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(what #1) What you need to do frist is (to) call him.=>The thing which you need to do first is (to) call him.

(what#2)He asked me what I wanted.=>He asked me, 'What do you want?"

Now, which 'what' are these below?
Children begin to learn the norm before their linguistic skills are far enough developed to understand a verbal description of what they are learning. This kind of learning has sometimes been called 'imitation', but that is too much simple an explanation for the complex processes that go on when children learn what is normal and expected in their own community.
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Hello Taka

I would say 'the thing which' in both instances (though I tend to think of it as 'that which' myself).

MrP
How did you know they were 'the thing which/that which'? How did you differentiate them?
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TakaHow did you know they were 'the thing which/that which'? How did you differentiate them?
I'm not sure.

Does it help to think of the thing which versus which thing?

MrP
I would have said: "the thing (that) you need to do first is..." or better "the first thing you need to do..."

What do you think?
MrP,

I'm not sure.

I know you are a man of great insight, which I really like about you. So, could you please search your feeling, though it sure is hard?
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For me, Taka, the difference between defining 'what' as 'the thing which' versus 'that which'-- I would agree with Mr P on the preference of 'that which'-- is that 'thing' has more connotations of 'concreteness'. 'That' seems more inclusive of 'abstractness'. I don't know how solid the evidence is, though.

In your original text, the 'whats' are about ideas and ideals--abstractions.
Sorry about the confusion. When I say:

How did you know they were 'the thing which/that which'?

I meant to say 'How did you know they were 'the thing which'---or 'that which', if you like?'; I'm not asking the difference between 'the thing which' and 'that which', but the difference between the 'what's meaning 'the thing which' and those 'what's which are derived from 'what...?' question.
Taka,

Perhaps I am still misunderstanding you. Let me take the original text, and in place of the word 'what', put: 'the thing which'. Then do the same text, replacing the 'whats' with: 'that which'.

1. Children begin to learn the norm before their linguistic skills are far enough developed to understand a verbal description of the thing which they are learning. This kind of learning has sometimes been called 'imitation', but that is too much simple an explanation for the complex processes that go on when children learn the thing which is normal and expected in their own community.

2. Children begin to learn the norm before their linguistic skills are far enough developed to understand a verbal description of that which they are learning. This kind of learning has sometimes been called 'imitation', but that is too much simple an explanation for the complex processes that go on when children learn that which is normal and expected in their own community.

What the children are trying to understand and learn are norms. One can legitimately call norms 'things which', but I'd prefer to call norms 'that which' because they are more abstract than concrete.

Sorry if I'm still missing your point. I don't believe there is any difference in meaning between saying 'what' and saying 'that which' in the quoted text.
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