LINGUIST List 12.1577

Fri Jun 15 2001

Sum: Unmarked Possessives

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Joost Kremers, Unmarked Possessives

Message 1: Unmarked Possessives

Date: Thu, 14 Jun 2001 14:14:21 +0200
From: Joost Kremers <>
Subject: Unmarked Possessives

For Query: Linguist 12.1287

Hello all,

A few weeks ago, I posted the following question on the list:

> There are apparently languages that do not mark possessives in any way.
> They simply juxtapose two nouns to express possession. So for example to
> express "John's car", they would say either "car John" or "John car".
> I am looking for references to any studies dealing with this phenomenon,
> either in specific languages or in general. I would also be very grateful
> if anyone could tell me about languages that use this structure, because so
> far I have only found a very few cases.

There were too many reactions to respond to everyone in person. Therefore, I 
would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who sent me an e-mail 
with information.

It turns out that juxtaposition is quite a common strategy to express 
possession. The following languages were mentioned by people:

American Black English
Ancient Egyptian
Burmese (perhaps)
(Modern Mandarin) Chinese (only with "intimate possession")
Old French
Kammu (aka Khmu, Kmhmu etc.)
Spoken Korean (possessive marker can be dropped)
Nzema (only with alienable possession)
Thai (possessive marker can be dropped)
Vietnamese (possessive marker can be dropped)
many West-African languages
most Australian languages

South America: �Epena Pedee, Ndyuka ...
Africa: �Koyra Chiini Songay, Boko ...
Asia: �East Cham, Minangkabau ...
Oceania: �Amele, Maung ...

For a number of these languages I received examples. I decided not to add 
them to this message, since it is becoming rather long already. Anyone 
interested can send me an e-mail.

Even though I have not had the time to do some further research yet, several 
interesting questions have already turned up:

a) in many languages, the unmarked possessive co-exists toghether with a 
possessive marker. Sometimes the use of the possessive marker is optional. 
(E.g., Thai, Spoken Korean, Vietnamese.) However, Dick Watson 
<> remarks that these "possessive markers" are really just 
nouns meaning 'possession'. The question then becomes to what extent they 
have been grammaticalized.

Other languages with variation between a possessive marker and juxtaposition 
show a functional difference: the choice between the possessive marker and 
juxtaposition depends on alienability. (E.g., Nzema, and I assume Chinese, 
although the two respondents called it "intimate possession".)

b) At least in Arabic, Hebrew and Welsh, the possessed noun cannot take an 
article, whereas the possessor can. For most of the languages that were 
mentioned I have no idea whether or not they have articles, and if so, to 
what extent they can be used with the unmarked possessive construction. I 
have the impression that structures such as "D-N D-N" (i.e., juxtaposition 
with _both_ nouns having a determiner) do not occur, but it would be 
interesting to either confirm or refute this claim.

c) Chris Johnson <> remarks: "If a language doesn't mark 
possession either with a morphological marker on the possessor or with a free 
particle/adposition, then it is unlikely to treat possessors like 
free-standing arguments." That is, in English, one could have a dialogue such 

A: Whose dog dug up my vegetable garden?
B: John's./It was John's.

The particle -'s marks "John" as a possessor, so that the hearer knows it is 
John's _dog_ that dug up the vegetable garden, not John himself. This and 
similar uses of possessives are probably not possible in languages that do 
not mark the possessor (even if they do mark the possessed).

To this I can add two remarks: according to some, the -'s in "it is John's" 
and the -'s in "John's car" are not the same element. They apparently have 
different historical origins, and their pronominal versions are distinct ("it 
is mine" vs. "my car"). Furthermore, languages that do mark the possessor do 
not always use the possessor as a free-standing argument, witness the 
ungrammaticality of *"ce livre est de Jean" and *"this book is of John". 
Similarly, Classical Arabic, which has overt case markings, cannot use a 
genitive marked noun in this fashion.


>From some people, I received references to books and articles that may be of 
interest. I give the full list below. Also, Yura Lander <> 
informed me that s/he is maintaining a bibliography on the subject of 
possessives. Its location is < >. 
The amount of information there is quite impressive, I must say.

Alexiadou, Artemis (2000) On the structure of alienable and inalienable
possessors. Paper presented at the Antwerp International Conference on the
syntax and the pragma-semantics of noun phrases: Form NP to DP, University
of Antwerp, February 2000.

Chappell, Hilary and William McGregor, eds. (1996) The grammar of
inalienability: A typological perspective on body part terms and the
part-whole relation. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Dixon, R.M.W (1980) The Languages of Australia. CUP: Cambridge. p293. (for
examples from Australian languages)

Dobrovie-Sorin, Carmen (2000) Spec, DP and (In)definitenes Spread: from
Romanian Genitives to Hebrew Construct State Nominals. In: Motapanyane, V.
(ed.) Comparative Studies in Romanian Syntax. Holland Academic Graphics

Mark Donohue, Tobati. (forthcoming) In John Lynch, Malcolm Ross &�Terry 
Crowley, The Oceanic Languages. London: Curzon Press. (for examples from

Duffield, Nigel (1992) Irish Construct State Nominals and the Radical
Pro-Drop Phenomeneon. Proceedings of North-East Linguistic Society (NELS
23), GLSA Amherst. (The person who sent me this reference does not know if 
and where the final version has been published.)

Fabri, Ray (1993) Kongruenz und die Grammatik des Maltesischen. T�bingen:
Niemeyer. (Ch. 5)

Fabri, Ray (1996) The Construct State and the Pseudo-Construct State in
Maltese. Rivista di �LinguisticaI, 8.1, 229 - 244.

Heine, Bernd.(1997) Possession: cognitive sources, forces and
grammaticalization. Cambridge UP.

Koptjevskaja-Tamm, Maria (1996), Possessive noun phrases in Maltese:
alienability, iconicity, and grammaticalisation. Rivista di Linguistica 8.1,
245 - 274.

Ortmann, Albert (1994) Possessorkongruenz. Eine Fallstudie zum Verh�ltnis
von Morphologie, Syntax und Semantik. Magisterarbeit, HHU D�sseldorf

Seiler, Hansjakob (1983) Possession as an Operational Domain of Language.
T�bingen: Narr

Tsujioka, Takae. (2001) The syntax of possession in Japanese. Doctoral
dissertation. Georgetown University.

Welmers, William (1963) Associative a and ka in Niger-Congo. Language
39:432-447. (for data on West-African languages)

Joost Kremers, M.A.

University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands
Department of Languages and Cultures of the Middle-East

PO Box 9103
6500 HD Nijmegen
tel: + 32 24 3612996
fax: + 32 24 3611972
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