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 '16 at 20:18
  • -1. The OED link is available only to subscribers. – TRomano May 3 '16 at 21:00
  • Although I have tried to answer, this might be a question for Linguistics SE: linguistics.stackexchange.com – GoldenGremlin May 3 '16 at 21:06
  • @Silenus Thanks. See linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/17505/5306 – Accounting May 4 '16 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! – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 12 '16 at 8:09

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 '19 at 14:22

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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Someone questioned my use of "the which" in my statement of mission: "To create a culture of wellness in "the which" one is able to achieve one's highest and best potential". Thank you for clearing the question for me.

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  • Welcome to English Language & Usage! Please don't add "thanks" as answers. Invest some time in the site and you will gain sufficient privileges to upvote answers you like, which is the English Language & Usage way of saying thank you. – Glorfindel Jul 12 '18 at 20:32

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