LINGUIST List 7.1678

Wed Nov 27 1996

Sum: Adjectives with possessor nouns

Editor for this issue: Susan Robinson <>


  1. Malcolm Ross, Summary: Adjectives with possessor nouns

Message 1: Summary: Adjectives with possessor nouns

Date: Mon, 25 Nov 1996 17:44:01 +1000
From: Malcolm Ross <>
Subject: Summary: Adjectives with possessor nouns

Almost a month ago, I posted enquiries on this topic to both LINGUIST
and AN-LANG. Below is an abbreviated version of my questions to both


In a number of Western Oceanic (Austronesian) languages, we find noun
phrases in which something like 'the big house' is ostensibly
expressed as 'the house's big(ness)'. That is, a noun phrase
containing an attributive adjective has the structure of a noun phrase
with a possessor, and the adjective occupies the 'slot' of the
possessed noun, whilst the expected head noun occupies the slot of the

I am interested in figuring out the history of these structures, and
would be very grateful for information

(i) about similar structures in other languages (of any language
family) or pointers to grammars describing them, as well as for
references to any theoretical work which anyone has done on such noun

(ii) about similar structures in Austronesian languages _outside_
Western Oceanic, i.e. in non-Oceanic ("western Austronesian")
languages and in languages of central and eastern Oceania.


I am very grateful to all who replied to this and to follow-up
enquiries: Shelly Harrison, Paz Naylor, Mark Donohue, Phil Quick, Erik
Zobel, Stavros Macrakis, Regina Pallat Moorcroft, Luise Pusch, Robert
Ratcliffe, Kazuto Matsumura, Alan Jones, Suzanne Kemmer, John
Atkinson, Ronald Cosper, Charlie Rowe, Debbie Hill, Robnert Early,
Ulrike Mosel, Anna Keusen, Lior Kaspy, Balthasar Bickel, Georges
Rebuschi, Miguel Carrasquer Vidal.

An adequate summary of what was written would be impossible, as
answers came from a wide variety of perspectives. I will attempt to
pick the eyes out of the responses and to classify them below. For the
sake of brevity I will have to omit some responses. These are largely
responses which had to do with follow-up questions and side issues --
valuable to me, but not responses directly to the questions I
asked. My apologies for this.

Suffice it to say that I have come to the conclusion that Western
Oceanic adjective structures do not reflect histroircally e.g. "the
bigness of the house" (which would be exclamatory) but rather "a/the
big one of a house" (in my dialect of English "a whopper of a house"),
where the "possessor" is coded as non-specific.

Apologies to those who receive this message through two different lists.

Malcolm Ross


I have tried to organise the responses into thematic groups.

A. Responses which point to similar constructions in English:

- -------------
Stavros Macrakis:
There are sometimes paraphrases like this possible in English, too:

 Although the enormity of your query demands an abundance of reply,
 the humility of the present writer produces only a sketch of an

approx =

 Although a large query demands an abundant reply, the humble present
 writer produces only a sketchy example.

- ------------- Charlie Rowe: 

I suppose the following structure from AAVE is somewhat similar to
what you describe:

"his stupid self" for 'he is so stupid.'

you might check the distribution for this phrase; I'm not sure of the
binding facts for this construction.

- -------------
Luise Pusch:
What about "Your Royal Highness" and such stuff?
in German: "Seine Majestaet, der Kaiser"
in the Clergy: "Seine Eminenz, Hochwuerden", etc.

It seems to me that this sort of identifying a person with his or her
rank and addressing her or him with a possessive pronoun plus the
nominalized adjective denoting the rank comes close to what you are


B. Responses which point to similar constructions in languages other
than of the Austronesian stock and other than English:

- -------------
Kazuto Matsumura:

The construction reminds me of what is called "internally
headed relative clause" in Japanese linguistics (e.g., Natsuko
Tsujimura 1996. _An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics_.
Blackwell, pp.268-270).

For example, instead of the more usual construction (1), you
may optionally use construction (2):

(1) ookii ringo o te ni totte tabeta
 big apple obj hand dat taking ate
 '(I) took a big apple in (my) hand and ate (it)'

(2) ringo no ookii no o te ni totte tabeta
 apple gen big NOM obj hand dat taking ate

(NOM = nominalizing particle)

This construction seems much commoner in classical Japanese,
where no nominalizer particle is used, but the adjective
occurs in the adnominal attributive form (rentaikei). In
classical Japanese, the case particle was attached directly
to the adnominal attributive form of the verb/adjective,
whereas in present-day Japanese the case particle cannot be
attached to the verb/adjective without the nominalizer
particle _no_, which is incidentally homophonous with the
genitive particle.

- ------------
Ron Cosper:
Hausa has a similar construction:

"Mun hau wani dogo -n dutse."
1Pl.Com. climb a certain tallness Gen. mountain
We climbed a tall mountain.

"Yana da fari -n jini."
3Sg.Cont. with whiteness Gen. blood
He is popular. (Lit. he has whiteness of blood.)

Examples are taken from N. Skinner, A Grammar of Hausa. Zaria: Northern
Nigerian Publishing Company, 1979.

- ------------
Balthasar Bickel:

A phenomenon similar to what you describe occurs in two South-Eastern
Kiranti (Tibeto-Burman) languages spoken in Nepal, viz. in Athpare and

With one exception, the possessed noun structure is now petrified,
though. The 'adjective' for 'new', for instance, is in Belhare
u-cho~uat [the second /u/ is nasalised]. u- is etymologically the
third person possessive prefix (still detectable through stress on the
second syllable -- words are generally stressed on the first *stem*
syllable in this language). Syntactically, however, ucho~uat does not
occupy the head noun slot of the NP but functions as a prenominal
attribute (e.g., uchou~at khim 'new house', not *khim u-chou~at 'house
its-new(ness)'. Only in a single case, the 'adjective' still
functions as head noun: u-mang 'raw, unripe', as in cece u-mang 'meat
its-rawness' = 'raw meat'. In this case, umang *must* fill the head
slot, *umang cece, in parallel with ucho~at khim is ungrammatical.

The Athpare data will soon be available in a sketch grammar by Karen
Ebert, to appear with LINCOM.

- ------------
Robert Ratcliffe:

Modern Persian (Farsi) shows a similar formal parallelism, but in this
case the adjective occupies the slot of the possesor. The same linking
pariticle - e- is used to connect the noun with the attribute and the
possessed noun with the possessor.

book-LINK-big "(a/the) big book"

book-LINK-student "(the) student's book"

C. Responses citing data from Austronesian languages:

- ------------
Sheldon Harrison:
it's a very marked structure, but mokilese has a construction:

 leklekin pijwa
 size-of pig-the
 'what a huge pig that is'

in which the adjective is nominalised. i don't know how widespread
the construction is elsewhere in micronesia.

- ------------
Ulrike Mosel:

I got a letter from ... and at the very beginning of this letter you
find a good example for the nominalisation of adjectives:

Oka oka so'u leaga a ea? Sorry I didn't...

(Oka oka) means (Wow, gosh). (so'u ) is non-specific article plus (my). (
)is (bad), (a) an emphatic particle, (ea) a question tag

This sentene means
(I am bad, aren't I?) The literal translation is (Gosh any of my badness). ...

This is a typical Samoan nominalisation

- -------------
Paz Naylor:

It looks as if the Tagalog attributive/modifier phrases with the
attributive marker (generally known as "linker") NA/-NG (cliticized to
the antecedent word ending in a V) parallels your example. Cf. Tagalog
ang bagoNG bahay or ang bahay NA bago "the new house". Note too that
the genitive pronouns are marked by initial N as in ang bahay Niya
"his/her house" and possessive phrases with personal names as in ang
bahay Ni Pedro "Pedro's house".
A common provenance?

- -------------
Mark Donohue:

> In a number of Western Oceanic languages, we find noun phrases in
> which something like 'the new house' is ostensibly expressed as 'the
> house's new(ness)'. If this structure existed in Proto Oceanic (I am
> not yet saying that it did!), a noun phrase like 'the new house'
> would read something like *a Rumaq paqoRu-~na, 'the new houses' like
> *a Rumaq paqoRu-dra.

Does this necessarily mean 'the house's newness'? I'm thinking of
Indonesian, where -nya possessive is used for general definiteness
meaning as well. It could be that there's an N' constituent, with the
possessive 'suffix' used as a final clitic on that. More on this

Tukang Besi, (SE Sulawesi, Indonesia: western MP, for what that means),
has, for non-"pivot" nominals, the following structure:

 CASE (Head Noun) (Adj.) -POSS

Something like, if you like trees:

 / \
 / \
 N' (other modifiers)
 / \
 Head Adj.

An example is

Te wunua wo'ou-no
CORE house new-3POSS
'Her/His/Their new house.'

(no singular/plural difference in 3rd person in Tukang Besi)

We can get number differences reflecting number of the POSSESSOR (not
the possessed, this can be expressed in a different manner) with
non-third person:

Te wunua wo'ou-'u
CORE house new-2SG.POSS
'Your (sg.) new house.'

Te wunua wo'ou-miu
CORE house new-2PL.POSS
'Your (pl.) new house.'

So it's not the same MEANING, but is the same construction.

- -------------
Erik Zobel:

I believe that Muna has a construction very similar to the one you are
investigating. ... as far as I remember, verbs that are used
attributively in Muna (= relative clauses) have a participial form
which has to be suffixed with '-no'. This also holds for adjectives,
since they are treated as (stative) verbs. '-no' is identical in shape
to the possessive suffix. However, the participial ending '-no'
is used with singular and plural head nouns, so there is no number

... I think even in Malay you can say rumah barunya - his new house.)
The languages of the neighbouring Southeast Sulawesi mainland -
Moronene and Tolaki - have simple juxtaposition of adjectives, like
most other western Indonesian languages that have no 'ligature'.


Malcolm Ross
Senior Fellow
Department of Linguistics
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies
Australian National University
PO Box 1428
Australia 2601
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