Possession in Linguistics Research Paper

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In linguistics, possession is conceived as a relationship of appurtenance between a possessor (P’or) and a possessed (P’ed, possessum, possessee) for which there are specific paradigms of expression in languages of the world. On the conceptual side, this relationship of appurtenance ranges from material possession via kinship and body-part relationships to the domain of abstract relations (someone’s ideas, someone’s activities, etc.). On the formal side, one distinguishes mainly between attributive possession (e.g., ‘my house,’ ‘the man’s house’) and predicative possession (‘the house is mine,’ ‘the house belongs to me,’ ‘I have a house’). However, it is not always easy to distinguish the conceptual domain of possession from other cognitive domains, and also on the formal side there is a continuum of expression rather than some strictly defined set of constructions. For instance, in many languages (e.g., in English or Icelandic) constructions like ‘I have ploughed an acre’ (expressing an event in time) historically go back to possessive expressions whose literal meaning was ‘I have an acre as something ploughed,’ and there are also numerous ways of crossing the boundary between attributive and predicative sentential constructions. For instance, many languages many alternate between attributive constructions like German der Sohn des Mannes (ART: NOM son: NOM ART: GEN man: GEN, ‘the man’s son’; where ART = article, GEN = genitive, NOM = nominative) and dem Mann sein Sohn (ART: DAT man: DAT his: NOM son: NOM, lit. ‘(to) the main his son’), where the dative (DAT) was originally some indirect object in predications like sie entfuhrten dem Mann seinen Sohn (they: NOM kidnapped ART: DAT man: DAT his: ACC son: ACC, lit. ‘they kidnapped (to) the man his son’; where ACC = accusative). These latter constructions (which are typically associated with some psychological involvement on the part of the P’or) are known as dativus sympaticus-constructions, or are referred to in the context of possessor raising or external possession. Since psychological involvement also correlates with the relative ‘closeness’ and inalienability’ of the possessive relation, it is customary to distinguish between inalienable and alienable possession. Alienable possession normally refers to material belongings as opposed to kinship and body-part relationships, and there are many languages which have standardized ways of distinguishing these domains. In addition to expressing a concept which is not just relevant for linguistics, possessive categories also have specific functions in the discourse, which suggests that to a certain extent linguistic possession must be differentiated from non-linguistic concepts of possession.

1. Approaches To Possession

1.1 The Literature On Possession

The linguistic literature on possession concentrates on different aspects. Seiler’s monograph (Seiler 1983) is still the most comprehensive attempt at dealing with the cross-linguistic evidence for the continuum of constructions in the domain of possession (see Sect. 1.2 below). Heine (1997) focuses mainly on predicative possession and on typical ways in which such constructions develop in the process of grammaticalization. Attributive possession is usually extensively described in traditional grammars under the headings of possessive pronouns and genitival constructions. McGregor and Chappell (1996) is a standard reference to the typology of inalienable possession, and Payne and Barshi (1999) focus on the typology of external possession. Other publications include discussions on the grammatical status of specific items from the domain of possession. For instance, it is sometimes unclear whether possessive pronouns behave like genitival arguments or like adjectives. The discussions in this area are rather technical and must be seen in the context of DP-analysis (for reference see Abney 1987, Lobel 1995). In what follows, this research paper will focus on some important issues from the typology of possessive constructions.

1.2 Details On Typological Research On Possession

The most difficult problem for the typological description of possession is the great variety of expression and the fact that there is no simple correspondence between a conceptual relationship of possession and traditional linguistic categories like possessive pronouns or possessive verbs (in fact, possessive verbs are cross-linguistically rather rare). For instance, a Latin construction like mihi est liber (me: DAT is book: NOM, lit. ‘to me is (a) book’) contains no ‘classical’ possessive category, but conceptually it figures as a possessive construction. Conversely, a construction like ‘my train’ in ‘I’ve got to catch my train’ does not really refer to the train which I own, though it does involve a ‘classical’ possessive pronoun. Finally, there are instances of so-called ‘possessor deletion’ as in the German er hob die Hand (lit. ‘he raised the hand’) vs. the English ‘he raised his hand,’ which unlike the German example contains an explicit possessive pronoun.

As a solution to these problems, Seiler (1983) proposes that the expression of possession constitutes an operational program ranging from minimal explicitness of the relationship (indicativity) to maximal explicitness ( predicativity). Indicativity literally means to ‘point’ at what one may take for granted, while predicativity establishes a relationship by overt means. The ‘indicative’ and less explicit techniques are mainly characteristic of the attributive pole (with constructions like ‘my train’), while the most predicative type of construction is found in the area of possessive verbs (with constructions like ‘I own a house’). For ‘my train’ the relationship is still very vague, while ‘I own a house’ is very specific about the relationship in question.

In this context, it is no coincidence that inalienable, inherent possessive relationships usually need less ‘effort’ to be encoded than alienable relationships. For example, in the Amerindian language Cahuilla the expression ‘his eye’ would just involve the direct juxtaposition of a personal pronoun and the lexical stem for ‘eye,’ while the expression ‘his dog’ needs the addition of a ‘possessive classifier’ meaning ‘pet’: compare he-puc (3.SG-eye, ‘his eye’; where SG = singular) vs. he-?as ?awal (3.SG-pet dog, lit. ‘his pet dog’). In other words, the (inalienably conceived) body-part term ‘eye’ is inherently relational, such that the possessive relation between ‘he’ and ‘eye’ is more or less ‘self-understood’; for ‘dog’ the situation is different, and the relationship between ‘he’ and ‘dog’ must be established by some relational item like ‘pet.’ By way of contrast, one would need far more effort in Cahuilla to use a word like ‘eye’ in a ‘derelationalized’ sense. Thus, while ‘the dog’ is simply ?awal, ‘the eye’ (in some abstract sense) would be puc-il (eye-DER; where DER = derationalizer). Seiler lists a number of techniques commonly employed for the expression of possessive relationships, which can all be placed on a continuum between maximal implicitness and maximal explicitness of the relation. These techniques include plain juxtaposition of P’or and P’ed (‘N-Nconstructions,’ see above), connectives (CONN), possessive classifiers ( possessive) cases, existential copula constructions, and possessive verbs. The Persian iza:fa-construction would be an example for connectives (cf. ha:ne-je pedar (house-CONN father, ‘the father’s house’)), and for possessive classifiers see Cahuilla. Latin domus patris (house: NOM father: GEN) is an instance of a case construction. A case construction is a more ‘explicit’ technique than the connective technique in the sense that so-called ‘cases’ may allow far more oppositions than allpurpose connectives, etc.; thus, apart from using a possessive genitive, many languages also employ locatives in attributive possession (cf. Modern Icelandic hofudid a mer (lit. ‘the head on me,’ ‘my head’) which is fairly explicit way of specifying how the body-part relates to the P’or). Case constructions also include expressions like the German der Mann mit dem Hut (‘the man with the hat’). Here the relationship of possession is expressed from a different perspective than der Hut on dem Mann (lit. ‘the hat from the man,’ ‘the man’s hat’); in the former construction, the nucleus is the possessor, while in the latter the nucleus is the possessed. (For the change of perspective also see Sect. 1.3 below.)

With the help of existential copulas, the case constructions can often be turned into literally predicative expressions of possession (cf. the German der Hut isvon dem Mann (lit. ‘the hat is from the man,’ ‘the hat belongs to the man’) and Icelandic eg er med bıl (lit. ‘I am with (a) car,’ ‘I have a car with me’). Finally, languages may also employ actual verbs of possession as in ‘I have or own a book’ and ‘the book belongs to me,’ etc. This technique allows the greatest number of oppositions (the number of lexical verbs is virtually limitless), and since this technique is the most predicative one in the sense of Seiler, it is hardly ‘natural’ in the context of inalienable and ‘self-understood’ possession. For example, clauses like ‘I have a father’ or ‘I have a head’ are considered deviant, unless modifications are added (cf. ‘I have a nice father,’ ‘I have a swollen head’). Nevertheless, though in principle inalienable possession tends towards the ‘indicative’ pole, and alienable possession tends towards the ‘predicative’ pole, there are always possibilities of making the implicit explicit and the explicit rather implicit. For instance, Indo-European possessive pronouns may go back to locative constructions of much the same type as the ones which are now commonly used for attributive body-part possession in Icelandic (see above), and the Icelandic attributive constructions in question like hofudid a mer (lit. ‘the head on me’) originate in turn from predicative dati us sympaticusconstructions like ‘he hit (on) me on the head.’ Therefore, there appears to be some shift from the more explicit and predicative to the less explicit in the process of grammaticalization. At the same time, as a reaction to a decrease of explicitness, new explicit constructions may be coined. In this context, Seiler claims that indicativity and predicativity represent complementary principles which are in competition with each other in the operation of giving expression to conceptual possession.

Heine (1997), too, is interested in grammaticalization channels, but he concentrates on the lexical sources of (mostly non-attributive) possession and on the ultimate destiny of possessive items in other domains of grammar. As for non-attributive possession (‘predicative possession’ in a more restricted sense than in Seiler’s framework), Heine (1997, p. 47) presents the following typology based on various conceptual ‘schemata’: ‘X takes Y’ (‘action schema’), ‘Y is located at X’ (‘location’), ‘X is with Y’ (‘companion’), ‘X’s Y exists’ (‘genitive’), ‘Y exists for/to X’ (‘goal’), ‘Y exists from X’ (‘source’), ‘as for X, Y exists’ (‘topic’), ‘Y is X’s ( property)’ (‘equation’). As an example for the action schema Heine mentions Portuguese, while Turkish has a location schema. Somali has a companion schema, while the genitive schema is found again in Turkish. The goal schema is manifested in Tamil and Hungarian, the source schema manifests itself in Ik (Nilo-Saharan), Cahuilla has a topic schema, and Russian has an equation schema. In many of these languages different schemata coexist. Again, there is no clear separation between possession and very many other kinds of conceptual domains.

For the different schematic types mentioned it is possible to identify very common paths of development and transitions to other categories. Especially postural verbs (e.g., ‘stand,’ etc.) often develop into locative copulas, and the resulting location schema (‘X is located at Y’) may develop into a companion schema (‘X is with Y’); both the location schema as well as the companion schema then tend to be re-employed as expressions of possession (for companion cases (‘be with’) cf. Icelandic eg er med bıl (see above), and for location cf. Finnish Liisalla on mies (lit. ‘at Liisa is (a) husband,’ ‘Liisa has a husband’)). The same construction types also often grammaticalize to expressions of aspect (Swahili has a ‘be with’progressive, and Icelandic has a ‘be at’-progressive). Aspectual categories also commonly develop from possessively interpreted action schemata like ‘to take X’ ( > ‘to have X’ > ‘to have gone’), and aspectual categories may ultimately be interpreted as tense categories (‘past tense’).

The shortcomings of traditional descriptions of possessive constructions are most noticeable in the area of inalienable possession. The dati us sympaticusconstructions are extremely common, and the cases used in possessive constructions for the P’or or noun phrase include not only genitives, datives, locative constructions, and the plain juxtaposition mentioned above, but occasionally even accusatives (e.g., Faroese kinship relations). As a consequence, it is necessary to give special attention to alternatives to traditional grammatical encodings of possession. The book edited by McGregor and Chappell (1996) presents a rich cross-linguistic survey of inalienable possession; common strategies associated with inalienables apart from ‘he hit me on the head’-constructions are ‘incorporating’ strategies like ‘he is bigheaded’ (vs. ?‘he is bigcarred’). Quite typically, the P’or may not be mentioned at all on the possessed noun phrase (cf. the phenomenon of ‘possessor deletion’ (see above)). But conversely, inherent relationality may sometimes have to be obligatorily marked (lit. ‘his hands-his’). As a variant of possessor raising giving prominence to psychologically involved possessors, also different honorifics may be used in the context of body-part relations (cf. Japanese, see Tsunoda 1996).

Payne and Barshi’s definition (1999, p. 3) of ‘external possession’ covers more than the constructions used in possessor raising: here external possession denotes any construction in which the P’or figures as a core argument of the verb and in a constituent separate from that which contains the P’ed. This definition includes applicatives (e.g., Mixean, see Zavala 1999), ‘double subject constructions’ (Japanese, see Shibatani 1994) and expressions where the P’or is the subject of a verb with an incorporated P’ed (Mohawk, see Baker 1999). What is common to all these constructions is some difference of ‘empathy,’ ‘discourse-prominence,’ and ‘fore-grounding’ in the relationship between P’or and P’ed as compared to the ‘standard’ possessive constructions. In fact, all kinds of possessive constructions can be ordered in terms of the comparative discourse prominence for P’or and P’ed. With this in mind, it is necessary to be aware of some specifically linguistic functions of possessive categories.

1.3 The Linguistic Side Of Possession

Different degrees of discourse prominence can be tested, among other things, with criteria like accessibility for relativization, etc. Languages differ considerably in the extent they ‘normally’ give prominence to possessors and possessed items, but there is usually variation between various options in the same language, too. Compare English ‘her dog *who ( she)’ vs. ‘this dog of hers, who ( she),’ where the ordinary possessive pronoun cannot be taken up in a relative clause, but the phrase ‘of hers’ can. Normally, there is some continuum of possessor prominence from possessive pronouns via personal pronouns in the genitive to actual arguments of the verb (in the dative or accusative, etc., as in ‘possessor raising’ constructions). And while the P’ed is totally inaccessible for relativization in ‘the blue-eyed man *which ( = the eyes) …,’ the P’ed can be relativized in ‘the man with the blue eyes which ( = the eyes) …,’ etc.

In this context, possessive constructions do not simply express some extra-linguistic concept, i.e., the constructions in question must also be judged with respect to their function in the discourse. This is particularly conspicuous in connection with genitival constructions. It is true that ‘normally’ the genitive phrase ‘expresses’ the possessor (cf. ‘the man’s car’), but sometimes the situation is reversed. Compare German das Auto des Mannes ist alt (lit. ‘the car (P’ed: NOM) of the man (P’or: GEN) is old’) vs. der Besitzer des Autos ist alt (lit. ‘the owner (P’or: NOM) of the car (P’ed: GEN) is old’). The answer why it is the P’or who is in the genitive in the first example, and why is it the P’ed which is in the genitive in the second ultimately has to do with discourse pragmatics. The noun phrase in the genitive typically encodes a known referent which can be used for the identification of something which is less inherently identifiable. ‘Normally,’ it will be human P’ors who are ‘better known’ than inanimate referents or dependent referents like body-parts, etc., but in examples like German der Besitzer des Autos mit dem Kennzeichen XY wird gebeten, sich mit der Polizei in Verbindung zu setzen (‘the owner of the car with the registration number XY is requested to contact the police’) it is the inanimate referent which happens to be better identifiable. In this case, the P’or will have to be expressed by a special relational noun (Besitzer ‘owner’), but the genitival phrase is still basically used for identification in the discourse, even though it now encodes the P’ed. These considerations may also explain why many languages have paradigms like ‘the man’s car,’ ‘John’s car,’ ‘his car,’ ‘my car,’ while there is often not a corresponding construction like ‘*I with the car,’ ‘*John with the car’ (which in principle just looks at the relationship from another perspective just like ‘the man with the car’): ‘Normally,’ referents like ‘I’ and ‘John’ are identifiable without further specification, while dependent items are not default referents in the discourse. Therefore it is quite ‘natural’ for possessed items to carry some additional marking for making them identifiable in the discourse (e.g., with reference to an animate, ‘ego-like’ P’or).

Also the distinction between so-called eius- and suus-possession (‘of somebody else’ vs. ‘of his own’) reflects differences of discourse prominence. In Modern Icelandic, the suus-possessive sinn only refers to prominent participants (usually a subject) within the clause. Conversely, hans (eius) is used mainly when the pronoun refers to a possessor mentioned outside of the clause. Interestingly, hans distinguishes masculine, feminine, and neuter with reference to the P’or, while sinn distinguishes masculine, feminine, and neuter only with reference to the P’ed. Hence, the ‘distant’ P’or will be far better retrievable by means of hans than by means of sinn, which prefers ‘near’ and very salient noun phrase referents. Since discourserelevance is a direct correlate of high animacy and conceptual independence, it is clear why the linguistic treatment of possessive relations will tend to be associated with distinctions like [ +/- animate] and [ +/- alienable]. As animacy also correlates with control just like any relationship of possession, it is not surprising that there are conceptual shifts from possession to distinctions of agency (cf. ‘I have beaten’ (agentive) vs. ‘I am beaten’ (non-agentive)) and vice versa. Agent (AG) and patient (PAT) are also differentiated in nominalized possessor-of-the-act constructions (cf. ‘Peter’s (AG) beating (action) of the dog (PAT),’ or Tongan ko ’eku (alienable) taa’i ’o (inalienable) e kuliı (lit. ‘it is my (active) beating of the (passive) dog,’ I am currently beating the dog’)). Apart from that, agent and patient relations have also frequently been observed to coincide with differences of imperfective vs. perfective aspect. From this point of view, the typical correspondences between possession, voice, and aspect are not surprising. Like the voice distinction, possession also implies some shift of perspective from an ‘ordinary’ discourse referent (who is animate and independent) to some referent which is usually inanimate and dependent. It is these shifts of perspective and the many alternative forms of encoding which make possession a highly interesting domain of study for linguistics and cognitive science.


  1. Abney S 1987 The English Noun Phrase in its Sentential Aspect. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  2. Baker M 1999 External possession in Mohawk: Body parts, incorporation, and argument structure. In: Payne D, Barshi I (eds.) External Possession. Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp.
  3. 293–324
  4. Heine B 1997 Possession. Cognitive Sources, Forces, and Grammaticalization. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  5. Lobel E 1995 Zur kategorialen Bestimmung der Possessiva in der NP DP: Possessiva als Adjektive. In: Tappe T, Lobel E (eds.) Struktur der Nominalphrase. Bergische UniversitatGesamthochschule, Wuppertal, Germany, pp. 54–86
  6. McGregor W, Chappell H (eds.) 1996 The Grammar of Inalienability. A Typological Perspective on Body Part Terms and the Part-Whole Relation. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin
  7. Payne D, Barshi I (eds.) 1999 External Possession. Benjamins, Amsterdam
  8. Seiler H 1983 Possession as an Operational Dimension of Language. Narr, Tubingen, Germany
  9. Tsunoda T 1996 The possession cline in Japanese and other languages. In: McGregor W, Chappell H (eds.) The Grammar of Inalienability. A Typological Perspective on Body Part Terms and the Part-Whole Relation. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 565–630
  10. Zavala R 1999 External possessor in Oluta Popoluca (Mixean): Applicatives and incorporation of relational terms. In: Payne D, Barshi I (eds.) External Possession. Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp. 339–72


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