Possession (linguistics)

Possession (linguistics)

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

Possession may be marked in many ways, such as simple juxtaposition of nouns, a possessive case, a construct state (for example, see ), or adpositions (possessive suffixes, possessive adjectives). For example, English uses a possessive clitic ("'s") and a preposition, "of".

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's simply a quality he has. In contrast, 'my briefcase' is alienably possessed — it can be separated from me.

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' [cite book|title=The Languages of Native North America|last=Mithun|first=Marianne|publisher=CUP|date=1999|ISBN=0-521-29875-X, p.465] . 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 which 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 [cite book|title=Teach Yourself Mãori|last=Harawira|first=K.T.|other=Timoti Kãretu|date=1994|publisher=Reed|isbn=0-7900-0325-2 p. 28] .

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, e.g., body parts, cannot be mentioned without also mentioning the possessor. So, you cannot say just 'a hand', but must also explicitly say whose hand it is. Several Papuan languages, for instance Mangga Buang, combine alienable/inalienable and inherent/non-inherent marking.

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 brother' is okay, but 'my land' would be grammatically incorrect. Instead, one would have to use a circumlocution such as 'the land that I own' Fact|date=August 2008.

Animate and inanimate

In some languages, different possession verbs ("have" in English) 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 considered animate, and, therefore, employ the same verb as any other animate object.


Further reading

Heine, Bernd (1997) Possession: Cognitive Sources, Forces, and Grammaticalization. Cambridge University Press.(ISBN-13: 9780521024136 | ISBN-10: 0521024137)

ee also

* Genitive case
* Possessive adjective
* Possessive case
* Possessive pronoun
* Possessive suffix

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