Let’s make a language – Part 10a: Relative clauses (Intro)

This time around, we’re going to look at what I think is one of the more confusing bits of a language: the relative clause. That is, it’s confusing in theory, as in understanding how it works. Implementing it in a conlang turns out to be a bit easier, but it marks a kind of turning point, in that we’re moving out of the simple grammatical concepts (like plurals or the past tense) and into the more complex world of phrase-level grammar. I guess you could even say this starts “Part 2” of the series.

It’s all relative

Relative clauses. What they are is right there in the name. First of all, they’re clauses, meaning that they are essentially self-contained phrases that have all the necessary parts to state a fact about something. (This is different from the prepositional phrases from last time, which can only really add information to an existing clause.) And second, relative clauses are relative. In other words, the new facts they provide somehow relate to something else.

That’s a grammatical definition, anyway. In English, what relative clauses are is fairly obvious: they are the phrases that we use to put more meaning in a sentence. (Conveniently enough, that last sentence ended with one.) Unlike an adjective phrase, a relative clause works more like a whole new sentence embedded in an existing one, except that one part of it refers directly to something in that existing sentence.

For example, let’s take a simple sentence with a relative clause: The nice man who lives next door has three big dogs. Okay, I’m not the best on example sentences, but it’ll work, and it doesn’t use any other grammar we haven’t already seen in the series. So what have we got? Well, let’s break it down. Starting at the end, we have a predicate phrase, has three big dogs, which contains a verb (has) and a noun phrase (three big dogs).

Those are nothing new, so we’ll ignore them completely and focus on the first half of the sentence, the subject phrase: the nice man who lives next door. Clearly, man is the head of this phrase, and the and nice are an article and adjective, respectively. And that leaves who lives next door, which is our relative clause. It’s formed almost like it could be a sentence, with its own verb (lives) and everything, but the subject is all wrong for that.

In a sense, we’ve combined two sentences. We have the main statement, the nice man has three big dogs, but we also want to clarify some things about this nice man, so we have another sentence, he lives next door. In both cases, we’re talking about the same man, and that’s the “hook” that lets us put the relative clause into the original statement.

Subjects and objects

In our example, the subject of the “outer” clause was the same as that of the relative clause. That doesn’t always have to be the case. In English, as in many languages, it’s possible to switch things around. You can also have, for instance, objects with attached relative clauses: I talked to the man who lives next door. Inside the relative clause, the man is still the subject, but on the outside, he’s the direct object. Similarly, the “relativized” part can be the object of its own clause (the man that I saw yesterday), or part of a possessive or other construction (the man whose dogs are always barking).

English, admittedly, makes all this a little unclear. In cased languages, it’s a lot easier to keep track of everything, and that’s one of the grammatical pedant’s arguments in still using whom for relativized objects. (Their opinion on sentences ending in a preposition comes into play here, too, because that comes from the different ways relative clauses are made in English and Latin. In Latin, you can’t “split” the preposition from the relative pronoun, like you can in English.)

Not every language allows all types of nouns to be relativized, though. There are a few different roles available, and it seems to be a linguistic universal that they fall into a naturally order, called the accessibility hierarchy:

  1. Subject
  2. Direct object
  3. Indirect object
  4. Oblique argument (English prepositional phrases)
  5. Genitive (where English would use whose)
  6. Comparative object (such as the people I am older than)

As the theory goes, if any one of these can’t be relativized, then nothing lower on the list can, either. In other words, any language that allows relative clauses at all is going to allow them for subjects, while one that doesn’t let you use them for objects won’t let you for genitives, either. English offers the full range, as do most of the “big” world languages, but that’s not always the case.

Those languages that don’t let you use the full hierarchy often have some way of accomplishing the same thing. There might be a special verbal voice (like the applicative or the antipassive), for example.

Other ways

Now, just because our language creates relative clauses a certain way by default (using a relative pronoun like “who”, “whose”, or “which”), doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. And that’s where things can get interesting. Indeed, English itself gives you a few options:

First off, you don’t actually need a relative pronoun; you can get by without one: the girls I saw outside has a relative clause with no pronoun. This one pops up in a lot of languages, and linguists refer to it as a gap strategy. The “gap” refers to where the relativized part of the sentence would go.

Second, you can use the gap strategy with a kind of linking particle, sometimes called a complementizer. This one is also an option in English, using that: the girls that I saw outside. This is common throughout the world, and it has become a kind of catch-all in English, much to the despair of some.

Both of the above alternatives carry less overt information than the relative pronoun typical of European languages. But we can go in the other direction, as well. We can add a resumptive pronoun, which is a regular personal pronoun that appears where the relativized argument would, as if we could say the girls that I saw them outside. (This one can appear in spoken English, when a speaker gets too bogged down in relative clauses. It’s happened to me plenty of times.) The resumptive pronoun can also be moved to the front of the relative clause in some languages, but that doesn’t change the core “method”.

A relative clause can also show up as some other kind of clause. Turkish has a nominalizing construction that would render our example as something like the girls of my seeing outside. Some languages of East Asia, conversely, use a genitive construction that would come out closer to the girls of I saw outside. Constructs like these tend to work best when independent words denote such meanings, rather than case affixes. If a language has a passive voice, that’s another possibility for relative clauses. Our running example in this section makes this one more cumbersome, but you might get something like the girls seen outside.

Finally, a few languages dispense with relativized clauses altogether. These have internally-headed clauses, where the clause that would be relative is simply inserted into the main sentence as-is. Using our original example sentence, this might come out in a literal translation as the nice man lives next door has three big dogs. (This kind shows up a little bit more often among the native languages of the Americas, but also in a few scattered locations elsewhere in the world.) A similar option is found in Hindi, which uses a reduced correlative word or phrase in the main clause, almost the opposite of the “relative pronoun” process of English. Our example sentence might be literally translated in this case as which nice man lives next door, that man has three big dogs.

Seeing all your relatives

That just about covers the largest category of relative clause, but it’s not the only one. We can also have something called a free relative clause, which isn’t really relative to much of anything. Wikipedia’s English example is I like what I see, which nicely illustrates this. Languages don’t have to allow this one at all, but many of them do; a different wording might be I like that which I see, which sounds very stilted in English, but more explicitly shows the grammar involved.

Another clause that “sounds” relative is the adverbial clause, something like when I came home. I mean, it looks like it’s a relative clause, right? It’s got when, and that’s in the same class as who and where, isn’t it? But it isn’t, not really. It is, however, the topic for the next part of the series, so we’ll leave that discussion for later.

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