Possession (linguistics)

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Possession, in the context of linguistics, is an asymmetric relationship between two constituents, the referent of one of which (the possessor) in some sense possesses (owns, has as a part, rules over, etc.) the referent of the other (the possessed).

Possession may be marked in many ways, such as simple juxtaposition of nouns, possessive case, possessed case, construct state (as in Arabic), or adpositions (possessive suffixes, possessive adjectives). For example, English uses a possessive clitic ('s), a preposition, of, and adjectives (my, your, his, her, etc.). Predicates denoting possession may be formed using a verb such as English have, or by other means such as existential clauses (as is usual in languages such as Russian).

Alienable and inalienable

There are many types of possession, but a common distinction is alienable versus inalienable possession. Alienability refers to the ability to dissociate something from its parent; in this case, a quality from its owner.

When something is inalienably possessed, it is usually an attribute: for example, John's big nose is inalienably possessed, because it cannot (without surgery) be removed from John; it is simply a quality he has. In contrast, 'John's briefcase' is alienably possessed, because it can be separated from John.

Many languages make this distinction as part of their grammar - typically, using different affixes for alienable and inalienable possession. For example, in Mikasuki (a Muskogean language of Florida), ac-akni (inalienable) means 'my body', whereas am-akni (alienable) means 'my meat'.[1] English does not have any way of making such distinctions (the example from Mikasuki is clear to English speakers only because there happen to be two different words in English that translate -akni in the two senses: both Mikasuki words could be translated as 'my flesh', and then the distinction would disappear in English).

Possessive pronouns in Polynesian languages such as Hawaiian and Maori are associated with nouns distinguishing between o-class, a-class and neutral pronouns according to the relationship of possessor and possessed. O-class possessive pronouns are used if the possessive relationship cannot be begun or ended by the possessor.[2]

Inherent and non-inherent

Another distinction, which is similar to alienable vs. inalienable possession, is inherent vs. non-inherent possession. In languages that mark this distinction, inherently possessed nouns, such as parts of wholes, cannot be mentioned without indicating their dependent status. The Yabem language of Papua New Guinea, for instance, distinguishes alienable from inalienable possession when the possessor is human, but distinguishes inherent from non-inherent possession when the 'possessor' is not human. Inherently possessed nouns are marked with the prefix ŋa-, as in (ka) ŋalaka '(tree) branch', (lôm) ŋatau '(men's house) owner', and (talec) ŋalatu '(hen's) chick'. Adjectives derived from nouns (as inherent attributes of other entities) are also so marked, as in ŋadani 'thick, dense' (< dani 'thicket') or ŋalemoŋ 'muddy, soft' (< lemoŋ 'mud').

Possessable and unpossessable

Many languages, such as the Maasai language, distinguish between the possessable and the unpossessable. Possessable things include farm animals, tools, houses, family members and money, while for instance wild animals, landscape features and weather phenomena cannot be possessed. Basically this means that, in such languages, saying 'my sister' is acceptable, but 'my land' would be grammatically incorrect. Instead, one would have to use a circumlocution such as 'the land that I own'[citation needed].

Clauses denoting possession

Possession verbs

Many languages have verbs that can be used to form clauses denoting possession. For example, English uses the verb have for this purpose, French uses avoir, etc. There are often alternative ways of expressing such relationships (for example, the verbs possess and belong, among others, can be used in English in appropriate contexts; see also have got).

In some languages, different possession verbs are used depending on whether the object is animate or inanimate. Compare the two examples in Georgian:

Kompiuteri makvs ("I have a computer")
Dzaghli mqavs ("I have a dog")

Since a dog is animate, and a computer is not, different verbs are used. However some nouns in Georgian (such as car) are treated as animate even though they appear to refer to an inanimate object.

Possession indicated by existential clauses

In some languages, possession relationships are indicated by existential clauses. For example, in Russian, "I have a friend" can be expressed by the sentence у меня есть друг u menya yest drug, literally "at me there is a friend". Including Latvian, Irish and Turkish and Uralic languages, such as Hungarian or Finnish, they use an existential clause to assess a possession, since the verb to have does not exist in those languages.

For more examples, see Existential clause § Indicating possession.


  1. ^ Mithun, Marianne (1999). The Languages of Native North America. CUP. p. 465. ISBN 0-521-29875-X. 
  2. ^ Harawira, K.T. (1994). Teach Yourself Mãori. Timoti Kãretu. Reed. ISBN 0-7900-0325-2. , p. 28.

Further reading

See also

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