Relative Pronouns

Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses. In modern English, ‘who’, ‘that’, and ‘which’ are relative pronouns, but in Old English relative pronouns can be identified by the relative particle, ‘þe’. The word ‘þe’ does not decline the way pronouns do, but it is often combined with a ‘the/that' demonstrative like ‘seo’, ‘þone’, or ‘þa’ to indicate the gender, number and case of the related noun. This will be explained in more detail later, however, to understand how relative pronouns work it is first necessary to understand a little bit more about syntax, or how sentences are constructed.

A clause is a term used to describe part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb. For example, Alfred went, is a clause. Additional information is added to the clause to form either an independent clause, which can stand as a sentence by itself, or a dependant clause which can't be considered a sentence alone.

Alfred went to the monastery
Independent Clause
because the abbot wanted to see him
Dependent Clause

Another useful term to know is antecedent. This is a word, phrase, clause, or sentence that gives meaning to a word later in the sentence. For example in the sentence, Alfred went to the monastery because the abbot wanted to see him, the word 'him' does not make sense without 'Alfred', so Alfred is the antecedent.

A relative clause is a dependant clause that contains an element that requires an antecendent to explain it. This is where relative pronouns come in. For example, in the sentence - the king, who was English, went to the monastery - the section 'who was English' is the relative clause and 'who' is the relative pronoun. 'The king' is the antecendent which the relative pronoun refers back to.

He is the king
Antecedent
whom
Relative Pronoun
the priests saw
Relative Clause

He is se cyning
Antecedent
se þe
Relative Pronoun
þa preostas gesawon
Relative Clause

Relative pronouns in Old English are usually constructed by combining a 'the' demonstrative pronoun with 'þe'. Which demonstrative 'þe' is used with depends on the antecedent for the relative clause. In the previous sentence, a masculine subject ('se cyning') was used, so the relative pronoun was 'se þe'. If the relative pronoun was tied to the direct object, 'þone þe' would be used. The sentence below looks at first like it should be translated as 'Abel who killed Cain, his brother', but the relative pronoun tells us the relative clause belongs to 'Cain', not 'Abel', so a more accurate translation would be 'Abel whom Cain his brother killed' or 'Abel who was killed by his brother Cain'.

Abel
Subject
þone þe
Relative Pronoun
ofsloh
Verb
Cain
Antecedent
his broþor
Relative Clause

However, 'þe' can appear without any demonstrative and a lone demonstrative can sometimes be translated as a relative pronoun even without 'þe'. So the three sentences below are all perfectly valid ways of writing 'The emperor who was called Claudius'.

Se casere
Antecedent
 
se þe
Relative
Pronoun
wæs Claudius haten
Relative
Clause

Se casere
Antecedent
 
þe
Relative
Pronoun
wæs Claudius haten
Relative
Clause

Se casere
Antecedent
 
se
Relative
Pronoun
wæs Claudius haten
Relative
Clause

A general rule for when 'þe' is used is as follows. When 'þe' alone is used, it is distinguishing one particular noun from a collection of other nouns. When a 'the/that' demonstrative like 'se' is used with or without 'þe', it is adding a descriptive detail to a noun already sufficiently defined. It is not uncommon for both uses to be present in a single long sentence, but this distinction will generally be self-evident.

The full declension for relative pronouns can be seen below.

Relative Pronouns
Masculine Neuter
Nominative se þe þæt þe
Accusative þone þe þæt þe
Genitive þæs þe þæs þe
Dative þæm þe þæm þe
Feminine Plural
Nominative seo þe þa þe
Accusative þa þe þa þe
Genitive þære þe þara þe
Dative þære þe þæm þe

If you see the phrase 'for þam þe', this is not a relative pronoun but the conjunction 'because'. Other forms you might see are 'for þam' and 'þam þe'.

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