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English-speakers say who and whom. The Romans said qui and quem, probably pronouncing qu like k, not as in queen. Today’s Italians say che for both words (ch is one Italian spelling for our k), and Spaniards que. The French say qui and que.

These Latin-born words don’t look or sound like our who/whom. But the old Scottish spellings were quho /quhom; and I as a child was told to pronounce our words as hwo and hwom. All the words are linked.

And there a mystery begins. We can replace who or whom with a word very different in look and sound: that. It derives from old Germany, not Rome. Surely it can’t be linked, as who and whom are, to the Latinate words I’ve cited? Yet it is, by one way all these words are used.

Our that has four main uses. Take that’s odd — that man that sold me the car said that it worked. The first that and the second are obviously connected; both point out things the speaker is talking about. The third, meaning “who”, is also connected, though less obviously. But the fourth that is used quite differently; to turn the man’s claim “it works” into he said that it worked. Today’s Germans use dass this way.

Old clue

And here’s the mystery. Italian, French and Spanish also use their che or que just like our that, in this fourth, distinct way. Yet classical Latin had no such usage. If Julius Caesar wanted to write I say that all Gauls are brave, he had to write I say all Gauls to be brave.

True, the Romans of his day had a word not unlike our what in sound: quod. It could mean “which”, but it could also be used, quite differently, to introduce other clauses, just as that can. But so used it meant “because” not “that”. So how come today’s che and que in this usage equal our that?

The clue lies in the late Latin still used by Europe’s scholars 1,500 years after Caesar. They often wrote quod like this to mean “that”. This meaning must have developed centuries earlier — no one is sure when — in spoken Latin, and so spread into the scholars’ writings and today’s European languages.

Enough about Latin. I confess that writing about that four weeks ago I got intrigued by the word, and pursued it mainly for my own amusement. But the point’s important: in any language, what’s dubious or plain wrong today may be wholly acceptable tomorrow, thanks often to colloquial speech.

Clever trick

I’ll end with something that-related, in English, for your New Year amusement. As a child, I was taught a trick sentence: That that is is that that is not is not is not that it it is. Punctuate this and the sense becomes clear: “What exists exists; what doesn’t doesn’t. Isn’t that so? It is.”

Being a clever brat, I set out to get that not just twice in succession but thrice: that that that is is is not that that that is not is not. In other words, “(the proposition) that what exists, exists is not (the proposition) that what doesn’t exist doesn’t.”

I then went on to get that four times in a row: with THAT (proposition, the one just advanced) that ‘that that is is’ is not (the proposition) that ‘that that is not is not’.

You can easily add a fifth that by putting this in reported speech: I told him that... followed by my four-that sentence. But can you plausibly get six? All offers gratefully received.