Ask-A-Linguist Message Details
Whenever I've come across the use of ''that'' being used twice
consecutively, it's always bothered me. For example, ''That that is
is. That that is not is not. Is that it? It is.'' I recognize the two uses
of the word, but I suppose I'm wondering why, linguistically, there
wasn't a better vehicle created to handle the redundancy of this
word? Does this happen in other languages?
Well of course it is absolutely normal for a language to assign multiple uses to a single word-form; but I don't think that is really the question you are asking. Your intuition, if I may put words into your mouth, is that it is odd for a single form to acquire different uses which are such that the form is likely to occur twice or more in immediate succession in the contrasting uses. I never thought about this before but I suspect you may well be right that this tends not to occur. I think it is probably relevant that your example is not really very idiomatic in English. Rather than "That that is not is not", surely it would be much more natural to say (or write) "What is not is not" – which does not involve the oddity in question. Even if one insists on using "that" for the head of the relative clause (which makes it a very formal, literary piece of wording), one could still, and surely would, avoid two "that"'s by writing "That which is not, is not". The mere fact that it is technically possible to line up the two "that"'s while remaining within the theoretical bounds of good grammar wouldn't alone, I think, be a reason to expect the language to avoid assigning alternative uses to the word: the evolution of grammar might well be affected by the need to avoid confusion in what people are likely to say, but hardly by avoiding confusion in what people could just possibly write if they didn't care about being idiomatic.
Having said this, I recognize that there are other instances of "that that" which would be somewhat more idiomatic. "I know that that isn't right", where the first "that" is a complementizer and the second is the demonstrative, strikes me as not too unlikely. But in the first place, in ordinary idiomatic speech the first "that" would almost surely be omitted: "I know that isn't right". Secondly, "that" as complementizer is not confusable with the demonstrative in speech, only in writing: in speech, the complementizer is always pronounced with the obscure (shwa) vowel, but the demonstrative has a full A vowel.
So, to sum up, I think you may be right that languages tend to have devices which avoid confusing sequences of the same form in different functions; but it seems to me that in the case of "that", English does indeed have such devices.
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