One of the lexical similarities between reconstructed Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Uralic is in the interrogative and relative pronouns. For the former, in PIE there's a family of interrogatives beginning *kw-, e.g. Latin quis 'who?', quo 'whither?', while on the Uralic side there is e.g. Finnish ku-ka 'who?'. For the relative, there's PIE *yo-, giving e.g. Greek hos '(he) who', while Uralic shows e.g. Finnish jo-ka 'who'.

Proponents of the Indo-Uralic hypothesis see these as cognates; opponents see them as borrowings from IE into Uralic. It seems bizarre that such items could be borrowed, but stranger things have happened... Or have they? Are there any attested cases of a language borrowing an interrogative or relative pronoun?

5 Answers 5


In general, anything can be borrowed, given intensive and prolonged language contact (Thomason 2001: 63)

Borrowed relative pronouns (sources didn't mention examples):

After a brief search, I couldn't find any examples of borrowed interrogative pronouns, but I'm sure there must be some out there.

  • 1
    Some have proposed that Kannada (a Dravidian language) "yava" as an interrogative adjective meaning "which" was borrowed from the Sanskrit "yavant" at a very early stage of the language. This hasn't been proven, but it's a possibility.
    – user67444
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 22:15

Turkish borrowed "ki" from Farsi. Among other uses, it's a general purpose relative pronoun akin to English "that". It's interesting because Turkish doesn't have native relative pronouns; ordinarily, it uses a different strategy for forming relative clauses, which consists of converting the relative clause into a participal construction. "ki" is a more stylistically marked way of doing it. Perhaps for this reason, "ki" is traditionally analyzed as a conjunction in Turkish grammars.

Also note that Turkish borrowed such essential words as "and" ("ve", from Arabic) and "fire" ("ateş", from Farsi).

  • Speaking of Turkish, the government pushed through many reforms in the 1920s and 1930s, to cleanse it of Arabic. Some of their inventions were arbitrary. (For example okul is supposedly from Turkic but it seems like French ecole but with vowel harmony.) People can invent or borrow anything. Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 13:30

Borrowings like that happen quite often between related languages (in cases of diglossia). For example, Russian language borrowed several interrogative/relative pronouns from Old Church Slavonic (a Slavic language, too), although now most of them are out of use (regarded as archaic). Some basic words were also borrowed from Polish (for example, jesli "if", despite having several native words for it: ače, koli etc.)


Well, I suppose that in English we do say things like “quiddity” or “being qua being”, at least if we are using the language of Scholastic philosophy.

  • 4
    And they, them, their are borrowings from Old Norse. But none of these is an interrogative or relative. Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 14:02
  • quid is interrogative.
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 14:18
  • 3
    But quidditas is a noun. Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 14:23
  • A borrowing is a borrowing. One need not borrow the grammatical use as well as the word; for one thing it's inevitable that the grammatical use of pronouns of any sort will be different in general and in detail, in different languages.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 15:19
  • 4
    Quiddity is certainly not the kind of thing I'm asking about; it's a noun borrowed as a noun, not to mention being hardly ever used outside of certain rarefied registers.
    – TKR
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 16:55

Tuvan, a Turkic language, borrowed the Mongolic word for 'what'.

  • Can you present any evidence for this?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 0:11
  • 2
    What is the phonological form of this word? In Mongolian? In Tuvan? Is there anything that distinguishes the way that Tuvan uses this loanword from the way in which it is used in the original Mongolian? If so, what? Is there a link to a source for your information? Does this source have examples from Mongolian and Tuvan? // These questions are meant to suggest that you should expand your answer. Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 0:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.