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  1. Because OED's entries for this archaic definite article + relative pronoun 'the which' only redirect to definitions of 'which', am I correct to infer that 'the' meant nothing semantically in 'the which' and so 'the which' was only the earlier version of 'which'?

I am unsure because cognates of 'the which' remain in Romance languages and do differ from 'which'. For instance, 'que' differs from: (all in one word) « le(s)/la + quel(le)(s)» in French, and (as two words) « el/lo/los/la/las/lo + que ».

The latter two are really cognates by Grimm's Law; the 'q' in Latin (phoneme [kʷ]) turned into 't' in Germanic languages like English (phoneme [xʷ]).

  1. What factors or reasons might have caused 'the which' to vanish?
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  • You say that Latin 'q' is related to Germanic 't' but I suspect you mean that 'q' is related to Germanic 'hw'/'wh' (since [xʷ] seems much more likely to be spelled as 'hw' than as 't'!). Is that correct?
    – phoog
    May 3, 2016 at 20:18
  • Although I have tried to answer, this might be a question for Linguistics SE: linguistics.stackexchange.com
    – DyingIsFun
    May 3, 2016 at 21:06
  • @Silenus Thanks. See linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/17505/5306
    – user50720
    May 4, 2016 at 2:53
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    @TimRomano I think that's a bit harsh. Many linguists have access to OED and it's better to provide the link than not to. Besides which the OP has already explained that the which just links to which - and presumably you don't need a dictionary entry for which! May 12, 2016 at 8:09
  • @TimRomano What did you wish me to cite?
    – user50720
    May 14, 2016 at 1:01

4 Answers 4

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I don't have strong opinions on this question, but here are some reasons you might think that "the", as it occurs in "the which", is semantically empty (that is, meaningless).

In prima facie support of this position, just consider that there are no plausible candidates for what 'the' could mean in these types of constructions (at least that I can think of).

Next, consider that the existence of semantically empty expressions is independently motivated. They are called syntactic expletives.

Some (for example, Haegeman) have argued that all syntactic expletives must occur in noun phrase positions (like the 'it' in 'it is raining'), thus ruling out that 'the' could be a syntactic expletive. But this is clearly not true given examples from Ancient Greek where the English equivalent of sentences like "The brown dog barks" would be "The brown the dog barks". In such examples, the second 'the' clearly serves no semantic purpose (it probably fulfills a syntactic role relating to case marking and/or signalling that 'brown' modifies 'dog', which would be important in sentences that contain more than one noun).

Further, some languages exhibit the phenomenon of preproprial definite articles (that is, in these languages definite articles necessarily or optionally precede names). Some linguists (Longobardi, for example) believe that such articles before names are semantically empty.

Further, there are even places in English where definite articles are, arguably, semantically empty. For example, some have argued that in expressions like 'The Nile' and 'The Atlantic', the definite article is semantically empty.

Given that 'the' appears semantically empty elsewhere, it certainly could appear empty in 'the which'.

Lastly, consider that as case marking disappears from a language, definite articles tend to appear (according to Hewson). If old English or its ancestor had case marking of relative pronouns like 'which', and these case markings were disappearing, 'the' might appear in a transitional phase. But that's probably a question for the linguistics SE.

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  • German has Der braune, der Hund though rarely and only as a determiner, thus that dog that brown [one], where one is roughly serving the purpose of morphemic -e in German (and if you compare yung'uns, which sounds a lot like young ones, but is probably closer to Low German Jungens, if that made a difference anyhow, then one almost appears morphemic). So translating two times the may be misleading. Also possibly as big as leading to big ass car is a funny one. I'm not sure whether you are refering to ancient or modern greek, ke or ton or what.
    – vectory
    Jun 5, 2019 at 14:22
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I can assure you that this construct, the which is still in use in Scotland (along with other constructs seldom heard outwith our fair land), is not yet dead! It is, however, on life support.

Ich glaube, dass die deutsche Sprache ein ähnliches grammatikalisches Konstrukt hat, der welche bisher definitiv noch nicht tot ist.

I've noticed that some aspects of auld Scots grammar tend to favour the Saxon side of its Anglo-Saxon roots.

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  • An interesting comment, but it is not an answer to the question, which asks about the meaning of "the" in "the which".
    – Greybeard
    Aug 26, 2022 at 16:43
  • Very well. The use of 'which' alone forms a relative clause, but adding 'the' transforms 'the which' into a resumptive pronoun. Aug 26, 2022 at 18:01
  • Then you should add that to the answer with an reference to an authority, and a published example, otherwise your "answer" will be removed.
    – Greybeard
    Aug 27, 2022 at 10:03
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The OP gives no sentence as an example and gives no indication of what function "which" is performing (pronoun or adjective).

I am not willing to guess what the OP means and this answer assumes an adjectival function only.

In the now (all but) obsolete "the which", the function of the words are the (determiner and demonstrative adjective) and which (adjective)

The which has existed since the 14th century and only became rare after the 17th century, but there are late examples - see below 1824/1861

a1824 Lord Byron Works. (1842) 193/1 Finished copying August..1820; the which copying makes ten times the toil of composing.

the which copying = the copying of which

1861 D. G. Rossetti tr. Dante Vita Nuova in Early Ital. Poets ii. 297 Of the which thing I bethought me to speak unto her.

Of the which thing = of the matter of which.

In all cases, "the" has its usual meaning/function - to specify an object.

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I would have dismissed 'the which' right away previously, and I didn't know it was ever a proper usage, but now that you mention it, I can see a case for its existence at some time.

In a way it would be very similar to saying The second one from the left. Or The next of the kins. Here, the first the is clearly redundant, though will be considered correct English.

I think redundancy must have seen the end of that 'the' . Which is much more common than any of the others I've mentioned above

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