Greek and English Relative Clauses

Though both require relative clauses to begin with a relative pronoun, Greek and English are typologically distinct in that one employs the pronoun with the gap strategy (English) and the other only needs the pronoun (Greek): a man who Chris saw [GAP] vs. τὸ ποτήριον ὃ ἐγὼ μέλλω πίνειν (the cup that I am about to drink [no gap]).

The English Gap is implicitly necessary for our processing of the grammatical relation of relative pronouns (in this case the Object relation), whereas in Greek, grammatical relations are marked by morphology* rather than structural relations/word order.

*This is not to say that English doesn’t have some morphological marking occurring on it’s pronouns, but this morphology is not the central marker of grammatical relations. Grammatical relations are centrally marked by structural position within the clause. Hence when English speakers hear relative clauses they consciously notice the Gap position where the Object would typically appear.

12 thoughts on “Greek and English Relative Clauses

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    1. Note that the cited web page, adopts the common practice among lawyers and other legal professionals in forbidding the restrictive “which.” Other good writers of English outside of this profession do employ the restrictive “which.”

  1. It is not clear to me what you mean by “gap.” (It is not a linguistics terminology I’m familiar with.) There’s nothing on the other side of “saw,” so where’s the gap?

    The word “whom” is marked for being the object. Many people now use “who,” though, which in fact would make the example less distracting.

  2. The Gap is just that: a gap. Stephen, your point that there’s nothing after “saw” is exactly the point. The Gap in English is a necessary in the syntactic structure because in normal transitive clauses, the Object would be there.

    The Gap marks a structural position. The Gap is that native intuition that we have as English speakers that the object is “moved” to a different spot than where it is “supposed to be.”

    The Gap is more obvious in clause like:

    Where are you coming from?” or Metaphors we live by

    In these examples, the dangling preposition makes it much more clear that something is “missing” or “moved.” The sense of movement that we have is what Chomsky used to posit syntactic transformations.

    The intuitive sense of movement is caused by the fact that grammatical relations (subject, object) are primarily structural position (i.e. marked by word order).

    And because in Greek, word order is irrelevant for marking Subjects & Objects, there is no Gap. It’s the same thing in Russian as well.

    1. Well, that explanation finally makes your original post intelligible. Is Plato doing something similar when he writes, ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι (Apology 21d)? Cf. Smyth §2507.

      1. I don’t know Plato very well, I wouldn’t even pretend that I did! 😉

        I took them time to look up οἴομαι only to find afterward when I looked at Smyth that he provided a translation.

        What Smyth is talking about looks like a different grammar issue, but still very interesting. I didn’t know that about definite and indefinite in negative clauses.

        And sorry about the confusion. I just threw that up last night in a hurry in the midst of doing some research for a presentation I’ll be giving next spring. I should have given the longer explanation then, but was trying to avoid becoming distracted by other cursory issues.

      1. The Gap is roughly equivalent to the term “trace” if you’re familiar with that term in discussions of WH-movement.

        “Gap” is a term from non-Chomskyan generative grammar, so it tends to be less well known.

  3. The gap, even though it’s not pronounced, sometimes has side effects.

    For example, suppose two couples both show up at the same time at a fancy restaurant where’s there’s only one free table. The maitre d’ might ask the owner:

    1. Who do you want to eat first?

    But in a very different situation, a cannibal might see two couples, and ask a co-diner:

    2. Who do you want to eat first?

    The sentence is ambiguous.

    In the case of (1), there’s a gap between “want” and “to,” while in the case of (2) the gap is between “eat” and “first,” which we can see by looking at the answers to the questions:

    1a. I want the Smiths to eat first.

    2a. I want to eat the Smiths first.

    If we mark the gap in the original sentences, we get the following:

    1c. Who do you want [GAP] to eat first?

    2c. Who do you want to eat [GAP] first?

    Because “want” and “to” are adjacent in (2c) but not in (1c), “want to” only becomes “wanna” in (2c). So:

    3. Who do you wanna eat first?

    can only have the cannibal reading.

    In other words, even though we don’t hear the gap in English, it still blocks the contraction of “want” and “to” into “wanna.”

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