LINGUIST List 10.602

Tue Apr 27 1999

Disc: Possession in Hebrew

Editor for this issue: Jody Huellmantel <>


  1. Robert R. Ratcliffe, Re: 10.590, Disc: Possession in Hebrew

Message 1: Re: 10.590, Disc: Possession in Hebrew

Date: Sat, 24 Apr 1999 14:23:45 +0000
From: Robert R. Ratcliffe <>
Subject: Re: 10.590, Disc: Possession in Hebrew

LINGUIST Network wrote:

> LINGUIST List: Vol-10-590. Fri Apr 23 1999. ISSN: 1068-4875.
> Subject: 10.590, Disc: Possession in Hebrew
> Date: Sat, 17 Apr 1999 22:22:18 +0400
> From: Lidia&Baruch <>
> Subject: RE: 10.530, Qs: Hebrew, Italian
> Regarding Simona Herdan's query about expression of possession in
> Hebrew:
> There are many languages in the world which have no verb 'to have' and
> express possession by means of something like 'a thing is to/with/at
> me'. All Semitic, Turkic, some Finno-Ugric languages belong to this
> type, as well as Hindi and Russian: u menja jest' brat 'at me is
> brother' (I have a brother). Hebrew 'yesh li akh', Arabic 'andi akh'
> ( stands for voiced pharyngeal fricative), Amharic 'wandemm alle-ny'
> = 'brother is-(to)-me'.

I have a strong suspicion that the existence of a verb with the range
of meanings of English "have" is a typologically rare, linguistically
marked feature, characteristic of (and possibly unique to?)
Indo-European languages (though not found even in all of these, of
course). The semantics of the verb are strange. It doesn't ordinarily
express possession in the literal sense, but rather existence combined
with some vague relation to the subject. "Do you have a room?"
(addressed to a hotel clerk, for example), "Does the room have a
bath", "Does the bath have hot water?", etc. The "normal" (I suspect)
way to express this existential-relational sense is through an
existential expression (not necessarily a verb) combined where
necessary with a preposition. (In addition to the languages/groups
mentioned by Lidia Baruch, I can add Berber languages, Hausa (probably
all Afroasiatic languages), Swahili, Japanese, Chinese, and
Malay/Indonesian as belonging to this type.)

I am struck by how often, in the course of browsing through grammars
of African and Asian languages, written in English or other European
language, I have found a sentence "a parculiarity of this language is
the absence of a verb 'to have'". So I have begun to think that the
peculiarity is on the other foot, as it were. I keep meaning to do a
serious typlogical survey to confirm or disconfirm my suspicion. In
the meantime does anyone know of a non-IE language which 'has' (=in
which there exists) a verb with more or less the range of functions
and senses as Eng. "have"?

Robert R. Ratcliffe
Associate Professor, Arabic and Linguistics,
Dept. of Linguistics and Information Science
Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
Nishigahara 4-51-21, Kita-ku
Tokyo 114 Japan
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