LINGUIST List 7.1563

Tue Nov 5 1996

Disc: Adjectives with possessor nouns

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Suzanne E Kemmer, Adjectives with possessor nouns

Message 1: Adjectives with possessor nouns

Date: Sun, 03 Nov 1996 22:13:30 CST
From: Suzanne E Kemmer <>
Subject: Adjectives with possessor nouns

Malcolm Ross' query on adjectives with possessor nouns in
Australian languages reveals an interesting symmetry in the
typology of the expression of property concepts in human
language--between predicated properties, and properties expressed
as modifiers in noun phrases.

Christian Lehmann has written about the typology of property
concepts in PREDICATIONS, rather than in noun phrases. (His
paper is in the volume _Typology and Diachrony_ (Studies in honor
of Joseph H. Greenberg), edited by W. Croft, K. Denning and
S. Kemmer, published by Benjamins in 1990.)

Lehmann noted a basic three-way contrast between:

- languages that express such concepts as verbs ('the house

- as nouns ('the house has bigness') (note the pred. possession


- languages using a separate word class of adjectives
 ('the house (COPULA) big(ADJ) ).

Lehmann's paper, to my recollection, looked only at PREDICATION
of properties, rather than expressions referring to OBJECTS
having particular properties, which is the function of
property-modified NPs.

The interesting thing is, Malcolm Ross's observation about the
possessive NPs with the property expressed as a noun completes a
nice analogue to the predicated property typology of Lehmann. (I
call the word in Ross's examples a noun, although he called it an
adjective, on the assumption that nouns and adjectives aren't
distinguished morphologically in the languages, and the fact that
it's occurring in a noun slot syntactically.)

We again have a three-way typology, with expression of the
property concept as verb, noun, or adjective:

- the well-known type of language that expresses
 nouns by means of verbs in relative clauses, like 'the house
 that bigs'

- those that use a noun in a possessive construction
 (like 'the house's bigness') (Ross's case)

- and languages that use adjectives in
 the noun phrase ('the big house').

My expectation is that a language that has a particular
construction type for the predications will use the analogous
type in the noun phrases. But I'd like to be surprised by some
recalcitrant languages. I suspect, too, there might be some
interesting variation along to-be-discovered parameters, as the
types might not be brought into line immediately.

Another potential place for patterned variation, i.e. for
subtypologies: Interaction of most of the above six constructions
with the differentiation in formal expression of property
concepts (cf. Dixon's work on 'Where have all the adjectives
gone') has not, to my knowledge, been explored. But I think
investigation along these lines would yield some more subtle and
interesting patterns, involving the relative readiness of 'less
prototypical' property concepts to assimilate to the basic type
of expression given generally to property concepts in a given

- Suzanne Kemmer
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