There are four main wh-relative pronouns in English, which, who, whom and whose. The word that sometimes is considered as a relative pronoun but in some other cases as a demonstrative pronoun. Another relative pronoun is considered to be the zero relativization. Biber et al. (1999: 609-618) cited in Leech et al. 2009 states that these three different devices of relativization are related with different text styles. The wh-pronouns are tending to be used in more formal texts whereas the that and zero relativizations are described as more colloquial. 'In conversation, that is the most frequent relativizer, followed by 13 zero, whereas in the more formal and information-packed registers of Press 14 and Academic Writing, the wh- relatives are by far the most common type'. (Biber et al. (1999: 609-12) cited in Leech et al. 2009.
Christian Mair (2006: 85) states that the relative pronoun whom in the Early Modern English period was tend to be used optionally. However, later it became an obligatory formal style marker and used after a preposition. Leech et al (2009: 6) agrees and also mentions that speakers and writers who use whom followed by a preposition are because they want to sound stylish and formal. Mair (2006: 85) also points out that the pronoun whom in English grammar is declining. However, it is used as a style marker. She also suggests that the group of speakers who are fourteen years old and under do not make use of the word whom at all. Some speakers from lower-class might use it while they are reading a text. In current English, the pronoun is also used in informal styles.
On the other hand, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the relative who tends to be frequent in natural colloquial speech, reversely with whom which is no longer used in informal spoken English. Barber (1964: 130-131) also mentions that the reason of the decline of the relative pronoun whom in oral language, although it is still in use in writing, is because the pronoun who became the substitute for whom. According to Barber (2009: 181) if a relative pronoun which is the subject of the relative clause it is not included in a Middle English sentence, it is considered to be normal. Conversely in Present Day English this is very unusual and extraordinary.
According to the frequencies of wh-relatives, Leech et al. (2009: 228) mentions that in American English in 1961 the percentage is 68% whereas in 1991 is 54%. In British English in 1961 is 74% and slightly decrease to 70% in 1991. In the LOB learned texts which are described as formal and informative language, the proportion is 84%. On the other hand, in fiction, this is considered to be the language more similar to conversation the percentage is 53%.
In relation to wh-relatives in American and British English, Leech et al(2009: 228-229) state that noticeably the pronouns are more rare in American English than in British. Nevertheless, both in American and British English, relatives are decreasing sharply. The decrease in American and British English can be described as double since in 1961 the pronouns were 15.5% less common in American than in British and by 1991 the ratio doubled to 30.0%. A noteworthy difference is the relative pronoun which, which declined 34.9% in American whereas in British English only 9.5%. Conversely, in American English the pronouns who and whom rise. The uncommon whom unexpectedly went from 144 to 166 occurrences whereas who has a little raise. In contrast, in British English the four relative pronouns who, whom, which and whose has dropped 4.2%, 20.0%, 9.5% and 17.0% respectively.
The query that I used to search the corpora for the relative pronouns who, whom, which and whose is (who_PNQS|whom_PNQO|which_DDQ|whose_DDQGE). I used this query in order to find some general results about the wh-relative pronouns. The POS-tag PNQS refers to the relative pronoun who, the PNQO to the pronoun whom, DDQ to the pronoun which and DDQGE refers to the relative whose. The underscore character is used to connect the word to its POS-tag. The brackets and the perpendicular lines which separate the relative pronouns, means all cases of either who, whom, which or whose. I also used the queries (who_PNQS|whom_PNQO) and (which_DDQ|whose_DDQGE) in order to compare the results of who with whom and which with whose.
According to the search in the Brown family of corpora, in written British English, all wh-relative pronouns from 1931 to 2006 seem to declining. In 1931 the frequency of the relative pronouns is up to 8531 hits, in 1961 there is a little drop to 7222 hits, in 1991 the frequency hits become 6688 and finally in 2006 the frequency is 5147 hits. The rate of change of wh-relative pronouns from 1931 to 1961 is -13,8%, from 1961 to 1991 is -7,5% and between 1991 and 2006 is calculated -23,3%. The overall rate of change from 1931 to 2006 is…… Thus, we can observe that there is a steady decrease between each period.
The relative which, which is the most frequent pronoun in the Written British English in each time, shows a tiny decrease from period to period, whereas the relative pronoun who indicates a little rise between the periods. From 1931 to 1961 there is an insignificant increase of the relative whom. Then, until 2006 the pronoun shows minute decreases in each period. The same happens with the relative pronoun whose.
In American English, the pronoun who has increased form 1961 to 1991 with the proportions of 36.54% and 46.72% respectively. Thus, we can notice the important difference of the frequency of who in 1991 between British and American English. On the other hand, which, has decreased from 57.08% to 44.94%. Therefore, this wh-relative is more common in British English. Both pronouns whom and whose has slightly increased in American English form 1961 to 1991. In 1961 whom and whose, seem to be more common in British English whereas in 1991 they are more frequent in American.
According to the genres in British English, from 1931 to 2006, Learned Writing which is in the category of formal and informative languages has shown the most significant change with the proportion of -57,5%. After that, comes the fiction texts changing with the ratio of 50,5%. Then we observe the General Prose with the percentage of 48,8% and follows the Press with the proportion of 44,1%.
From 1961 to 1991, in American English the rate of change in Learned Writing, is calculated to -26,1% whereas in British it is only a percentage of 1,4%. Consequently, we notice a significant difference of this informative and formal language between the two regions. Another remarkable difference between British and American English, is the General Prose genre, which estimates a proportion of -9,2% change in British whereas the ratio of change in American is -19,3%.
In contrast with Mair and the corpus results about the relative pronoun whom, the findings are similar, the pronoun is declining. In LOB the proportion of frequency is only 3,03%, in 1991 it has declined to 2,65% and in 2006 it became 2,1%. The percentages of which are very small, especially if we compare them with the proportions of the other wh-relative pronouns. Another connection of the commentators sayings with the corpus outcomes is the fact that the pronoun who within the years it replaces the pronoun whom. We can note this by the increasing of the pronoun who whereas whom is seem to declining.
In relation to the frequencies of the relative pronouns in American English, according to the corpus findings, the only pronoun that has decreased from 1961 to 1991 is the wh-relative which. The other three pronouns showed a slight increase. The British English frequencies, except from the pronoun which that showed a very tiny decrease, the other three pronouns have demonstrated a small increase. Thus, here there is a difference of the commentators sayings with findings of the corpus.
In accordance with the corpus results and the commentators sayings, relative pronouns are indeed more common in British than in American English. The total proportion of frequency in British English in 1961 is 7222 hits whereas in American is 6239 hits. Also, in 1991 the British frequency ratio is 6688 contrary to 5156 hits in American English. Another similarity of the corpus findings and the commentators words, is that the wh-relative which has showed a significant decrease in American English in contrast to the slight decline in British English.
Some of the factors that promote language changes are colloquialization, Americanization, democratization, globalization, prescriptivism and more others. However, the main causes of the decreasing of wh-relatives are colloquialization and Americanization.
Svartvik and Leech (2006: 206) state that the term colloquialization refers to the transition of written grammar. They point out that writing turns into speech, thus written language becomes unofficial and colloquial. Leech et al. (2009: 239) also describes colloquialization like 'writing becoming more like speech'. They also mention that it is considered to be a very important reason for the alteration of the wh-relative pronouns. In contrast, Leech et al. (2009: 244) refer to the increase of the informal that and zero relative pronouns. For example that is replacing the wh-relative which. As these relativizers are tend to be more frequent in speech, they will become more common in writing too. In this way writing becomes informal and colloquial.
Another important factor that leads to the change of language grammar, in particular of wh-relative pronouns is Americanization, which means 'the use of grammar in other countries (such as the UK) is tending to follow the US usage' (cited in Svartvik and Leech, 2006: 206). According to Leech et al. (2009: 253) Americanization has several patterns. The one that is related with the wh-relative pronouns is the Follow-my-leader pattern. It refers to one which follows the other in the same direction. In other words one is the leader and the other is the follower. In this case, American English is considered to be the leader in the decreasing of the frequency of the wh-relative pronouns. For example, as Svartvik and Leech (2006: 210) mention, the decrease of the wh-relative pronouns and the raise of that and zero relativizers is believed to be a Follow-my-leader pattern, where American English is the leader. This shows that American English is leaning towards colloquialization more than British English. As Leech et al. mention Americanization and colloquialization are linked with each other.
This essay, examined the changes of wh-relative pronouns through computer corpora. To sum up, wh-relative pronouns are tend to be more formal than that and zero relativizers. Nevertheless, from 1931 to 2006 all wh-relatives are decreasing in British English. the same happens in American English where the decline seems more sharply. However, wh-relative pronouns are more infrequent in American than in British English. Another important point is the tendency of the declining of the formal relative whom and its replacement with the informal, colloquial who. The main causes of these changes are colloquialization and Americanization. These are the reasons of why some relative pronouns are decreasing, some increasing or become formal and others informal. Aitchison (2001: 4) points out that in a world where everything changes it would be odd if language was unchangeable.