In linguistics (especially generative grammar), a complementizer (or complementiser) is a syntactic category (part of speech) roughly equivalent to the term subordinating conjunction in traditional grammar. For example, the word that is generally called a complementizer in English sentences like Mary believes that it is raining. The term "complementizer" was apparently first used by Rosenbaum (1967).

The standard abbreviation for complementizer is C. The complementizer is widely held to be the syntactic head of a full clause, which is therefore often represented by the abbreviation CP (for complementizer phrase). Evidence that the complementizer functions as the head of its clause includes the fact that it is commonly the last element in a clause in languages like Korean or Japanese, in which other heads follow their complements, and always first in "head-initial" languages such as English.

It is common for the complementizers of a language to develop historically from other syntactic categories (a process known as grammaticalization). Across the languages of the world, it is especially common for determiners to be used as complementizers (e.g., English that). Another frequent source of complementizers is the class of interrogative words. It is especially common for a form that otherwise means what to be borrowed as a complementizer, but other interrogative words are often used as well; e.g., colloquial English I read in the paper how it's going to be cold today, with unstressed how roughly equivalent to that). English for in sentences like I would prefer for there to be a table in the corner shows a preposition that has arguably developed into a complementizer. (The sequence for there in this sentence is not a prepositional phrase under this analysis.) In many languages of West Africa and South Asia, the form of the complementizer can be related to the verb say. In these languages, the complementizer is also called the quotative. The quotative performs many extended functions in these languages.


Empty complementizers

Some analyses allow for the possibility of invisible or "empty" complementizers. An empty complementizer is a hypothetical phonologically null category with a function parallel to that of visible complementizers such as that and for. Its existence in English has been proposed based on the following type of alternation:

He hopes you go ahead with the speech
He hopes that you go ahead with the speech

Because that can be inserted between the verb and the embedded clause, the original sentence without a visible complementizer would be reanalyzed as

He hopes øC you go ahead with the speech

This suggests another interpretation of the earlier "how" sentence:

I read in the paper <how> øC [it's going to be cold today]

where "how" serves as a specifier to the empty complementizer. This allows for a consistent analysis of another troublesome alternation:

The man <whom> øC [I saw yesterday] ate my lunch!
The man <OP> øC [I saw yesterday] ate my lunch!
The man <OP> that [I saw yesterday] ate my lunch!

where "OP" represents an invisible interrogative known as an operator.

In a more general sense, the proposed empty complementizer parallels the suggestion of near-universal empty determiners.

Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese do not have complementizers at all.

Origin of complementizers in various languages

Modern Hebrew

"The Hebrew complementizer she- [ʃe] ‘that’ can be traced back to the Ancient Hebrew complementizer she- ‘that’, which derives from the Hebrew relativizer she- ‘that’. There is no consensus about the origin of the latter. It might be a shortened form of the Ancient Hebrew relativizer ‘asher ‘that’, which is related to Akkadian ‘ashru ‘place’ (cf. Semitic *‘athar). [...] Alternatively, Ancient Hebrew ‘asher derived from she-, or it was a convergence of Proto-Semitic dhu (cf. Aramaic ) and ‘asher. The Hebrew relativizer ‘ashér is the origin of the Modern Hebrew relativizer ashér ‘that’, which is much less common than the Modern Hebrew relativizer she- ‘that’. Whereas Modern Hebrew she- functions both as complementizer and relativizer, ashér can only function as a relativizer."[1]

Instead of using the she- complementizer, an Israeli formal writer could use the rare complementizer ki ‘that’, which derives from the Ancient Hebrew complementizer ‘that’, from ‘because’. [...] As opposed to she- [...] ki should be categorized as a prescriptive complementizer merely. That said, some French-speaking immigrants to Israel use the complemetizer ki less rarely than other Israelis because of the incidental phonetic similarity to the French complementizer que ‘that’"[2] - cf. phono-semantic matching.

See also


  1. ^ p. 79 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006), "Complement Clause Types in Israeli", Complementation: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, edited by R. M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 72-92 (Chapter 3).
  2. ^ p. 81 of Zuckermann, Ghil'ad
  • Rosenbaum, Peter S. (1967). The grammar of English predicate complement constructions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 
  • Legate, Julie Anne. (2010). On how how is used instead of that. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 28:121-134.

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