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Form and interpretation of the free relative pronoun

Free relative pronouns are insensitive to grammatical gender. The common pronoun refers to persons and the neuter pronoun refers to non-persons.


The ordinary relative pronoun is sensitive to the grammatical gender of the antecedent. Dy't who is used with antecedents of common gender, and dat which is used with antecedents of neuter gender. Free relatives are different, since the relative pronoun must refer on its own. Dy't who is used in free relatives to refer to persons, and what what is used to refer to non-persons. Dy't who is homophonous with the topic pronoun and to the demonstrative pronoun. Its non-personal counterpart dat that cannot be used to head a free a relative:

Example 1

*Dat ik wit, befalt my net
that I know pleases me not
What I know does not please me

Instead, wat what must be used, as shown below:

Example 2

Wat ik wit, befalt my net
what I know pleases me not
What I know does not please me

Wat what is homophonous with the question word used in main and embedded questions. The personal counterpart of what what is wa who. Wa who can also be used to introduce free relatives:

Example 3

Wa't it wit, mei it sizze
who it knows may it say
Who knows it may say it

So there appears to be competition between wa't and dy't in free relatives. There is no such competition in ordinary relatives, which are headed by dy't only. The competition between wa't and dy't is a recent phenomenon. In older Frisian, free relatives are headed by dy't. The rise of wa't in free relatives may be due to interference from Dutch, although it is unclear why interference targeted this particular aspect of Frisian grammar while having left so many other aspects of Frisian grammar untouched.