Chapter Relativization Strategies

by Bernard Comrie and Tania Kuteva

Please note: This is an introduction to Chapters 122 (Relativization on Subjects) and 123 (Relativization on Obliques).

1. Introduction

A relative clause is a clause narrowing the potential reference of a referring expression by restricting the reference to those referents of which a particular proposition is true. Thus, along with the main clause I teach the girl…, the English sentence in (1) contains a relative clause, who just greeted us, which narrows the potential reference of the referring expression, the girl — called the head noun — to only referents of which the proposition (the girl) just greeted us is true.


I teach the girl who just greeted us.


The relative clause and its head noun form the relative construction. For the present map, we have not taken into account relative clauses which have no head noun (like English what you don´t know). Languages use different strategies to encode the relative construction; we will refer to these as relativizing strategies.

There are different perspectives from which relativizing strategies can be studied. Thus, from the point of view of the linear order of the head noun and the relative clause, we can distinguish prenominal, postnominal, and circumnominal embedded relative clauses as well as preposed, postposed, and adjoined relative clauses (Lehmann 1984; and see Chapter 90). Another possible perspective involves the global cognitive mechanisms underlying relativizing strategies on a language-universal level; from this perspective we can distinguish two global strategies, combining and inserting (Kibrik 1992).

For the purposes of the present study, we classify our sample languages according to the mechanisms by which the language in question expresses the syntactic-semantic role of the head noun in the relative clause, whereby we consider only formally expressed morphosyntactic means. In (1), for instance, the head noun serves as subject of the relative clause, and this is marked in English by use of the nominative relative pronoun who.

Languages may employ different morphosyntactic (as well as suprasegmental) means, that is, different relativizing strategies, for different syntactic-semantic roles of the head noun. In the English sentence in (1), the head noun has the subject role, and it is relativized by means of a relative pronoun. If the same head noun, the girl, has the role of the object, one of the ways in which it may be relativized is by not using any morphosyntactic (and/or suprasegmental) element at all, i.e. by means of a “gap” (see Chapters 122 and 123), as in (2):


the girl we saw yesterday


This latter possibility does not exist when the role of the head is subject; hence (3) is ungrammatical in (standard) English.


*The girl [just greeted us] is a student of mine.


Since many languages use different strategies for relativizing on different roles, we distinguish between relativization on subjects and relativization on obliques. Map 122A shows what strategies the languages of the world use to relativize on the subject.

For Map 123A, we take into consideration the relativizing strategies the languages of the world employ with obliques, whereby we take the instrumental to be the prototypical case of obliques. In languages where we have no ready access to information about relativization on instrumentals, we consider other, comparable constructions: the comitative, the indirect object, the benefactive, the locative, etc. but not the possessive or the temporal.

Note that the head noun may have different roles in the main clause and in the relative clause. Thus in the English sentence in (4), the head noun the girl functions as the object of the main clause, and the subject of the relative clause.


I like the girl who greeted us yesterday.


For the purposes of both Map 122A and Map 123A, the role relevant to our classification is the one the head noun has within the relative clause. Accordingly, the example in (4) is an example of relativizing on the subject, since the head noun the girl functions as the subject of the relative clause.

The present classification is based on the assumption that all natural languages can relativize on subjects; hence, we are including multi-purpose clauses like those in the Diyari (Pama-Nyungan; South Australia) example (5) which have several other functions apart from the function of relativization. Diyari has no specific subordination construction whose sole, or even prototypical, function is to encode a relative clause. It uses, instead, a general, unified modifying construction which – depending on context – may be interpreted as either a subordinate temporal, conditional or relative clause, as in (5).

(5) Diyari (Austin 1981: 209) 


















‘If/when/after they make/made the nest, they put the rain stone in it.’ 

‘Having made the nest, they put the rain stone in it.’ 

‘They who make/made the nest put the rain stone in it.’ 

‘They put the rain stone in the nest they make/made.’ 


Instead of regarding languages such as Diyari as irrelevant to relativizing strategies, in the present classification we treat them as languages using a gap in relativizing on the subject role.