 '15 at 20:44
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    @bytebuster: You really think the quality of Q&A here is good? I'm glad I don't have that many SE groups, then. – jlawler Aug 23 '15 at 22:57

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