In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Existential Wh-Constructions

  • Introduction
  • Existential Free Relatives

Linguistics Existential Wh-Constructions
Radek Šimík
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0162


Existential wh-constructions are wh-constructions that have a nominal distribution, an existential (indefinite) meaning, and the superficial appearance of a “bare” wh-clause. They come in two main subtypes—existential free relatives and modal existential wh-constructions—with opinions divided as to how these types are related to each other and whether the latter should be subsumed under the former. An example of an existential free relative is the bracketed part of the Chuj (Mayan) sentence Ay [mach lanin yilani] (literally, Exists [who is me watching], “There is somebody who is watching me,” from Kotek and Erlewine 2016, cited under Existential Free Relatives); an example of a modal existential wh-construction is the bracketed part of the Spanish sentence Tengo [con quien hablar] (literally, I.have [with whom to.speak], “There is somebody I can speak with”). Besides these main types, a number of other wh-constructions have been argued to have an existential interpretation, including transparent free relatives and standard free relatives. Existential wh-constructions have been studied for their intriguing morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties, which include, at least in some cases, a limited syntactic distribution, their unclear categorial status and syntactic size, the mood of their main predicate, and the modality they express. Existential wh-constructions have sparked a controversy concerning their relation to similar constructions, especially embedded wh-questions, headed relatives, and standard free relatives. Existential wh-constructions are generally found in languages that also have standard free relatives, although there are some notable gaps. Most Germanic languages, for instance, have standard free relatives, but they lack existential wh-constructions altogether; many languages of the broader European region (Slavic, Finno-Ugric, Semitic) have standard free relatives and modal existential wh-constructions, but no existential free relatives; finally, some of the Mesoamerican languages that have been investigated (especially Mayan) have standard and existential free relatives but no modal existential wh-constructions.

Modal Existential Wh-Constructions

The modal existential wh-construction is by far the most studied and arguably also the cross-linguistically most common type of existential wh-construction. While standard reference or overview works are still missing, there are a number of studies that have had the biggest impact since the late 1990s and that provide a good introduction to the topic; see Basic References on Modal Existential Wh-Constructions. The rest of the section includes references on the Syntax of Modal Existential Wh-Constructions and Semantics of Modal Existential Wh-Constructions, and closes by zooming in on Modal Existential Wh-Constructions in Particular Languages—a subsection that is further divided according to language families.

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