A tag question (or question tag) is a short question tagged onto the end of a sentence: “It’s raining, isn’t it?” It is usually pronounced with a rising-falling intonation (high pitch on isn’t and low pitch on it). It doesn’t add anything to the meaning of the original sentence (“It’s raining”), but it invites a response from the listener (to confirm that it really is raining, or more importantly, that he/she is actually listening). If the speaker is less sure of his/her information, then it might be pronounced with a rising intonation (low pitch on isn’t and high pitch on it). This makes it a genuine question which requires a response from the listener.
Tag questions are notoriously difficult in English. They come in the present tense (don’t they? aren’t I? doesn’t it?), the past tense (didn’t you? wasn’t she? weren’t they?), with other auxiliary verbs (haven’t we? won’t she? wouldn’t you?), with modal verbs (can’t I? mustn’t you? shouldn’t it?), and with a positive verb (do they? was he? have they? is there? shall we? etc.).
Most languages manage with a single tag question: n’est-ce pas? in French, nicht wahr? in German, neda? in Sinhala, tane? in Tamil. Which makes things much easier, no?
In colloquial Sri Lankan English, the most common tag question is the single word no?, pronounced with a rising pitch: “You’re sick, no?” Also very common is the invariable isn’t it?, used irrespective of the subject and tense of the original sentence, as the following examples from recent fiction illustrate. Each example is followed by the “standard” English equivalent in brackets.
“You are forgetting the presumption of innocence, isn’t it.” (The Hamilton Case, by Michelle de Kretser, p.110) (aren’t you?)
“Now changed your mind, isn’t it?” (The Banana Tree Crisis, by Isankya Kodithuwakku, p.158) (haven’t you?)
“Early birds catch all the worms, isn’t it!” (The Sweet and Simple Kind, by Yasmine Gooneratne, p.539) (don’t they?)
“We have all had a shock, isn’t it?” (Homesick, by Roshi Fernando, p.161) (haven’t we?)
A variation is the positive tag question is it?, pronounced with a rising intonation:
“Had a good time at home, is it?” (The Banana Tree Crisis, p.87) (did you?)
“Mala’s got back at last, is it?” (The Banana Tree Crisis, p.88) (has she?)
“And that somehow makes you more intelligent, is it?” (Learning to Fly, by Shehani Gomes, p.144) (does it?)
This feature is not unique to Sri Lankan English. The same disregard for the complexities of standard tag questions is found in other varieties of English, and it seems likely (and desirable) that this will become the norm for English as a medium of international communication. Even in the UK, the single multi-purpose tag question innit? is gaining currency in the colloquial language of the younger generation.
Another characteristically Sri Lankan tag question is will you? (often pronounced willu!) – not only in requests such as “Tell, will you!”, but also replacing the standard tag shall I? or shall we? as in “I’ll call later, will you!” or “We’ll meet tomorrow, will you!”
A-Z of Sri Lankan English is“an all-new, occasional alphabetical dip“into the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, published exclusively on“Groundviews. The original A-Z of Sri Lankan English was published in the travelsrilanka magazine, and can be found here.