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3.7 Free relative clauses and selected interrogative clauses

Free relative clauses and selected interrogative clauses are closely related clause types. Hence we may also refer to free relatives as free interrogatives. Both clause types are introduced by an interrogative pronoun without an antecedent. The difference between the two types involves the question whether the interrogative is selected or not. Consider an example of a free relative / interrogative, the clause bracketed in the example below:

Jo dwo sälwen nit, [wät jo kwede].
they do self not what they say
They themselves don’t do what they say.

The clause above is not selected. However, if a verb selects embedded questions, it can be combined with the complementiser for embedded yes/no questions: of ‘whether’. The verb dwo ‘do’ does not select embedded questions, as it is incompatible with this complementiser:

*Jo dwo sälwen nit, [of jo kwede].
they do self not whether they say
They themselves don’t do whether they say.

Hence the bracketed clause in (1) is analysed as a ‘pure’ free relative / interrogative, not an embedded interrogative. In contrast, the verb wiete ‘know’ selects embedded questions, as is clear from the example below:

Iek weet nit, of hie al ounkemen is.
I know not whether he already to.come is
I don’t know whether he has arrived already.

Hence the bracketed clause in the example below, though it looks the same as the free relative / interrogative in (1) above, must be analysed as a selected interrogative.

Fräigje ‘ask’ and witte ‘know’ are characteristically verbs selecting embedded interrogatives.

Du moast sälwen wiete, [wo du dät moakest].
you must self know how you it do
You must know yourself how you do it.

However, free and selected interrogatives are not formally distinguished in many languages, including Saterland Frisian and English. The same pronouns are used to introduce both free relatives and selected interrogatives, as the examples above make clear. The introductory pronoun does not have an antecedent in either clause type.

The free relative / interrogative pronoun may have various syntactic functions inside the relative clause. The free relative pronoun may have the following syntactic functions in the subordinate clause:

  • Argument of a verb, that is subject or object
  • Argument of an adposition, that is an adpositional complement
  • Adverbial of time, manner, type, reason or place

Free relative pronouns in Germanic languages are either homophonous to relative pronouns or to interrogative pronouns. For example, Old Frisian free relative pronouns were homophonous to relative pronouns, but in Modern West Frisian they are homophonous to interrogative pronouns. This is also the case in Saterland Frisian, where interrogative pronouns are also used as free relatives. Note that we have a terminological mismatch between syntax and morphology here. Morphologically or lexically, these pronouns have the outward appearance of interrogatives. But they can be syntactically used as free relative pronouns. Thus the reader is asked to bear in mind that the classificatory term we use may be based on outward appearance. The first example below features a selected interrogative, the second one a free interrogative.

Iek weet, [wäl du bääst].
I know who you are
I know who you are.
[Wäl dät Brood ieten hät], skäl dät bloot bekanne.
who the bread eaten has shall it but confess
Whoever ate the bread, should just confess it.

The interrogative pronoun functions as the predicate of the embedded clause in the first example above. In the second example above, it functions as the subject. In proverbs, we may still find the demonstrative pronoun die ‘that’ used as a free relative. The example below features two relative clauses containing a relative pronoun functioning as object:

Man nit, [wät iek wol], man dät, [wät du wolt], skäl geskjo.
but not what I want but that what you want shall happen
But not what I want, but that which you want, should happen.

This example is a free relative because the verb geskjo ‘happen’ does not select an embedded question.

The interrogative pronoun can in principle be used as a nominalised possessor with elided noun, in examples like the following:

Wäls Lound is dät?
whose land is that
Whose land is it?
Wäls is dät?
whose is that
Whose is it?

The form and interpretation of a relative or interrogative pronoun depends on the paradigm to which it belongs. If we compare paradigms of relative and interrogative pronouns, we note the following. Relative pronouns homophonous to articles cannot be used to introduce free or selected interrogatives. As such, they show a four way distinction which correlates with the grammatical gender of the antecedent. We restrict ourselves to relative pronouns functioning as subject and object. So the table for this relative pronoun is the same as for the definite article. We know that the interrogative intrudes upon the relative pronoun in the Neuter so there is variation there. The resulting system of relatives with an antecedent is given below:

Table 1
die ju dät (wät) do

Free relative pronouns are homophonous to selected interrogative pronouns, as we discussed already. Interrogative pronouns, however, do not show a gender distinction, nor do they show a number distinction. They only show a semantic distinction between persons and things. Thus the basic interrogative paradigm exhibits a binary distinction, which is independent of person and gender, as follows:

Table 2
Persons Non-persons
wäl ‘who’ wät ‘what’

Free relative / interrogative pronouns, selected or not, are insensitive to grammatical gender, since there is no antecedent. This makes sense because in the absence of an antecedent, features like number and gender are irrelevant.

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