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Bulletin of SOAS, 81, 2 (2018), 191–204. © SOAS, University of London, 2018.

doi:10.1017/S0041977X18000496

The origin of the Semitic relative marker


John Huehnergard
University of Texas, Austin
huehnergard@austin.utexas.edu

Na‘ama Pat-El
University of Texas, Austin
npatel@austin.utexas.edu

Abstract
All Semitic languages use a relative marker as at least one strategy of rela-
tivization, and all branches show reflexes or relics of reflexes of an inter-
dental relative marker. The wide consensus that the relative pronoun was
originally identical to the proximal demonstrative is based on the formal
identity between the bases of the two in West Semitic, and on the wide
attestation of the process Demonstrative > Relative in world languages.
In this paper, we will show that there are a number of significant problems
with the reconstruction of the relative pronoun, which, when taken
together, make tracing its origin to the demonstrative highly unlikely.
Instead we will argue that the opposite is true: the demonstrative in
West Semitic is a secondary formation on the basis of the relative marker.
Keywords: Semitic linguistics, Historical linguistics, Relative, Demonstrative,
Reconstruction

The Semitic relative is enjoying a resurgence in interest in recent years, with sev-
eral works partially or fully dedicated to its history and syntax (for example,
Deutscher 2001, 2009; Huehnergard 2006; Hasselbach 2007; Watson and
Retsö 2009; Holmstedt 2016). These works join important earlier contributions
on this topic including Ravn (1941), Pennacchietti (1968) and Goldenberg
(1995). Among scholars interested in the historical origins of the relative sen-
tence, there are a number of widely accepted assumptions, first and foremost
that the Semitic relative marker is derived from a demonstrative. In this paper
we will review the evidence supporting these assumptions and argue that the
current analysis of the Semitic relative is a procrustean bed, into which the
Semitic evidence does not fit comfortably.
All Semitic languages use a relative marker as at least one strategy of relativiza-
tion, and all branches show reflexes or relics of reflexes of a relative marker with an
initial interdental fricative. The relative marker is also used as a head in genitive con-
structions, but for the sake of clarity we will refer to it here as a relative marker. The
inflection of the relative marker is reconstructible on the basis of full or partial para-
digms in a number of languages. Old Akkadian and Eblaite have the most complete
paradigms, but partial paradigms are also found in Classical Arabic, Classical
Ethiopic, Ugaritic and Ancient South Arabian (Huehnergard 2006). See Table 1
for the reconstructed paradigm, and Table 2 for a representative sample of languages.

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192 J O H N H U E H N E R G A R D A N D N A‘A M A P A T - E L

Table 1. A reconstruction of the relative marker in Semitic (Huehnergard 2006: 112).


Masc. sg. Fem. Sg.
Nominative ðū ðātu
Genitive ðī ðāti
Accusative ðā ðāta
Masc. du. Fem. du.
Nominative ðawā ð(aw)ātā
Oblique ðaway ð(aw)ātay
Masc. pl. Fem. pl.
Nominative ðawū / ʔulū ðawātu / ʔulātu
Oblique ðawī / ʔulī ðawāti / ʔulāti

Table 2. A summary of the inflection of the pronoun in the extant Semitic languages
Gender Number Case
Old Akkadian √ √ √
Classical Arabic √ √ Only in dual
Ancient South Arabian √ √ ?1
Ugaritic Only in sg. √ relics2
Classical Ethiopic Only in sg. √ X
Aramaic X X X3

There is a broad consensus among Semitists that the relative marker was ori-
ginally identical to the proximal demonstrative (Deutscher 2001; Huehnergard
2006; Hasselbach 2007). Such an assumption is based on the formal identity
between the bases of the two in West Semitic, and on the wide attestation of
the process Demonstrative > Relative in world languages (Heine and Kuteva
2002: 106–7; Diessel 2009: 2).4 A representative sample of the West Semitic
demonstratives and relatives appears in Table 3.5

1 Although case endings were probably preserved in some Ancient South Arabian lan-
guages (Stein 2011: 1052), the non-indication of vowels in the writing makes it uncertain
whether the relative was also declined for case.
2 Vowels are not represented in the writing, but some syllabic cuneiform transliterations
include case endings (Huehnergard 2006).
3 The form of the relative marker in Old Aramaic, written ZY, reflects the old genitive
case, *ðī; no other case is attested.
4 See, for example, Huehnergard (2006: 114): “The precise nature of the relationship of the rela-
tive markers to the demonstratives is not entirely clear, nor is the detailed reconstruction of the
paradigms of these demonstratives back to proto-West Semitic. What does seem likely, both on
internal grounds and on the basis of cross-linguistic typology, is that the relative markers are
derived from the demonstratives.” Additionally, see Hasselbach (2007: 25), who states, “The
PS situation can only be deduced by comparison with the behavior of demonstratives in lan-
guage families other than Semitic. . . Based on general language typology, pronominal demon-
stratives grammaticalize into relative markers and adnominal demonstratives into definite
articles. This is exactly what we find in Semitic. The demonstrative bases reconstructed
above were grammaticalized into the det.-rel. pronoun.”
5 More comprehensive lists of demonstratives appear in Testen 2005 and Hasselbach 2007.

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THE ORIGIN OF THE SEMITIC RELATIVE MARKER 193

Table 3. Demonstratives in West Semitic


Relative Demonstrative
(m.s.) m.s. f.s. pl.
Classical za zǝ-; zǝntu zā-; zātti ʔǝllu; ʔǝllontu
Ethiopic
Classical Arabic (ʔa)llaðī hāðā; ðālika hāðihi; tilka hāʔulāʔi; ʔulāʔika
Biblical Hebrew zô, ze6 ze zō(ʔ)t ʔēlle
Biblical Aramaic dî dǝnā; dēk dā(ʔ); dāk ʔillēn; ʔillēk
Mehri (Modern ð ðε; ðōmǝh ðī; ðīmǝh ʔǝlyōmǝh
South Arabian)

Syntactically, at least in some languages, both the relative and the demonstra-
tive follow their head noun, as in the following pair of examples:
(1) Biblical Aramaic (Northwest Semitic)
a. qarn-āʔ dāʔ
horn-DEF DEM.FS
‘This horn’ (Daniel 7: 8)
b. millǝt-āʔ dî-malk-āʔ šāʔēl
thing-DEF REL-king-DEF ask.PTCP.MS
‘The thing that the king requires’ (Daniel 2: 11)
(2) Biblical Hebrew (Canaanite; Northwest Semitic)
a. hinnē ʔĕlōhê-nû ze qiwwînû l-ô
here god.PL.CST-our REL hope.PF.1CP to-him
‘Here is our god in whom we trust’ (Isaiah 25: 9)
b. bən-ēnû ze sôrēr û-mōre
son-our DEM.MS stubborn and-rebellious
‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious’ (Deuteronomy 21: 20)
The morphological similarity between the relative and the demonstratives in
West Semitic certainly suggests a fairly straightforward reconstruction; and
indeed Semitists tend to reconstruct both as if they are in fact one paradigm.
There are, however, a number of significant problems with the reconstruction
of the relative marker, which, when taken together, make tracing its origin to the
demonstrative highly unlikely. In what follows we will outline the main differ-
ences between the paradigms and argue that the order of development, if one
existed, could not have been Demonstrative > Relative as is usually argued.
The relative marker in early Semitic was always a construct form, and thus
was always specifically marked as the head of a relative sentence. Evidence
for this comes primarily from the Old Akkadian and Eblaite paradigm, where
the relative forms do not show the final mimation expected of independent
forms (see examples 3 and 4 below), and Classical Ethiopic, where relative
forms are marked with -a (see example 5 below), the typical marker of construct

6 This form in Hebrew, and Canaanite in general, has been replaced with ʔăšer, but relics
of the old form are still attested in the earliest strata of Hebrew (Huehnergard 2006:
110–11).

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194 J O H N H U E H N E R G A R D A N D N A‘A M A P A T - E L

state in that language (Goldenberg 1992: 84; Kapeliuk 2003: 220; Cohen 2008:
27–8).
(3) Old Akkadian (examples from Hasselbach 2005: 162–4; Kienast and
Sommerfeld 1994: 298–301)
a. Sarru-kēn sar Kiš θū Enlil māhira(m) lā iddin-u-sum
Sargon king Kish REL.MS.NOM Enlil rival.ACC NEG give.PRET.3MS-SUBORD-
to.him
‘Sargon, king of Kish, to whom Enlil permitted no rival’
b. in santim θaliθtim θāti Enlil sarrūtam iddin-u-sum
in year.GEN third.GEN REL.FS.GEN Enlil kingship.ACC give.PRET.3MS-
SUBORD- to.him
‘In the third year (in) which Enlil gave him the kingship’
(4) Eblaite (examples from Tonietti 2005; Catagnoti 2012: 84)7
a. ŠE šu (for /θū/) ú-wa-ì-da-am6 AL6-GÁL
barley REL.MS.NOM promise.PRET.1CS.VENTIVE be-present
‘The barley that I promised is available.’
b. na-se11 na-se11 PN šu-ti (for /θūti/) in [GN]
people people PN REL.MP.OBL in GN
‘the people of PN who are in GN’
(5) Classical Ethiopic (West Semitic)
nəguś makwannən za-yəreʕʕəy-omu la-h ̣əzb-əya ʔəsrāʔel
king judge REL-lead.IMPF.3MS-them to-people-my Israel
‘A king-judge who will lead my people Israel’ (Matthew 2: 6)

The construct state, however, is not a possible morphological state for pro-
nouns in Semitic, including the demonstrative. In fact, without exception, no
pronoun in any Semitic language is allowed to be in construct. Pronouns can
only stand in apposition to nouns, or independently, or as post-clitics, and
there is no evidence to suggest a different situation in the proto-language.
Deriving a construct form from the demonstrative, therefore, seems unlikely.
Semantically, the functions of the relative marker do not overlap with those of
the demonstrative; specifically, the relative marker has no deictic functions.8
Furthermore, with the sole exception of the Classical Arabic relative ʔallaðī,
which is an innovation (Huehnergard 2017: 22–3), the relative particle never
takes any of the affixes that are commonly found on Semitic demonstratives
(e.g. -n, -k, li-), even when the demonstratives in the same language do.9 In

7 The writings of the relative marker in Eblaite may also represent intial /ð/ rather than /θ/
(i.e. /ðū/ and /ðūti/), but we believe the latter to be more likely in East Semitic; see further
below.
8 For the syntax of the relative in Arabic, where the relative marker seems to co-occur with
definite heads, see Pat-El (2014).
9 Demonstrative augmentations are not pronominal suffixes. The -k- element, found on
distal demonstratives in Arabic and Aramaic, is not related to the second person. The
Arabic pronoun hāði-hi is similar to the 3ms suffix pronoun, but it is in fact fs. The asso-
ciation between the augments and the pronominal system is found in Medieval Arabic
grammars, but has no historical basis. Additionally, these augments are most likely
internal innovations, as they do not occur in the earlier phases of these languages (for
Arabic, see Müller-Kessler 2003: 642). In Quranic Arabic, the augment –ka was

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THE ORIGIN OF THE SEMITIC RELATIVE MARKER 195

short, the relative marker does not behave like a demonstrative syntactically,
morphologically, or semantically.
There are two additional inconsistencies between West and East Semitic that
require addressing. The first is the consonantal base of the relative marker, which
is distinct in East Semitic and West Semitic. The relative marker in East Semitic
shows clear reflexes of a voiceless interdental fricative /θ/, while West Semitic
languages show clear reflexes of a voiced interdental fricative /ð/ with the same
inflection and function. This is a well-known problem, which has remained
unresolved even in the most complete reconstructions (Huehnergard 2006;
Hasselbach 2007). This mismatch is not a result of any known sound corres-
pondence, as typically PS *ð > Akk. z, while PS *θ > WS θ (OSA, MSA,
Ugaritic and Arabic), š (Canaanite), s (Ethiopic), or t (Aramaic).10
The second inconsistency is the lack of a demonstrative in East Semitic with
an etymological base similar to that of the relative marker. While West Semitic
has a proximal demonstrative with an initial etymological interdental (*ðv̄ -),
East Semitic has a proximal demonstrative that is unrelated either to the West
Semitic form or to the East Semitic relative, namely, *han-nī.11 There is no evi-
dence that East Semitic ever had a demonstrative with a base similar to that of
the relative, though of course it could have been lost. In fact, all previous recon-
structions of the proximal demonstrative to proto-Semitic are based on the East
Semitic relative marker, not its proximal demonstrative (e.g. Hasselbach 2007:
20). Such a reconstruction privileges the West Semitic demonstrative and relies
heavily on typological generalizations, but is not supported by internal evidence.
The lack of a demonstrative with an initial interdental in East Semitic and the
syntactic behaviour of the relative marker strongly suggest that the relative
marker is older than the demonstrative and that the proximal demonstrative
with an initial interdental should not be reconstructed with this function to
proto-Semitic. The Akkadian situation, where the relative and each of the
demonstratives are based on different roots, is likely closer to proto-Semitic.
The question, then, is how to derive the relative and demonstrative in West
Semitic.
If the East and West Semitic relatives are related, despite the difference in voi-
cing, then the demonstrative in West Semitic is most likely a derivation by
extension from the relative, based on the latter’s function as the marker of adno-
minalization par exellence (see example 9 below). This must have happened in
proto-West Semitic, since all West Semitic sub-branches have a demonstrative
and a relative with the same base. A scenario of syncretism, namely the falling
together of the demonstrative and relative, is partially supported by the inflec-
tional bases of the relative and demonstratives. In Akkadian and in most West
Semitic languages, the relative marker has a consistent base throughout its

interpreted as 2m.s. and yielded a secondary form ðālika > ðālikum which appears to
show number agreement, but this is an internal innovation in this dialect.
10 There have been several proposals that Hebrew šeC is a reflex of the Akkadian relative
through borrowing (e.g. Holmstedt 2007). See Pat-El (2012) for counter-arguments.
11 Akkadian dialects employ different types of distal demonstrative: Old Babylonian uses
the base *ʔulli, while Assyrian uses the bases *ʔalli- and *ʔammi-. See further below.

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196 J O H N H U E H N E R G A R D A N D N A‘A M A P A T - E L

Table 4. Singular and plural bases of the relative marker


One base Two bases
Old Akk. Ugaritic Arabic I Arabic II Ḥarsūsi Ethiopic ASA
Singular θū d (ʔa)llaðī (ʔa)llaðī ð za ð
Plural θūt(i) dt (ʔa)llaðīna (ʔa)ʔulā l ʔəlla ʔly

paradigm. Furthermore, the only fully inflected, and therefore more archaic,
paradigms attested (Classical Arabic, Eblaite and Old Akkadian) show a single
base throughout the paradigm of the relative marker. (This is also the case in
Ugaritic, which does not have a complete paradigm.) Additionally, other demon-
stratives (e.g. the distal demonstrative *su) all have a single base throughout the
paradigm. But in some West Semitic languages, namely Ancient South Arabian,
Classical Ethiopic, Modern South Arabian and Classical Arabic (in a secondary
paradigm), a two-base system is attested: a singular in *ðv̄ and a plural in *ʔvl
(see Table 4).
In Huehnergard (2006: 112–3) a single base is reconstructed for the relative
on the basis of the Ugaritic plural form dt /dūtu/, where the final -t is similar to
the Old Akkadian plural θūt(i), and cannot be explained as a result of analogy or
extension, since there is no other form in Ugaritic with such a plural. Hasselbach
(2007: 19–20), on the other hand, argues for an original two-base paradigm
similar to Ancient South Arabian, arguing that the Arabic plurals with *ð- are
secondary,12 and that since the relative is derived from the proximal demonstra-
tive, which in West Semitic does have a two-base paradigm, it too should have a
two-base paradigm.
There are two objections to Hasselbach’s reconstruction. First, in both
branches of Semitic, *ʔvl is primarily a demonstrative base, but only in one
of the branches is *ðv̄ also a demonstrative and in even fewer languages is
*ʔvl also a relative. Second, the languages with relative plural *ʔvl belong to
a fairly well-defined group. All of the West Semitic languages with a two-base
system – Ethiopic, Modern South Arabian, Ancient South Arabian, and some
dialects of Arabic – are located in the Arabian Peninsula or across the Red
Sea and are known to have had early contact with each other. That these four
sub-branches form a Sprachbund was already suggested in Huehnergard and
Rubin (2011: 271–4) on the basis of several features: *p > f, internal plurals,
L-stem and the levelling of -k in the first and second persons of the suffix
conjugation. To these we can now add the two-base relative paradigm, with a
singular based on *ð and a plural based on *ʔvl, a feature that is not attested
outside this group. If this is correct, the evidence of these languages does not
constitute good grounds for suggesting a two-base relative for proto-Semitic,
or even for proto-West Semitic. The evidence, in other words, suggests that
the relative had a single base.

12 Hasselbach (2007) relies on Huehnergard (2006: fn. 59). This is probably a misunder-
standing: in the latter it was not suggested that the base of the plural form is secondary,
but rather that their inflectional ending is; more specifically, that it is “modeled on the
nominal external masculine plural construct ending”.

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THE ORIGIN OF THE SEMITIC RELATIVE MARKER 197

We therefore prefer to reconstruct a relative marker with a single base,


namely *ðv̄ . The common Semitic anaphoric/distal pronoun also exhibits a sin-
gle base, *sv(ʔ) (Huehnergard and Pat-El 2012). We believe that two other
Semitic demonstratives are also to be reconstructed, both with single bases: a
proximal demonstrative with base *hanni- and a remote/distal demonstrative
with base *ʔvl(l)-.13 Thus, proto-Semitic would have exhibited a three-way con-
trast in deixis, as in Babylonian Akkadian, which has anaphoric distal šū, prox-
imal (h)anni-, and remote/distal (ʔ)ulli-. East Semitic also exhibits another
demonstrative base, ammi-, found in Assyrian Akkadian and (once) in
Eblaite.14 This is probably an East Semitic innovation, which was subsequently
lost in Babylonian.15
In West Semitic, the proximal demonstrative *hanni- was replaced by a new
demonstrative that was based on the relative *ðv̄ ; then, in most of the West
Semitic languages, the new demonstrative *ðv̄ - and the demonstrative *ʔvl-
merged into a single paradigm, with *ðv̄ - used as the base of singular forms
and *ʔvl- used as the base of plural forms.16 This mixed paradigm is probably
due to a weakening of the original remote aspect of *ʔvl- because of competition
with the use of the anaphoric pronoun as a remote demonstrative.
The date of this innovation is unclear. The mixed paradigm is attested in all
West Semitic languages, with the exception of a number of modern languages,
which are likely to have generalized one of the variants to the entire paradigm.
Among the Ethio-Semitic languages, Tigre has only a reflex of *ʔvl (ms ʔəlli, fs
ʔəlla, mp ʔəllom, fs ʔəllan), while Tigrinya and Amharic show levelling of a
reflex of *ðv̄ -. It is possible that Tigre reflects the original paradigm, and is
therefore a retention, but given the Amharic and Tigrinya paradigms and the
expected two-base paradigm in Classical Ethiopic, we find this less likely.
Some dialects of Arabic, primarily in North Africa, also show levelling of
*ðv̄ - to the plural, for example, Tunis haðuma (m.p.) and Muslim Tripoli

13 This base probably had a high vowel, but whether it was u as in Babylonian Akkadian
*ʔul(l)- or i as in Central Semitic *ʔil(l)- cannot be determined. We think it likely that the
Assyrian Akkadian base alli-, another distal demonstrative, also reflects proto-Semitic
*ʔvl(l)-, but with the vowel replaced by a in direct analogy to *hanni- or another demon-
strative base, *ʔammi-, on which see just below.
14 The Eblaite example is unfortunately broken: [ŠE] / [am]-mi-am ‘that grain’ (accus.), but
there is also a derived adverb, am-ma-ak ‘there’; for these forms see Catagnoti (2012:
83–4).
15 A derivation of ammi- from a third-plural pronoun *hmu, as proposed by Testen (2005),
is quite unlikely, as also noted by Hasselbach (2007: 6, n. 29). As Hasselbach (2007: 15),
Pat-El (2009: 22), and others have suggested, the Akkadian proximal demonstrative
annûm probably derives from a proto-Semitic presentative particle *hā/han. We think
it likely that East Semitic ammi- also derives from *han plus an enclitic -mv, with sub-
sequent assimilation, *han-mv > *hammv- > ammi-. For demonstratives in Akkadian, see
also Kouwenberg 2012.
16 Compare the Neo-Babylonian proximal demonstrative agâ (origin uncertain; perhaps
from Aramaic hāk), which may be used regardless of gender or number, but which
also has a marked plural agannûtu (masc.)/agannêtu (fem.), formed from agâ and the
older annû; see Woodington 1982: 42–7.

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198 J O H N H U E H N E R G A R D A N D N A‘A M A P A T - E L

Table 5. A reconstruction of the relative and demonstrative in Semitic and its main
branches
Proto-Semitic East Semitic West Semitic
Anaphoric/ *su(ʔ) ∼ *sum *su(ʔ) ∼ *sun(±ū) *su(ʔ)/hu(ʔ) ∼ *sum(±ū)/
distal dem. hum(±ū)
Proximal dem. *hanni- *hanni-
Remote/distal *ʔvl- *ʔulli-, *hammi- *ðū- ∼ *ʔvl-
dem.
Relative *θū ∼ *θūtu *θū ∼ *θūtu *ðū ∼ *ðūtu

hāðūma (m.p.) (Magidow 2016). It is therefore more economical to assume that


the two-base paradigm for the proximal demonstrative is original and that some
branches generalized one form. If this is correct, then the two-base paradigm of
the proximal demonstrative is a West Semitic innovation.
This scenario still does not account for the sound difference between East and
West Semitic in the relative base. One possible explanation, although ad hoc and
thus rather weak, is that once the new demonstrative was derived in proto-West
Semitic, it assumed an absolute form with final mimation like other demonstra-
tives (*θv̄ +m), creating an environment which caused the voiceless interdental
fricative to become voiced in partial assimilation to the final voiced nasal
(> *ðv̄ m). A possible reflection of this can be found in Sabaic, where the demon-
stratives show final nunation (ms ðn, mp. ʔln), while the relative pronouns lack
it (ms. ð, mp. ʔl). Speakers could, then, have generalized the consonant to the
relative. This proposed explanation is independent of our main point in this
paper, but if it is correct, then East Semitic reflects the original phonology,
morphology and distribution of the relative marker. Table 5 summarizes our
reconstruction.
Given how crucial typological literature on the topic has been for the
traditional view (see n. 4 above), it is necessary to comment briefly on how
our analysis interacts with typological generalizations before we move on.
Cross-linguistically, relative pronouns develop primarily from demonstratives
(e.g. Heine and Kuteva 2002: 113–5; although see Hendery 2012: ch. 2 for a
more complex picture). In addition, demonstratives are described as linguistic
primes, with almost no known historical sources (Diessel 2006). Diachronic typ-
ology is, however, not a fixed system; it is, and should be, open to revisions,
when new evidence is presented. The absolutist approach, which rejects the
reconstruction of unique phenomena, has not been adopted by most typologists;
rather, the theory is driven by accounting for all the evidence.17 In other words,

17 For example, Rijkhoff (2010: 223) argues that rare phenomena are crucial to linguistic
theories: “[r]are linguistic features should play an important role in grammatical theory,
if only because a theory that can account for both common and unusual grammatical phe-
nomena is superior to a theory that can only handle common linguistic properties”.
Rijkhoff further argues that frequency is relatively unimportant for grammatical theories
and that accounting for rare phenomena has only improved linguistic analysis and, as a
consequence, linguistic theory. The acceptance of this principle is widespread among

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THE ORIGIN OF THE SEMITIC RELATIVE MARKER 199

one should not avoid reconstructing typologically rare constructions if the evi-
dence supports such a reconstruction; likewise, we should not adhere to an
implausible analysis that lacks internal evidence simply because it is typologi-
cally common.
What is the origin of the relative marker then? It is typically described as a
pronoun and is listed among other pronominal elements in grammars of
Semitic languages. Given the syntactic behaviour of the relative marker, how-
ever, it is unlikely that it is a pronoun. Rather, the relative marker shares its syn-
tax and morphology with adjectives. In Semitic, the inflection of adjectives is
similar to that of demonstratives, as is their syntactic positioning after their
heads, but unlike demonstratives, adjectives can assume construct forms before
other elements while still functioning as adnominal modifiers. In such construc-
tions, adjectives are in apposition to their head nouns, and agree with them in all
their attributes with the notable exception of state (that is, the head is in absolute
form, unlike its modifier). This is not possible for demonstratives and other pro-
nouns. See the following examples, where the head noun is followed by a com-
plex adnominal modifier whose head, an adjective, is in construct.18

(6) Biblical Hebrew


a. ʕam qəšē ʕōrep
people.MS.ABS hard.MS.CST nape
‘a people hard of neck’ = ‘a stubborn people’ (Exodus 32: 9)
b. ʔiššā yǝpat marʔe
woman.FS.ABS beautiful.FS.CST appearance
‘a woman beautiful of appearance’ = ‘a beautiful woman’ (Genesis 12: 11)
c. ʔănāšîm mārê nepeš
people.MP.ABS bitter.MP.CST soul
‘people bitter of soul’ = ‘angry people’ (Judges 18: 25)
(7) Akkadian
a. nišū ̣
salmāt qaqqadi
people.PL black.PL.CST head.GEN
‘people black of head’ = ‘the black-headed people (humanity)’
(8) Classical Ethiopic
̣
a. bǝʔsit tabbāba lǝbb
woman wise.FEM.CST heart
‘a woman wise of heart’ = ‘a skilful woman’ (Exodus 35: 25)

typologists. Shields (2011: 566) notes that “the non-absolutist application of linguistic
typology to historical linguistics continues to predominate today”.
18 This function is attested in Egyptian as well (Allen 2014: 78), which may indicate that it
is even earlier than proto-Semitic. For example:
sḫ tj nfr mdw
peasant good.MS.CST speech
‘An eloquent peasant’, lit. ‘a peasant good of speech’ (Peas. B1, 106–7; Allen
2015: 255).

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200 J O H N H U E H N E R G A R D A N D N A‘A M A P A T - E L

We can, in fact, reconstruct to the proto-language both relative markers and


adjectives as having identical morphology and syntax, as is shown in example
9 below:

(9) Adnominal attributes:

Adjective: *ʔimm-u-m tāb-at-u


̣ yad-ayna
mother-NOM-INDEP good-FS-NOM.CST hand-PL.OBL
‘a skilful mother’
Relative: *ʔimm-um θ-āt-u nubarrik-u-sā̆
mother-NOM-INDEP rel-FS-NOM.CST bless.1CS-SUBORD-her
‘a mother whom we blessed’

Synchronically, the relative marker is semantically empty. This does not mean
that it was not originally an adjective. Lexemes may be bleached once they
become grammaticalized. Such bleached lexemes are found in several Semitic
languages, and it is usually possible to reconstruct their semantics on the
basis of cognate material.19 That is, however, not always the case; cf. the
Aramaeo-Canaanite direct object marker *ʔayāt (Hebrew ʔōt-, Syriac yāt),
whose root (√ʔyt) and pattern can be reconstructed, but not its original seman-
tics (Wilson-Wright 2016).20
The relative marker lost most or all of its inflectional morphology in all
branches that retained it. Of the modern languages that still use the original
marker – Neo-Aramaic (d/t-), Ethio-Semitic (Amharic yä-, Tigrinya zə, Harari
zi), and North African Arabic dialects (ð-) – none shows any inflection. Even
the ancient languages lost or significantly reduced the inflection of the relative
marker during their attested history. In Akkadian, for example, already Old
Babylonian and Old Assyrian show a single form, ša, whereas the demonstra-
tives did not.21 In addition, in West Semitic the associated demonstrative did
not lose its inflection.
Deutscher (2001) attempts to explain the loss of inflection on the Akkadian
relative in typological perspective. Noting the typological rarity of the
Akkadian (and Semitic) relative syntax, Deutscher claims that the case on the
relative not only fails to serve “any useful purpose”, but is also “counter-
productive” because the relative does not indicate the role of the head noun in
the relative clause (p. 408). According to Deutscher, the relative marker belongs
syntactically with the relative sentence, but its case marks it as belonging to the
main sentence. Deutscher further argues that since the relative almost always fol-
lows its head noun, the case on the relative marker is essentially redundant. The
disappearance of the inflection, Deutscher suggests, is therefore not surprising as

19 For example, Hebrew ʔăšer ‘relative marker’, which is empty semantically but has a
known etymology (*ʔaθar- ‘place’).
20 Other examples may be Hebrew terem ̣ ‘before’, a conjunction which has no known ety-
mology and only occurs in this function in Hebrew; and Arabic ʔayyā ‘direct object
marker’ whose root can be identified (√ʔyy), but not its semantics, etc.
21 Inflection of the relative marker after the Old Akkadian period occurs only in poetry, fro-
zen phrases, and other archaizing contexts.

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THE ORIGIN OF THE SEMITIC RELATIVE MARKER 201

it burdened linguistic processing; it is the rise of such a marker that requires


explanation (p. 409).
There are a number of problems with this explanation. First, in the Semitic
languages, any appositional post-nominal attribute carries morphology that
matches its head noun. The relative marker identifies as attributes constituents
that cannot carry appositional morphology, namely sentences, nouns and pre-
positional phrases (Pat-El and Treiger 2008). Since these constituents cannot
be marked morphologically as appositional, they require an external carrier of
such morphology. As (9) above shows, the relative marker behaves exactly
like an adjective, both morphologically and syntactically. Thus, the argument
that the case on the relative marker is redundant should also extend to adjectives
and demonstratives, and yet both retain their full inflection in Akkadian for over
a millennium after the relative marker lost its inflection. In fact, the inflection of
the relative is expected and regular.
Second, Deutscher argues that the relative marker and the resumptive pro-
noun are contradictory, because they reflect different case assignment. This is,
however, a problem only if we assume that the relative and the resumptive pro-
noun have the same function. But they do not: the relative marker marks the
boundary of an adnominal modifier, while the resumptive pronoun marks the
role of the head noun in the relative sentence. These functions have not changed
even in languages that lost inflection on the relative marker.
The inflectional morphology of attributive markers indicates their appos-
itional status in relation to their head noun. Given that there is another type of
relationship between head nouns and their modifier, namely construct, inflec-
tional morphology serves a rather important role. In languages where case
was lost, the difference between construct and appositional attributes sometimes
becomes blurred. For example, in Modern Arabic dialects, adjectives are some-
times marked as dependent on their head noun (see example 10). Similarly, in
Biblical Hebrew relatives are sometimes marked as dependent on their head
noun, whereas semantically they should be appositional; compare example
11a, where the head noun is construct, to example 11b where it is not.
(10) Arabic (Central Semitic)
a. bi-mayy-at il-bērdi
in-water.FS-CST DEF-cold.FS
‘In the cold water’ (Anatolian, Procházka 2002)
b. qōndar-t el-lexxi
shoe.FS-CST DEF-other.FS
‘The other shoe’ (Christian Baghdadi, Blanc 1964)
(11) Biblical Hebrew (Northwest Semitic)
a. bi-mqôm ʔăšer yihyê ššām ʔădōn-î ham-melek
in-place.CST REL be.IMPF.3MS there master-my DEF-king
‘In the place where my lord the king is’ (2Sam. 15: 21)
b. ham-māqôm ʔăšer hāyā šām ʔohŏl-ô
DEF-place.ABS REL be.PF.3MS there tent-his
‘The place where his tent was’ (Gen. 13: 3)
We suggest that the Akkadian relative marker lost inflection not as a result of
cognitive processing, but rather because of internal changes in Akkadian

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202 J O H N H U E H N E R G A R D A N D N A‘A M A P A T - E L

phonology. In proto-Semitic, construct forms were fully declined (as they are in
Classical Arabic and in Ugaritic, for example). In Old Akkadian, construct forms
are still partly declined: nom.-acc. ḫ arrān sarrim vs. gen. ʔin ḫ arrāni sarrim
‘(in) the king’s road’. In Akkadian, after the Old Akkadian period, the general
loss of final short vowels left most construct forms unmarked for case; that is,
proto-Akkadian *ḫ arrānu/i/a sarrim ‘king’s road’ became ḫ arrān šarrim for
all three cases. In words that had final long vowels in the construct, such as
*ʔabū/ī/ā sarrim ‘king’s father’, one of the forms was generalized for all
three cases, as in abī šarrim. The relative marker, also a construct form, under-
went the same process of generalization, resulting in the single form ša (origin-
ally *θā). It is this same process of generalization, following the general loss of
case vowels, that results, for example, in the single form *ðī > dī for the relative
marker in Aramaic, and *ðū > zû in Hebrew (originally the genitive and the
nominative, respectively, vs. the accusative ša in Akkadian). In short both the
rise and fall of the relative marker’s inflection and agreement pattern are typical
of Semitic and indeed attested in the family.

Summary and conclusions


The hypothesis that the Semitic relative is derived from the demonstrative pro-
noun has been taken as a fact by most Semitists. In this paper we have attempted
to show that there is no evidence that the direction of borrowing is from demon-
strative to relative; in fact, the reverse is much more likely. Given that East
Semitic has no evidence of a demonstrative with initial interdental, but only a
relative marker, and given the distributionally distinct syntax of the relative
marker and demonstrative, it seems more likely that the relative marker is
proto-Semitic, while the demonstrative should only be reconstructed to
proto-West Semitic. The evidence, we argue, also aligns well with an original
three-way demonstrative system: proximal, remote and distal, a system that
was simplified to varying degrees in all attested branches. We have outlined a
possible explanation for the typical West Semitic mixed proximal demonstrative
paradigm, and the Arabian Sprachbund relative mixed paradigm. Finally, we
have suggested a scenario to account for the difference in voicing between
East Semitic and West Semitic, which can only work if we assume that West
Semitic derived its demonstrative from the relative, but not vice versa.

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