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LINGUIST List 24.3673

Thu Sep 19 2013

Review: Linguistic Theories; Morphology; Syntax: Börjars, Denison, & Scott (2013)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 25-Jun-2013
From: Sebastian Sulger <sebastian.sulgeruni-konstanz.de>
Subject: Morphosyntactic Categories and the Expression of Possession
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-899.html

EDITOR: Kersti Börjars
EDITOR: David Denison
EDITOR: Alan Scott
TITLE: Morphosyntactic Categories and the Expression of Possession
SERIES TITLE: Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 199
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Sebastian Sulger, Universität Konstanz


The book ''Morphosyntactic Categories and the Expression of Possession''
collects 11 papers that were originally presented at a workshop which took
place in Manchester in April 2009. The theme of the workshop, the realization
of the concept of ''possession'' (across languages, with a focus on English)
through various morphosyntactic constructions, has long been a challenge to
linguistic theories. The papers all investigate aspects of the morphosyntactic
marking of possession from the perspective of a variety of linguistic
theories. Since in all of the surveyed languages there are different
constructions available for realizing possession, particular attention is paid
to the distribution of the relevant constructions, using corpus data and
statistical analysis.


In the introduction, Kersti Börjars, David Denison and Alan Scott set the
stage for the volume by touching on the historical and theoretical
implications of the English ''s''-genitive. They mention its usage across
different constructions, and further note that it has received much attention
in the literature, as it provides a window on a range of issues that influence
the way we think about the architecture of grammar. They sketch the
development of the marker as well as its theoretical treatments over time - as
regards the latter, they draw attention to the literature on clitics vs.
phrasal (edge) affixes. Moreover, the introduction mentions that most
languages referred to in the volume have more than one way of expressing
possession, noting in particular West Flemish and Urdu.

The first paper in the volume, by Cynthia L. Allen, ''Dealing with
postmodified possessors in early English: Split and group genitives'', takes a
diachronic look at two post-modified possessor constructions in the
development of written English: the group genitive construction (1) and the
split genitive construction (2).

(1) the king of France's daughter

(2) the king's daughter of France

Allen documents the rise of the group genitive in the late Middle English
period and its sudden favouring over the split genitive near the start of the
Early Modern English period. For the period where both strategies were
available, she provides evidence for the claim that the complexity of the
involved possessor phrases plays a role: it turns out that the group genitive
has always been used predominantly where possessor phrases were maximally
simple and involved only the possessor N premodified by a determiner or a
possessive and postmodified by the simplest possible PP. The split genitive,
on the other hand, was found where possessor phrases had more premodifying
material than just a determiner (titles, adjectives, etc.). Allen ties this to
processing factors: the group genitive was favoured when the possessor was
short and simple and thus did not require much effort to create or parse the
resulting structure.

The second paper, ''Variation in the form and function of the possessive
morpheme in Late Middle and Early Modern English'' by Teo Juvonen, supplements
the preceding paper as it surveys the use of different strategies in the
morphological marking of the possessive in a corpus of Late Middle and Early
Modern English. The morphological strategies discussed by Juvonen are:
''s''-ending as in (3), ''s''-less ending as in (4) and separated genitive as
in (5).

(3) the Kynges brother

(4) wyth onye of my maister councell.

(5) to yower worly worschyppe and herte ys desyre.

The paper focuses on the different possessive encoding strategies, and how
they were used across the different genres. Juvonen affirms that the group
genitive had become the dominant form by the end of the 15th century (as
discussed by Allen); he gives the split genitive example in (6), and mentions
that by the latter half of the 17th century there seems to be increasing
uncertainty about the status of the ''of''-phrase: does it modify the
possessor ''a Bishops'' or the possessum ''son''?

(6) it was Gerelius a Bishops son of Suedeland

Based on this observation, Juvonen suggests that the group genitive replaced
the split genitive because of grammaticalization and semantic bleaching of the
preposition ''of'': he claims that this is what caused the ''of''-phrase to be
linked more closely to its head, thus disabling the split genitive.

The third paper, ''The great regression: Genitive variability in Late Modern
English news texts'' by Benedikt Szmrecsanyi, again looks at possessive
encoding strategies in English, this time focusing on the
''s''-genitive/''of''-genitive alternation in Late Modern English news texts
as in (7) vs. (8). The paper documents the collapse in the frequency of the
''s''-genitive in the early 19th century and its subsequent recovery, aiming
to explain the resulting v-shaped pattern.

(7) the president's speech

(8) the speech of the president

Szmrecsanyi views any subtle changes in the conditioning factors as evidence
of a change in the genitive choice grammar of English, showing why the slump
in the ''s''-genitive frequencies around the first half of the 19th century
was so much more severe than expected: this has to do with a change in the
status of the factor ''possessor animacy''. While the sheer input frequencies
of human possessors dropped, the animacy constraint (due to which
human/animate possessors favour the ''s''-genitive) was relaxed - an actual
change in the grammar of genitive choice speeding up the decrease in

Szmrecsanyi notes that dropping the selectional restriction concerning animacy
can be seen as a sign of grammaticalization, while the increasing sensitivity
of the ''s''-genitive towards the factors ''possessor thematicity'' and
''possessum length'' can be seen as a development towards a freer ''choice of
items according to communicative intents'' (Lehmann 1995: 164) and thus as
degrammaticalization. The fact that the ''s''-genitive increasingly attracted
ownership relations can be explained using the ''paradigmatic integrity''
parameter, again by Lehmann (1995): lexical-semantic features are added to the
''s''-genitive, again indicating degrammaticalization.

The fourth paper, by Catherine O'Connor, Joan Maling and Barbora Skarabela
titled ''Nominal categories and the expression of possession: A
cross-linguistic study of probabilistic tendencies and categorical
constraints,'' presents a cross-linguistic study of the Monolexemic Possessor
Construction (MLP). They compare the stochastic patterns of prenominal
possessives in English to the MLP found in a variety of languages (Germanic,
Slavic, Romance). The choice of a prenominal possessive over a postnominal one
in English correlates strongly with the features animacy, weight and discourse
status, but is not categorical in nature. This is not the case with the MLP;
in this construction, the possessor occurs immediately left to the possessum,
and the possessor may not be longer than a single word, as in the Czech
example in (9). If the full name of the possessor is to be expressed, the
full phrase adnominal genitive has to be used as in (9c).

(9) a.
Milan-ova kniha
Milan-POSS.ADJ book
'Milan's book'

Kunder-ova kniha
Kundera-POSS.ADJ book
'Kundera's book'

*Koupila jsem Milan-ovu Kunder-ovu knih-u
'I bought Milan Kundera's book.'

Koupila jsem knih-u Milan-a Kunder-y
buy.PAST.1SG.FEM be.PRES.1SG book-ACC Milan-GEN Kundera-GEN
'I bought (a/the) book of Milan Kundera.'

Evidence from Czech, Russian, Icelandic, German, etc. is adduced showing that
optimal weight, discourse status and (less strictly) animacy are all
grammaticalized in the MLP. With respect to discourse status, a
cross-linguistically valid accessibility hierarchy emerges as in (10). If a
language has an MLP, it will allow it with pronouns; if a language allows it
with e.g. kinship terms, it will also allow it with any element occurring to
the left of the kinship terms in (10).

(10) Monolexemic Possessor Accessibility Hierarchy:
Pronoun >> Proper Noun >> Kinship Term >> Common Noun
Most accessible <-----------------------> Least accessible

The scale in (10) implies that in a given context, pragmatic decisions must
take place to resolve the possessor in an MLP; in particular, the question
arises how a possessor is resolved if there are e.g. multiple pronouns
available. To address this question, the paper further includes a discussion
of whether the categorical restriction is at work in terms of pragmatic
communicative decisions, or whether it just constitutes a frozen remnant of
the stochastic tendencies observed e.g. in English; by citing elicitation
experiments with native speakers of Czech, the authors confirm that the
categorical restrictions reflect an active discourse pragmatic requirement.

In ''Expression of possession in English: The significance of the right
edge,'' Kersti Börjars, David Denison, Grzegorz Krajewski and Alan Scott
return to the topic of ''s''-genitive/''of''-genitive alternation in English.
The focus of the paper is on the categorization of the ''s''-genitive as a
clitic or an affix. The authors are especially interested in the right edge
criterion, which is key evidence for the ''s''-genitive's status as a clitic:
the item's ability to occur at the right edge even in cases where the
possessor is postmodified, as in (11).

(11) the man in the car's wallet

The authors discuss two new variables, length of premodifying sequence as well
as length of postmodifying sequence, to see whether it makes a difference
where the weight of the possessor is located, before or after the head. It
turns out that the effect of premodification is weaker than that of
postmodification, so that the latter decreases the odds of the ''s''-genitive
more strongly (unfortunately, the data the authors work with is too sparse to
examine any further the effects of the actual length of the postmodification).
The so-called split possessive is argued to be a strategy for avoiding
standard ''s''-genitives where the possessor contains postmodification, and
the data shows a clear correlation between the presence of a split and the
length of the postmodification.

The sixth paper, ''A cognitive analysis of ‘John's hat’'' by Richard A.
Hudson, presents a cognitive analysis of the English ''s''-genitive, couched
within Hudson's Word Grammar framework (Hudson, 2010). A string such as
''John's hat'' spawns two different syntactic analyses in the mind of a
speaker of English. Under the first analysis, the morpheme ''{z}'' behaves
like a suffix and is a direct descendant of the Old English inflected genitive
case; here, the string ''John's'' behaves like a single word which doubles in
function as a determiner. Under the second analysis, the same morpheme ''{z}''
behaves like a clitic giving rise to the group genitive.

Hudson claims that each of these analyses has advantages and disadvantages for
a learner of English. The suffix analysis involves a straightforward
morphology/syntax mapping, but the possessor phrase must receive a complex
analysis, doubling in syntactic classification as a (possessive) pronoun and a
noun (common or proper). Hudson acknowledges that this analysis seems more
intuitive in cases where we have simple (e.g., proper noun/one word)
possessors, like ''John's hat''. When the possessor is complex, and the
''s''-genitive is not adjacent to the possessor phrase head, the group
genitive is the only analysis available. Here, Hudson suggests a simple
mapping at the syntax-semantics and morphology-syntax interfaces, at the cost
of the special morphology involving a clitic.

Hudson further discusses the competition for the ''s''-genitive and the
''of''-genitive, and argues that the variation is due to a processing effect:
people prefer the ''s''-genitive with short possessors, since they put the
''landmark'' relation first. If the distance between the head of the possessor
and the possessum gets too large, processing benefits dictate the

John Payne's paper ''The oblique genitive in English'' deals with the
construction in (12), the ''oblique genitive'' (OG), also referred to as the
''double genitive''. Payne notes that the construction has previously been
analysed as a variant of the ''s''-genitive, as a variant of the
''of''-genitive, and an equivalent of the partitive.

(12) a friend of the Prime Minister's

Payne compares the OG to all of these correspondents in turn. In short, the OG
is much more semantically restricted than the ''s''-genitive and involves a
quite different pattern in the selection of determiners; the ''of''-genitive
does not quite stand in complementary distribution with the OG either, and
patterns differently with respect to weight; and finally, the partitive always
involves anti-uniqueness, while the OG does not always do so.

The choice between the OG and the ''s''-genitive is argued to be largely a
matter of information structure: in the ''s''-genitive, the referent is
identified by first processing the genitive NP, which provides an ''anchor''
(Fraurud 1990) for the identification, while in the OG, the function of that
genitive NP anchor is reduced, and processing happens largely by contextual

In the eighth paper, ''The marker of the English ‘Group Genitive’ is a special
clitic, not an inflection,'' Stephen R. Anderson develops a formal account of
the possessive marker ‘s’ in English. Anderson establishes the feature [POSS]
(realized by the ''s''-genitive) as a feature which is marked on the phrasal
level (in his view: on a possessor DP residing in the specifier position of a
higher DP), then discusses two different accounts of phrasal properties. One
is the account that he is in favour of, namely to treat the group genitive as
a ''special clitic'' (Zwicky 1977). Under this account, rules modify the
phonological makeup of phrases by introducing affix-like phonological content
(i.e. clitics or particles) at a certain point within the phrase. The other
account, called ''EDGE inflection'', as put forward by e.g. Nevis (1986) and
Zwicky (1987), treats the group genitive as a special inflectional pattern
applied at the edges of words.

Anderson mentions that both accounts produce the right facts for the English
Group Genitive, but the theoretical implications and mechanisms are different:
One involves a clitic as a single marker of the [POSS] feature at the edge of
the phrase, the other realizes the feature (through intermediate constituents)
on a single grammatical word, as an affix. He demonstrates that there are
cases where one analysis is favourable over the other. Anderson establishes
three diagnostics for distinguishing clitics from edge inflection: selection
of certain parts of speech is more likely to apply to affixes; lexical gaps as
well as idiosyncratic shapes are more likely to occur with affixes.

Phonologically, Anderson argues that the possessive ''/z/'' is adjoined to the
final syllable (instead of being incorporated into it). Here, possessive
''/z/'' is no different from plural ''/z/'', which is also adjoined. This way,
Anderson can nicely account for the data in (13) vs. (14), by saying that two
instances of adjoined ''/z/'' are collapsed into one in (13), while in (14) we
only have a single instance of adjoined ''/z/''.

(13) anyone who likes kids' (*kids's) ideas

(14) the fuzz's old cars; at Buzz's

Liliane Haegeman discusses two kinds of prenominal possessor patterns in a
dialect of Dutch, in ''Two prenominal possessors in West Flemish''. The paper
shows that, while several other works propose a unitary account for the two
patterns, they show different syntactic features and thus cannot have an
identical syntax. The first pattern is shown in (15), referred to by Haegeman
as the doubling construction (DC); the second pattern, called the ''sen
construction'' (SC), is shown in (16). In (15), the DP possessor ''Valère'' is
doubled by the possessive pronoun ''zenen'', and the latter can also occur on
its own; when this is the case, as in (17), the properties of the pronoun are
the same as in the DC.

(Valère) zen-en hoed
(Valère) his-MSG hat
'Valère's hat'

Valère sen hoed
Valère sen hoed
'Valère's hat'

zen-en hoed
his-MSG hat
'his hat'

The possessive pronoun displays double agreement, matching both the possessor
(person, gender in the singular, number) as well as the possessum (gender,
number). In the SC, ''sen'' does not agree with either. The author presents
abundant evidence against a unified approach to the two constructions,
including the agreement patterns, reciprocal possessors, and adjacency

In another descriptive paper, titled ''A Mozart sonata and the ‘Palme murder’:
The structure and uses of proper-name compounds in Swedish'', Maria
Koptjevskaja-Tamm describes Swedish nominal compounds where the first nominal
constitutes a personal proper name (proper name compounds; PNC). These
compounds are (almost) synonymous with other possessive nominals.
Koptjevskaja-Tamm asks what influences the choice between the constructions,
but also discusses the similarities and differences between PNCs and common
noun compounds (CNCs).

Koptjevskaja-Tamm provides a detailed discussion of the uses of PNCs: PNCs may
be used as proper names as well as common nouns; they compete with possessive
NPs for naming streets, churches and other entities. The author notes that the
heaviness of the proper noun might play a role, so that longer proper nouns
appear mostly with genitives, while shorter ones appear mostly within PNCs.
The connection to processing seems obvious (see also the papers by Allen,
Hudson, and Payne), but as the exceptions to the rule are numerous,
Koptjevskaja-Tamm notes that this must be a tendency only. The difference
between identifying particular instances (possessive NPs) and typified
instances (PNCs) is general and productive in Swedish (and other Germanic
languages, one might add).

Koptjevskaja-Tamm approaches two theoretical questions at the end of the
paper: 1) whether the issue of (non-) referentiality is relevant for the
occurrence of proper names within compounds, and 2) whether the distinction
between instance specification and type specification is relevant for choosing
between PNCs and the corresponding ''s''-genitives. In answering these
questions, she concludes that instead of treating PNCs as a single
construction, it might be more fruitful to split the construction apart into
several distinct patterns.

The last paper, ''Possessive clitics and ‘ezafe’ in Urdu'' by Tina Bögel and
Miriam Butt, considers the ''ezafe'' (18), a loan construction from Persian.
The paper discusses its formal properties and syntactic distribution, and
provides an analysis couched within Lexical-Functional Grammar (LFG).

sahib=e takht
owner.M.SG=Ez throne.M.SG
'the owner of the throne'

The authors mention that the ''ezafe'' construction has been discussed by
others (e.g., Samvelian 2007), some of whom identify it as a clitic, others as
an affix and a part of nominal morphology. In Persian as well as in Urdu, the
''ezafe'' construction displays a head-initial pattern, and modifiers appear
to the right, which is exceptional in both languages. Moreover, the ''ezafe''
always forms a unit prosodically with the head noun to its left, while at the
same time licensing modifiers to the right; syntactic function and prosodic
realization thus differ. Bögel and Butt discuss the account of Samvelian
(2007), who argues that the Persian ''ezafe'' is a phrasal affix. Unlike
Anderson (this volume, 2005), who refers to phrasal affixes as ''special
clitics'', Samvelian analyses ''ezafe'' as part of word-level morphology, and
not as introduced post-lexically; Samvelian's main evidence comes from other
phrasal affixes which seem to be in complementary distribution with the
''ezafe'', and thus must be generated on the same level (by the Haplology

Bögel and Butt challenge Samvelian's account and argue that different groups
of phrasal affixes can belong to different classes, and that the Haplology
Criterion must not hold in the morphological component, but may apply in the
phonological/prosodic part of the grammar. They argue that the Urdu ''ezafe''
behaves like a clitic in many respects: e.g., it is separable from its host
using parentheticals, it can take scope over noun conjunction, it does not
display morphophonological idiosyncrasies. It also has some non-clitic-like
properties; for example, it displays a high degree of lexical selection, only
occurring with nouns of Persian origin as its head. The authors conclude that
Urdu ''ezafe'' should be analysed as a clitic (a phrasal affix). Their LFG
analysis involves separate modules of grammar, taking into account its
mis-alignment: while it is a functional head selecting a modifier to its
right, prosodically it attaches to the word on its left.


Shortcomings of the volume as a whole are of a formal nature. Some examples in
some of the papers lack glosses, which I am not sure is an error on the
authors' or on the publisher's part. The numbering of the examples is also off
in some cases. In addition, some cited references are not included in the
bibliography at the end of the volume (I have found at least 4 such instances
across all the papers).

There is also some variation in the volume regarding the terminology of
clitics. Anderson uses the term ''special clitic'' for the English group
genitive in the sense coined by Zwicky (1977). Anderson in his earlier work
used the term ''phrasal affix'' (Anderson 1992) which turns out to be
equivalent to Zwicky's ''special clitic''. Now, however, he uses Zwicky's
term, which is why the term ''phrasal affixes'' does not feature in his paper
in this volume. Bögel & Butt in their paper, referring to Anderson's work, use
his earlier terminology and talk about ''phrasal affixes''.

The paper by Börjars et al. may in part provide the answer for such issues.
Anderson as well as Bögel and Butt in their papers acknowledge that the
markers they analyse (English group genitive and Urdu ''ezafe'') display mixed
properties of affixes and clitics, but both papers analyse the markers as
clitics. A dichotomy ''affix'' vs. ''clitic'' may turn out to be an
oversimplification that does not do justice to the mixed properties of such
items, and Börjars et al. instead suggest a scale of grammatical categories
with a ''clitic end'' and an ''affix end''. While this is an interesting
proposal, the exact makeup of the proposed scale is left for further research.

The volume provides an interesting perspective on possessive alternations,
which is the key theme of several papers. Throughout the papers, the features
animacy, weight and topicality/discourse status crop up, and clear
correlations are established between these features and the choice of a
particular possessive encoding strategy. The question arises whether these
tendencies form part of the grammar, or whether they belong in a separate
component capturing language use; O'Connor et al. answer this by looking at
languages where those factors are implicated in categorical distinctions
between separate constructions, and thus clearly form part of the grammar. It
can therefore be concluded that the statistical patterns displayed e.g. by
English actually form part of the grammar and need to be represented in a
model of grammar. A question I would add is in how far the features animacy,
weight and topicality hold up in a cross-linguistic study of possessive
patterns, or whether there are more features that involve categorical
distinctions and/or statistical preferences in other languages.

All in all, the volume is essential reading for any linguist interested in the
morphosyntactic realization of possession. While the overall focus is clearly
on English, this is not necessarily a negative: it enables the volume to
approach the various issues in English from several distinct angles, while
maintaining a manageable set of data. Empirical-statistical, cognitive and
theoretical-explanatory accounts add up to render a rather complete picture of
the English possessive constructions from a synchronic as well as from a
diachronic perspective. In addition, descriptive papers team up to provide
insights into other languages' possessive structures as well.


Anderson, Stephen R. 1992. A-Morphous Morphology. Cambridge: CUP.

Anderson, Stephen R. 2005. Aspects of the Theory of Clitics. Oxford: OUP.

Fraurud, Kari. 1990. Definiteness and the processing of noun phrases in
natural discourse. Journal of Semantics 7: 395-433.

Hudson, Richard. 2010. Word Grammar and Cognition. Cambridge: CUP.

Lehmann, Christian. 1995. Thoughts on Grammaticalization. Munich: Lincom.

Nevis, Joel A. 1986. Finnish Particle Clitics and General Clitic Theory
[Working Papers in Linguistics 33]. Columbus OH: Dept. of Linguistics, The
Ohio State University.

Samvelian, Pollet. 2007. A (phrasal) affix analysis of the Persian Ezafe.
Journal of Linguistics 43: 605-645.

Zwicky, Arnold M. 1977. On Clitics. Bloomington IN: Indiana University
Linguistics Club.

Zwicky, Arnold M. 1987. Suppressing the Z's. Journal of Linguistics 23:


Sebastian Sulger is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Linguistics,
University of Konstanz. He is interested in case, argument structure, and
grammar interfaces (morphology-syntax, syntax-semantics), as well as areas
within computational linguistics. He has published papers on possession in
Hindi/Urdu, nominal argument structure, and copula constructions. His
interests in computational linguistics include grammar development,
treebanking, and multiword expressions.
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