Wh-relatives in the history of German (and what gender’s got to do with it)

  • Eric Fuß Ruhr-Universität Bochum


This paper investigates the historical development of (headed) wh-relatives in German, focusing on the neuter singular form was ‘what’. It is shown that similar to other Germanic languages, wh-elements first appeared in (generalizing/unconditional) free relative clauses before they spread to headed relative clauses. The latter change took place in the 16thcentury, when the neuter singular form das was rapidly replaced by was in connection with indefinite antecedents such as ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’, eventually leading to the distribution still found in the present-day language. Prior to this transition, there existed an intermediate system attested in the writings of Luther where the distribution of the variants was governed by semantic properties (more precisely, was was used in [–def] contexts, while das appeared in all other contexts). Based on this finding the paper argues that the rise of headed wh-relatives introduced by was ‘what’ was linked to a set of changes that blurred the original semantic motivation behind the distribution of d- and wh-forms in relative clauses (linked to definiteness), which paved the way for a reanalysis in which the alternation between das and was was attributed to the presence/absence of valued gender features on Drel (cf. Brandt & Fuß 2018 on present-day German).