Ce qui, ce que—in Middle French

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Senior Member
English, U.S.
Is there someone on this forum who can help me with a question about the "free" relative pronoun(s) in Middle French?
Free relative is one of several names given to the non-interrogative "what", as in
"what you said is true" (modern "Ce que vous avez dit, c'est vrai") or
"that which concerns us" (modern "ce qui nous concerne").
(Stop me if my French is wrong.)

I understand that Modern French has "ce qui" to act as a subject, and "ce que" as a direct object.

My question: Is this expressed differently in the 15th century?

My reason for asking is hard to explain concisely.
I'm researching "Que sera sera" (spelled in "Spanish" like this, or in "Italian" as "Che sara sara"—
usually with no accents in an English context).
One (rare) variant is "Qui sera sera", which has a French look to it (but I suspect it is ungrammatical in French);
and a variant of this ("Quy serra serra") appears in an English manuscript dated in the 1470s. What were they thinking?!
  • CapnPrep

    Senior Member
    The system of relative pronouns has historically been a pretty unstable part of French grammar, and the period you are interested in is probably the one where you will find the most regional/dialectal/individual/stylistic/etc. variation. I would guess that the most normal way of expressing your sentence in 15th century French would have been Ce que sera sera, but Que sera sera and Qui sera sera would also have been possible, as well as the modern form Ce qui sera sera. Traces of the first three constructions can be seen in some frozen expressions used in modern French: ce que bon vous semble, advienne que pourra, qui mieux est, etc.


    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    Thank you CapnPrep!
    I wonder if you would be willing to take this discussion offline by sending Cenzontle a Private Message with your e-mail address (I think my Profile allows it).
    I have nothing to hide from the Forum readers, but this topic is kind of over-specialized, and hard to fit into the short format of the Forum.
    I need to get to the bottom of this (if there is one), and to document it.


    Senior Member
    There is no rule against discussing highly specialized topics here! Go ahead and ask whatever further questions you may have here, and we'll see how it goes. It might help if you gave some more information about where you've found these various forms of the expression and what sort of things you are hoping to find out about them.


    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    Okay, thanks CapnPrep. I originally posted to the general French forum because I didn't realize this "etymological" one existed. I now see that hyperspecialization is okay.
    I got into this project because I thought "Que sera sera" was bad grammar in Spanish. Every Romance language that I know of uses a two-word expression for this free relative "what":
    Spanish lo que
    Portuguese o que
    Italian ciò che, quello che, quel che
    Romanian ceea ce
    Modern French ce qui (subj.), ce que (obj.)
    I'm very familiar with Spanish and Portuguese, and I know there's no tendency in them to reduce the two-word expression to its second word—not even in folk speech, and not even as poetic license for aphorisms. Everything I can find about Italian indicates the same is true for Italian: never "che" for "quello che".
    I've found that the saying, with "Italian" or "Spanish" spelling, appeared in English contexts for centuries before Doris Day's hit song of 1956—but never in a Spanish or Italian context. It was originally (with one infuriating exception) an English heraldic motto of the 16th century.
    I've searched for the saying in proverb collections, in online corpora, in Google Books, and on the Internet at large: it was coined by English-speaking people and used almost exclusively by them until Doris Day made it international. It's an English saying.
    With "Che" and "Que" I find it plausible that the English-speaking coiners of the saying were unaware that Romance languages have different forms for the two kinds of "what"—interrogative and free relative—and so they used the interrogative (which every beginner learns early).
    But "Qui" (if French) doesn't fit so well into my theory: it's not an interrogative "what", but rather a "who". I don't find it plausible that an English-speaker had "ce qui" to work with and deleted "ce". So my main question is How do I explain this "French" version (if that's what it is)?
    In the face of "Che" and "Que", "Qui sera sera" is quite rare, but it does appear in books published in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, as well as in that maddening manuscript of probably 1471 ("Quy serra serra").
    I'm puzzled by your statement "...but Que sera sera and Qui sera sera would also have been possible"—because it's the first indication I've had of a Romance language making that reduction of the two-word free relative. Are you saying "Qui" could stand for the non-human "What"? If so, I will need to document examples of it.


    Senior Member
    I imagine you've already looked in the OED, but the benefit of others following this thread, they believe it is "[a]pparently < Italian che sarà sarà", which is attested in Italian from "1659 or earlier" (no source given). Their earliest English attestations go back to the 16th century, when the Italian phrase was adopted as the motto of the Russell family (Earls/Dukes of Bedford). I think they might be interested in learning about your 15th century attestation, and the variant forms with qui/quy (and with double ‹rr›).

    As for the grammar of the sentence: It may be that inanimate free relatives introduced by que/qui alone are ungrammatical in all modern Romance varieties. I don't know (there are a lot of varieties to check…). But this doesn't mean that they weren't grammatical in earlier periods.
    But "Qui" (if French) doesn't fit so well into my theory: it's not an interrogative "what", but rather a "who".
    Actually, qui could be used as an inanimate interrogative subject in Old and Middle French:

    • Qui t'a embatu en tel ire ? (Courtois d'Arras 453, 13th cent.) [= ModFr Qu'est-ce qui t'a mis/poussé…]
    • Qui faict les coquins mandier? C'est qu'ilz n'ont en leurs maisons de quoi leur sac remplir. Qui faict le loup sortir du bois ? Default de carnage. (Rabelais III) [= ModFr Qu'est-ce qui fait…]
    • Or voi je bien qui vos a destorné a garir tant longuement (Prose Tristan 315, 2, 13th cent.) [= Mod Fr Je vois bien ce qui vous a empêché…]
    I'm puzzled by your statement "...but Que sera sera and Qui sera sera would also have been possible"—because it's the first indication I've had of a Romance language making that reduction of the two-word free relative. Are you saying "Qui" could stand for the non-human "What"?
    Yes, that is what I am saying, but I wouldn't assume a priori that it necessarily represents a reduction of a more complex structure. For now I would simply say that qui and que had a wider range of syntactic and semantic functions in the past. But as I said, I would guess that ce que was the normal form for inanimate subject free relatives in your time period.


    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    Moderator note: The etymology of serà is a different topic. Moved here.

    Well, Capn (if I may), I must have looked at the OED at some time, because I remember noticing that they erroneously traced "sera" back to Latin "esse" (rather than to "sedere"—a suppletive paradigm); but I don't remember their saying my phrase was documented in Italian. I will follow up on that.
    (Later.) Whew! You had me worried for a moment, that I had overlooked a documentation in an authentic Italian source. But I scanned my notes for "1659" and found "Che sara sara" included in a book, Proverbi gli più scelti [choicest] nella lingua italiana—compiled by one James Howell and published in London. I will continue to maintain that the Italianity of the saying is a myth created by English-speaking authors.
    Thank you for the citations of "Qui" as interrogative "What"—they will be useful.
    And thank you for reminding me to return to the OED. I see now that it recognizes both the (post-Doris) recency and the ungrammaticality of the saying in Spanish. It also gives me an earlier date than I had had for the first spelling with "Que" (1607)—as well as a hybrid "Què sara sara" with Spanish pronoun and Italian verb (1616).
    I had forgotten that the OED has phrases as well as words. You've been a real help to me.
    I'm still facing the mystery of "Quy serra serra" (and I don't mean the spelling) in a 1471 English manuscript without translation or paraphrase—as if the reader was expected to understand it.
    For the record, let me add to the list of Romance free relatives:
    Catalan el que
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