Inalienable possession

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In linguistics, inalienable possession[1] (abbreviated INAL) is a type of possession in which a noun is obligatorily possessed by its possessor. Nouns or nominal affixes in an inalienable possession relationship cannot exist independently or be "alienated" from their possessor.[2] Inalienable nouns include body parts (such as leg, which is necessarily "someone's leg", even if severed from the body), kinship terms (such as mother), and part-whole relations (such as top).[3] Many languages reflect this distinction, but they vary on how they mark inalienable possession.[4] Cross-linguistically, inalienability correlates with many morphological, syntactic, and semantic properties.

In general, the alienable–inalienable distinction is an example of a binary possessive class system, a language in which two kinds of possession are distinguished (alienable and inalienable). The alienability distinction is the most common kind of binary possessive class system, but it is not the only one.[4] Some languages have more than two possessive classes. In Papua New Guinea, for example, Anêm has at least 20 classes and Amele has 32.[5][4]

Statistically, 15–20% of the world's languages have obligatory possession.[6]

Comparison to alienable possession[edit]

The following real-world relationships often fall under inalienable possession:[3]

Type of relationship Examples
kinship father, mother, aunt
social relationship trading partner, neighbor
body parts eye, leg
part-whole relationship tabletop, side
possessed noun originates from the possessor sweat, voice
mental states and processes fear, mind
attributes of a known possessor name, age

Other things, such as most objects, may or may not be possessed. When such types of objects are possessed, the possession is alienable. Alienable possession is used generally for tangible items that one might cease to own at some point (such as my money), but inalienable possession generally refers to a perpetual relationship that cannot be readily severed (such as my mother).[3]

Variation among languages[edit]

Although the relationships listed above are likely to be instances of inalienable possession, what is ultimately classified as inalienable depends on conventions, specific to the language and the culture.[7] It is impossible to say that a particular relationship is an example of inalienable possession without specifying the languages for which that holds true. For example, neighbor may be an inalienable noun in one language but alienable in another.[7] Thus, whether a certain type of relationship is described as alienable or inalienable can be arbitrary, and in that respect, alienability is similar to other types of noun classes such as grammatical gender.[8]

The examples below illustrate that the same phrase, the table's legs, is regarded as inalienable possession in Italian but alienable possession in French:[9] (1b) is ungrammatical (as indicated by the asterisk). French cannot use the inalienable possession construction for a relationship that is alienable.

Italian - Inalienable possession relationship
(1a) Al     tavolo, qualcuno gli     ha  segato tutte le  gambe
     to.the table   someone  it.DAT  has sawn   all   the legs
    'The table, someone has sawn off all its legs'
French - Alienable possession relationship
(1b) *La  table, quelqu'un lui    a   scié toutes les pattes
      the table, someone   it.DAT has sawn all    the legs
     'The table, someone has sawn off all its legs'

(Cinque & Krapova 2008: 68 (ia, ib)[a])

Bernd Heine argues that language change is responsible for the language-specific variability in categorization. That is because "rather than being a semantically defined category, inalienability is more likely to constitute a morphosyntactic or morphophonological entity, one that owes its existence to the fact that certain nouns happened to be left out when a new pattern for marking attributive possession arose."[10] Under his view, nouns that are "ignored" by a new marking pattern come to form a separate noun class.

Morphosyntactic strategies for marking distinction[edit]

The distinction between alienable and inalienable possession is often marked by various morphosyntactic properties such as morphological markers and word order. There is a strong typological pattern for inalienable possession to require fewer morphological markers than alienable possession constructions.[11]

Inalienable possession constructions involve two nouns or nominals: the possessor and the possessee. Together, they form a unit, called a determiner phrase (DP). Within the DP, the possessor nominal may occur either before the possessee (prenominal) or after its possessee (postnominal), depending on the language.[12] French, for example, can use a postnominal possessor (the possessor (of) Jean occurs after the possessee the arm):

de Jean is a postnominal possessor, as it occurs after the noun. This sentence adapted from Guéron 2007: 590 (1a)
(2) le  bras de Jean
    the arm  of Jean
    'John's arm'
(Guéron 2007: 590 (la))

By contrast, English generally uses a prenominal possessor (John's brother). However, in some situations, it may also use a postnominal possessor, as in the brother of John.[4]

Morphological markers[edit]

No overt possessive markers[edit]

The South American language Dâw uses a special possessive morpheme (bold in the examples below) to indicate alienable possession:[13]

(3) tɔp   Tũk-ɛ̃̀ɟ
    house Tũk-POSS
    'Tũk's house'
(4) tih-ɛ̃̀ɟ   cɤ̀g
    3SG-POSS arrow
    'his arrow'
(Martins 2004: 546)

The possessive morpheme ɛ̃̀ɟ in examples (3) and (4) indicates an alienable relationship between the possessor and the possessee.

(5) tih nũh
    3SG head
    ‘his head'
(Martins 2004: 547)

The possessive marker does not occur in inalienable possession constructions. Thus, the absence of ɛ̃̀ɟ, as in example (5), indicates that the relationship between the possessor and possessee is inalienable possession.

Identical possessor deletion[edit]

Igbo, a West African language, deletes the possessor if the sentence's subject and the possessor of an inalienable noun both refer to the same entity.[14]:87 In (6a), both the referents are the same; however, it is ungrammatical to keep both of them in a sentence. Igbo employs the processes of identical possessor deletion, and the (his), is dropped, as in the grammatical (6b).

(6a) *Ó   sàra   áka   
      Hei washed hands hisi (own)
     'Hei washed hisi hands'
(6b) Ó  sàra    áka
     He washed  hands
    'Hei washed hisi hands'
(Hyman et al. 1970: 87 (11, 12))

Similar is the case with some Slavic languages, notably Serbian:

     *Oprao je   svoje      ruke
      Hei washed hisi (own) hands 
     'Hei washed hisi hands'
     Oprao je  ruke
     He washed hands
    'Hei washed hisi hands'

Word order[edit]

Possessor switch[edit]

The distinction between alienable and inalienable possession constructions may be marked by a difference in word order. Igbo uses another syntactic process when the subject and the possessor refer to different entities.[14]:89 In possessor switch, the possessor of the inalienable noun is placed as close as possible to the verb.[14] In the following examples, the possessor is not deleted because the two referents in the following sentence are different:

(7a) *Ó  hùru áka
      He saw  hand
     'Hei saw hisj hand'
(7b) Ó  hùru áka  
     He saw  hand his
    'Hei saw hisj hand'
(Hyman et al. 1970: 87 (27, 28))

In the ungrammatical (8a), the verb wàra (to split) follows the possessor m. Possessor switch requires the verb to be placed closer to the possessor. The grammatical (8b) does so by having wàra switch with the possessor:

(8a) *ísi  m  wàra
      Head my split
      'I have a headache'
(8b) ísi  wàra  m
     Head split to me
     'I have a headache'
(Hyman et al. 1970: 87 (44, 45))

Genitive-noun ordering[edit]

Maybrat, a language from New Guinea, varies the order of the genitive case and the noun between alienable and inalienable constructions:[15][16]

In (9), the genitive Sely precedes the possessee me, marking inalienable possession.

Inalienable: Gen-N
(9) Sely m-me
     Sely 3SG.F.POSS-mother
    'Sely's mother'
(Dol 1999: 93)

However, the genitive follows the possessee in alienable possession constructions, such as (10) whose genitive Petrus follows the possessee amah.

Alienable: N-Gen
(10) amah  ro-Petrus
     house GEN-Petrus
     ‘Petrus' house'
(Dol 1999: 97)

Explicit possessors[edit]

Another way that languages can distinguish between alienable and inalienable possession is to have one noun class that cannot appear without an explicit possessor.[17] For example, Ojibwe, an Algonquian language, has a class of nouns that must have explicit possessors.[18][19][b]

If explicit possessors are absent (as in (11b) and (12b)), the phrase is ungrammatical. In (11), the possessor ni is necessary for the inalienable noun nik (arm). In (12), the same phenomenon is found with the inalienable noun ookmis (grandmother), which requires the possessor morpheme n to be grammatical.

(11a) ni   nik
      POSS arm
      'my arm'
(11b) *nik
     '(an) arm'
(Nichols & Nyholm 1995: 138)
(12a) nookmis
     'my grandmother'
(12b) *ookmis
      '(a) grandmother'
(Nichols & Nyholm 1995: 189)


Hawaiian uses different prepositions to mark possession, depending on alienability: a (alienable of) is used to indicate alienable possession, as in (13a) and (14a), and o (inalienable of) indicates inalienable possession.[20]

(13a) nā  iwi   a   Pua
      the bones of  Pua
     'Pua's bones' [as in the chicken bones she is eating]
(13b) nā  iwi   o   Pua
      the bones of  Pua
     'Pua's [own] bones'
(Elbert & Pukui 1979: 139)

However, the distinction between a (alienable of) and o (inalienable of) is used for other semantic distinctions that are less clearly attributable to common alienability relationships except metaphorically. Although lei is a tangible object, in Hawaiian it can be either alienable (15a) or inalienable (15b), depending on the context.

(14a) ke  kanaka a  ke  aliʻi
      the man    of the king
     'the subject [controlled or appointed by] the chief'
(14b) ke  kanaka o  ke  aliʻi
      the man    of the king
     'the [hereditary] subject of the chief'
(Elbert & Pukui 1979: 139)
(15a) ka  lei a  Pua
      the lei of Pua
     'Pua's lei [to sell]'
(15b) ka  lei o  Pua
      the lei of Pua
     'Pua's lei [to wear]'
(Elbert & Pukui 1979: 139)

Definite articles[edit]

Subtler cases of syntactic patterns sensitive to alienability are found in many languages. For example, French can use a definite article, rather than the possessive, for body parts.[21]

(16) Il lève   les mains. 
     he raises the hands
    'He raises his hands.'
(Nakamoto 2010: 75 (2a))

Using the definite article with body parts, as in the example above, it creates ambiguity. The following sentence has both an alienable and an inalienable interpretation:

a) he raises his own hands [inalienable]
b) he raises another pair of hands [alienable]

That type of ambiguity also occurs in English with body part constructions.[22]

Spanish also uses a definite article (las) to indicate inalienable possession for body parts.[23]

(17) él se      lava   las manos
     he himself washes the hands
     'He washes his hands'
(Kockelman 2009: 30)

German uses a definite article (die) for inalienable body parts but a possessive (meine) for alienable possession.[23]

(18) Er wäscht sich   die Hände.
     he washes REFLEX the hands
     'He is washing his hands'
(Kockelman 2009: 29)
(19) ich zerriß meine Hose
     I   tore   my    pants
     'I tore my pants'
(Kockelman 2009: 30)

No distinction in grammar[edit]

Although English has alienable and inalienable nouns (Mary's brother [inalienable] vs. Mary's squirrel [alienable]), there are few formal distinctions of that in the grammar.[24] One subtle grammatical distinction is the postnominal genitive construction, which is normally used only for inalienable, relational nouns. For example, the brother of Mary [inalienable] is acceptable, but *the squirrel of Mary [alienable] would be awkward.[24]

Since the alienability distinction is rooted in semantics, in languages like English with few morphological or syntactic distinctions sensitive to alienability, ambiguities can occur. For example, the phrase she has her father's eyes has two different meanings:

a) her eyes resemble her father's [inalienable possession] 
b) she is in actual physical possession of the eyes [alienable possession]

Another example in semantic dependency is the difference between possible interpretations in a language that marks inalienable possession (such as French) with a language that does not mark it (such as English). Inalienable possession is semantically dependent and is defined in reference to another object to which it belongs.[22] (20) is ambiguous and has two possible meanings. In the inalienable possessive interpretation, la main belongs to the subject, les enfants. The second interpretation is that la main is an alienable object that does not belong to the subject. The English equivalent of the sentence (The children raised the hand) had only the alienable possessive reading in which the hand does not belong to the children.

(20) Les enfants  ont  levé   la  main
     The children have raised the hand
    'The children raised the hand'
(Vergnaud and Zubizarreta 1992: 596 (1))

Syntactically, Noam Chomsky proposed that some genitive or possessive cases originate as part of the determiner in the underlying structure.[25]:680 The inalienable possessives are derived from a different deep structure than that of alienable possession. For example, given the following interpretations of the phrase John's arm:

a) an arm that is part of John's body [inalienable]
b) the arm that John happens to have physical possession of [alienable]

In the inalienable reading, arm is a complement of the determiner phrase. That contrasts to the alienable reading in which John has an arm is part of the determiner.[25]:690 Charles J. Fillmore and Chomsky make a syntactic distinction between alienable and inalienable possession and suggest that the distinction is relevant to English.[25]

In contrast, others have argued that although semantics plays a role in inalienable possession, it is not central to the syntactic class of case-derived possessives. For example, compare the difference between the book's contents and the book's jacket. While a book cannot be divorced from its contents, it can be removed from its jacket.[25]:690 Still, both phrases have the same syntactic structure. Another example is Mary's mother and Mary's friend. The mother will always be Mary's mother, but an individual might not always be Mary's friend. Again, both have the same syntactic structure.

The distinction between alienable and inalienable possessions can be influenced by cognitive factors.[3] Languages such as English that do not encode the alienability distinction in their grammar rely on the real-world relationship between the possessed noun and possessor noun. Nouns that are "inherently relational" and whose possession is associated with a single, dominant interpretation (mother), are of the inalienable type, and nouns whose possession is open to interpretation (car) are of the alienable type.[3]

Cross-linguistic properties[edit]

Although there are different methods of marking inalienability, inalienable possession constructions usually involve the following features:[7]

  • The distinction is confined to attributive possession.
  • Alienable possession requires more phonological or morphological features than inalienable possession.
  • Inalienable possession involves a tighter structural bond between the possessor and the possessee.
  • Possessive markers on inalienable nouns are etymologically older[c]
  • Inalienable nouns include kinship terms and/or body parts.
  • Inalienable nouns form a closed class, but alienable nouns form an open class.

(Heine 1997: 85-86 (1-6))

Restricted to attributive possession[edit]

Attribution possession: the possessor (Ron) and the possessee (dog) form a phrase.
Predicative possession: the possessor (Ron) and the possessee (dog) form not a phrase but instead a clause.

Alienability can be expressed only in attributive possession constructions, not in predicative possession.[7]

Attributive possession is a type of possession in which the possessor and possessee form a phrase. That contrasts to predicative possession constructions in which the possessor and possessee are part of a clause and the verb affirms the possessive relationship.[27] The examples in (21) express the same alienable relationship between possessor and possessee but illustrate the difference between attributive and predicative possession:

Attributive possession
(21a) Ron's dog
Predicative possession
(21b) Ron has a dog
(21c) The dog is Ron's
(Heine 1997: 87 (2))

Requires fewer morphological features[edit]

If a language has separate alienable and inalienable possession constructions, and if one of the constructions is overtly marked and the other is "zero-marked", the marked form tends to be alienable possession. Inalienable possession is indicated by the absence of the overt marker.[28] An example is the data from Dâw.

One typological study showed that in 78% of South American languages that distinguish between inalienable and alienable possession, inalienable possession was associated with fewer morphological markers than its alienable counterpart. By contrast, only one of the surveyed languages required more morphological features to mark inalienable possession than alienable possession.[11] If a language makes a grammatical distinction between alienable and inalienable nouns, it is redundant to have an overt possessive marker to mark inalienability. Just by being inalienable, a noun must be possessed.

Tighter structural bond between possessor and possessee[edit]

In inalienable possession constructions, the relationship between the possessor and possessee is stronger than in alienable possession constructions. Johanna Nichols characterizes that by the tendency of inalienable possession to be head-marked but alienable possession to be dependent-marked.[26] In head-marking, the head of an inalienable possession construction (the possessed noun) is marked, but in dependent-marking, the dependent (the possessor noun) is marked.[29]

Theories of representation in syntax[edit]

Since the possessor is crucially linked to an inalienable noun's meaning, inalienable nouns are assumed to take their possessors as a semantic argument.[30] Possessors (to either alienable or inalienable nouns) can be expressed with different constructions. Possessors in the genitive case (such as the friend of Mary) appear as complements to the possessed noun, as part of the phrase headed by the inalienable noun.[22] That is an example of internal possession since the possessor of the noun is inside of the determiner phrase.

External possession[edit]

External possession in French. The possessor is outside the phrase that contains the possessee (circled in red). Sentence adapted from Vergnaud and Zubizarreta 1992: 596 (4b)
Internal possession in French. The possessor and possessee are contained inside the same phrase (circled in red). Sentence adapted from Vergnaud and Zubizarreta 1992: 596 (6b)

Inalienable possession can also be marked with external possession. Such constructions have the possessor appearing outside the determiner phrase. For example, the possessor may appear as a dative complement of the verb.

French exhibits both external possessor construction and internal possessor construction, as in (22):[22]

External possession:
(22a) Le  médecin    leur        a examiné    la                 gorge.
      the  doctor    to them      examined    SG DEF DET         throat
     'The doctor examined their throats.'
Internal possession:
(22b) Le   médecin    a examiné    leurs        gorges.
      the  doctor     examined     POSS(3PL)    throat
     'The doctor examined their throats.'
(Vergnaud and Zubizarreta 1992: 596 (4b, 6b))

However, those types of possessors are problematic. There is a discrepancy between the possessor appearing syntactically in an inalienable possession construction and what its semantic relationship to the inalienable noun seems to be. Semantically, the possessor of an inalienable noun is intrinsic to its meaning and acts like a semantic argument. On the surface syntactic structure, however, the possessor appears in a position that marks it as an argument of the verb.[12] Thus, there are different views on how those types of inalienable possession constructions should be represented in the syntactic structure. The binding hypothesis argues that the possessor is an argument of the verb. Conversely, the possessor-raising hypothesis argues that the possessor originates as an argument of the possessed noun and then moves to a position in which on the surface, it looks like it is an argument of the verb.[31]

Binding hypothesis (Guéron 1983)[edit]

The binding hypothesis reconciles the fact that the possessor appears both as a syntactic and semantic argument of the verb but as a semantic argument of the possessed noun. It assumes that inalienable possession constructions are subject to the following syntactic constraints:[12]

a. There must be an obligatory possessor.
b. The possessor must be in the same minimal domain of the possessee.
c. The possessor must c-command the possessee or its trace
    (The c-command must occur in the underlying or surface structures of the inalienable possession constructions.
Inalienable possession binding:: the possessor c-commands the possessee in its domain. The possessor and possessee constitute a lexical chain and receive the same theta-roles from the verb.

It is assumed that inalienable possession constructions are one form of anaphoric binding: obligatory control.[30] Thus, the possessor DP originates in the specifier of the verb; the fact that the possessor seems to be a semantic argument of the noun arises from the binding relationship between the possessor and possessee DPs. The parallel between inalienable possession constructions and obligatory control can be seen in the examples below:[21]

Inalienable possession
(23a) Jeani lève  lai  main
      Jean  raise the hand
     'Jean raises his hand.'
Obligatory control
(23b) Jeani veut  PROi   partir
      Jean  want (Jean)  to leave
      'Jean wants to leave'
(Nakamoto 2010: 80 (30a,b))

That hypothesis accounts for differences between French and English, and it may also eliminate the ambiguity created by definite determiners.[30] According to this hypothesis, anaphoric binding in inalienable possession constructions relates to the theta-features that a language assigns to its determiners.[12] The hypothesis predicts that inalienable possession constructions exist in languages that assign variable theta-features to its determiners and that inalienable possession constructions do not exist in languages that lack variable theta-feature assignment.[12] Therefore, inalienable possession is predicted to exist in Romance languages and even Russian but not in languages like English or Hebrew.[12] In the French sentence Il lève les mains, the determiner les is assigned theta-features. Thus, it is understood as inalienable possession. However, in the English translation, the determiner the does not have theta-features because English is considered does not assign theta-features to its determiners. Therefore, the does not necessarily signify inalienable possession and so ambiguity surfaces.

That hypothesis, however, does not account for verbs allowing reflexive anaphora (Jean se lave 'Jean washes himself').[12] To account for the grammaticality of such verbs, Guéron proposes that in an inalienable construction the POSS DP (possessor DP) and BP DP (body part DP) constitute two links of a lexical chain, in addition to their anaphoric relation.[12] The two links of a lexical chain must obey the same constraints as anaphora, which accounts for the locality restrictions on inalienable construals. Every chain is then associated with one theta-role. Inalienable possession surfaces as ungrammatical when the possessed DP and the possessor DP are assigned two different theta-roles by the verb. That explains why sentence (24b) is ungrammatical. The POSS DP is assigned an agent theta-role, and the BP DP is assigned a theme theta-role.

(24a) Jean lève  la  main
      Jean raise the hand
     'Jean raises his hand.'
(24b) *Jean lave/gratte/chatouille la main.
       Jean wash/scratch/tickle    the hand
      'Jean washes/scratches/tickles the hand.'
       AGENT                          THEME
(Guéron 2007: 598 (40, 42))

Possessor-raising hypothesis (Landau 1999)[edit]

Possessor-raising from SpecDP to SpecVP

Possessor-raising is a syntactic hypothesis that attempts to explain the structures of inalienable DPs. Landau argues that the possessor is initially introduced in the specifier position of DP (Spec-DP), but it later raises to the specifier of the VP. The possessor DP gets its theta-role from the head D, and that gives rise to the meaning that the possessor is related to the possessee.[32]

Landau's analysis is made on the basis of several properties possessives in the data case in Romance languages.[21]

a. The possessor dative must be interpreted as a possessor, not an object/theme.
b. Possession interpretation is obligatory.
c. The possessed DP cannot be an external argument.
d. The possessor dative must c-command the possessed DP (or its trace).
e. Possessive interpretation is constrained by locality.
(Nakamoto 2010: 76)
Illustration of possessor-raising in French. Sentence adapted from (Guéron 2007: 611 (100b)

The French data below illustrate how that is thought to work. The possessor lui originates in the specifier of DP as an argument of the noun figure. That is equivalent to an underlying structure Gilles a lavé lui la figure. The possessor raises to the specifier of VP, which is seen in the surface structure Gilles lui a lavé la figure.

(25) Gilles lui      a lavé        la  figure
     Gilles him.DAT  washed        the face
     [TP Gilles [VP luii a lavé [DP ti la figure]]]
     'Gilles washed his face'
(Guéron 2007: 611 (100b))

According to Guéron, a benefit of the hypothesis is that it is consistent with principles of syntactic movement such as locality of selection and c-command. If the position to which it needs to move is already filled, as with a transitive verb like see, the possessor cannot raise, and the sentence is correctly predicted to be ungrammatical.[12]

(26) *Gil ra'a le-Rina et  ha-punim
      Gil saw  to Rina the face
      [TP Gilj [VP tj ra'a [DP le-Rina et ha panim]]]
          NOM                  *DAT          ACC
      'Gil saw Rina's face'
(Guéron 2007: 613 (109))

However, some languages such as Russian do not have to raise the DP possessor and can leave it in situ, making it unclear why the possessor would ever have to raise.[12] Possessor-raising also violates a constraint on syntactic movement, the specificity constraint: an element cannot be moved out of a DP if that DP is specific.[12] In (23), the DP lui is specific, yet possessor-raising predicts it can be moved out of the larger DP lui la figure. Such movement is excluded by the specificity constraint.

Form function motivations[edit]

Inalienable possession constructions often lack overt possessors.[28] There is a debate as to how to account for the linguistically-universal difference in form. Iconicity explains the in terms of the relationship between the conceptual distance between the possessor and possessee,[33] and economy explains it by the frequency of possession.[34]

Iconic motivation (Haiman 1983)[edit]

Haiman describes iconic expression and conceptual distance and how both concepts are conceptually close if they share semantic properties, affect each other and cannot be separated from each other.[33] Joseph Greenberg hypothesizes that the distance between the possessor and possessee in a sentence with alienable possession is greater than in a sentence with inalienable constructions.[35] Because the possessor and the possessee have a close conceptual relationship, their relative positions with a sentence reflect that and there is little distance between them. Increasing the distance between the two would, in turn, increase their conceptual independence.

That is demonstrated in Yagaria, a Papuan language. It marks alienable possession by a free form pronoun as in (27a). In contrast, inalienable possession constructions use an inalienable possessor prefixed on the possessee, as in (27b). That construction has less linguistic distance between the possessor and possessee than in the alienable construction:

(27a) dgai' fu
      my    pig
     'my pig'
(27b) d-za'
     'my arm'
  (Haiman 1983: 793 (30a,b))

However, there are cases of linguistic distance not necessarily reflecting conceptual distance. In Mandarin Chinese, there are two ways to express the same type of possession, POSSESSOR + POSSESSEE and POSSESSOR + de + POSSESSEE; the latter has more linguistic distance between the possessor and possessee, but it reflects the same conceptual distance.[36] Both possessive expressions, with and without the marker de, are found in the Mandarin phrase "my friend", seen in (28a) compared to (28b):[37]

(28a) DE péngyǒu
      I  DE friend
     'My    friend'
(28b) wǒ péngyǒu
      I  friend
     'My friend'
(Hsu 2009: 101 (22a,b))

In contrast to the previous example, the omission of the marker de is ungrammatical, as in example (29b). The linguistic distance between the possessor and possessee is much smaller in (29b) than in (29a). It has been argued that the omission of de occurs only in kinship relationships, but phrasal constructions with a mandatory de encompasses other inalienable possession examples, such as body parts.[33]:783 That contradicts the notion that inalienable possession is marked by less linguistic distance between the possessor and possessee.

(29a) wǒ xǐhuān nǐ  DE tóufà
      I  like   you DE hair
     'I  like   your   hair'
(29b) *wǒ xǐhuān nǐ   tóufà
       I  like   you  hair
      'I  like   your hair'
(Li & Thompson 1981: 169)

Economic motivation (Nichols 1988)[edit]

Nichols notes that frequently-possessed nouns, such as body parts and kinship terms, almost always occur with possessors, and alienable nouns occur with possessors less often.[34][38]

The following shows the frequency of possession between alienable and unalienable nouns in German.[38] The table below shows the number of times each noun occurred with or without a possessor in texts from the German Goethe-Corpus, the works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Noun category Noun Unpossessed Possessed
Alienable Gärtner 'gardener'
Jäger 'hunter'
Pfarrer 'priest'
Inalienable Schwester 'sister'
Tante 'aunt'
Tochter 'daughter'

The alienable nouns above are rarely possessed, but the inalienable kinship terms are frequently possessed.[38] Consequently, inalienable nouns are expected to be possessed even if they lack a distinct possessive marker. Therefore, overt markings on inalienable nouns are redundant, and to employ economical syntactic construction, languages often zero-mark their inalienable nouns.[34]

That could be explained by Zipf's Law in which the familiarity or the frequency of an occurrence motivates the linguistic simplification of the concept.[33] A listener who hears an inalienable noun can predict that it will be possessed, thereby eliminating the need for an overt possessor.[28]

Glossary of abbreviations[edit]

Morpheme glosses[edit]

* ungrammatical
3 third person
ACC accusative case
DAT dative case
DEF DET definite determiner
F feminine
GEN genitive case
NOM nominative case
PL plural
POSS possessive
REFLEX reflexive
SG singular
tx trace
i co-referenced

Syntactic trees[edit]

D determiner
DP determiner phrase
N noun
NP noun phrase
PP prepositional phrase
T tense
TP tense phrase
V verb
VP verb phrase
e empty category

Other languages[edit]

Austronesian Languages[edit]


Old Rapa is the indigenous language of Rapa Iti, an island of French Polynesia located within its Bass Islands archipelago. Within the language structure of Rapa are two primary possessive particles, a and o. The usage of the two particles is dependent on the relation between the possessor and the object. When words of the language are categorized by possessive particles, there is a very close resemblance to the usage of the possessive particle and the object's alienability. However, this relation is better defined by William Wilson in his article Proto-Polynesian Possessive Marking.

Briefly, through his two theories, the Simple Control Theory and Initial Control Theory, Wilson can contrast and thus better define the usage of the possessive particles, a and o. The Simple Control Theory speculates that the determining factor directly correlated to the possessor's control over the object; emphasizing a dominant vs. less-dominant relationship. Old Rapa adheres closer to the latter of Wilson's two theories, the Initial Control Theory, which speculates that "the possessor's control over the initiation of the possessive relationship is the determining factor." Here, his Initial Control Theory can also be generally expanded to the whole Polynesian language family in terms of better describing the "alienability" of possession.[39]

In the case of Old Rapa, the possession particle, o, is used to define a possession relationship that was not initiated on the basis of choice. The possession particle, a, is defines possession relationships that are initiated through the possessor's control. The following list and classifications are literal examples provided by Mary Walworth, in her dissertation of the Rapa language. Words that are marked with the o possessive markers are nouns that are:

  • Inalienable (leg, hand, foot)
  • A whole of which the possessor is a permanent part (household)
  • Kinship (father, mother, brother)
  • Higher social or religious status (teacher, pastor, president)
  • Vehicles (canoe, car)
  • Necessary actions (work)
  • Involuntary body functions (heartbeat, stomach, pupils, breathing)
  • Words that relate to indigenous identity (language, country)
o-marked and a-marked[39]
o-marked a-marked
house terrain
canoe taro-bed
boat children
parents spouse
brother food
sister animals
country/island oven
god grandchildren
car unborn child
teacher a group (sport's team, association)
preacher trip, coming/goings
friend project/plans
body and body parts

However, Wilson's theory does fall short in properly categorizing a few miscellaneous items such as articles of clothing and furniture that his theory would incorrectly predict to be marked with an a-possessive particle. The reverse would occur forobjects such as food and animals. The synthesis of Wilson's theory and other approach a better understanding of the Rapa language. Svenja Völkel proposed the idea of looking further into the ritualistic beliefs of the community, namely their mana. That idea has been relatable to other languages in the Eastern Polynesian language family, and it states that objects that possess less mana than the possessor are indicated with the a-possessive particle, and the usage of the o-possessive marker is reserved for the possessor's mana not being superior.[40]

The same usage of the possessive particles, a and o, in possessive pronouns can be seen in the contracted portmanteau, the combination of the articles and possessive markers. The resultants are the tō and tā prefixes in the following possessive pronouns, as can be seen in the table below:

Possessive Pronouns of Old Rapa[41]
Singular Dual Plural
First Person Inclusive tōku tāku tō māua tā māua tō mātou tā mātou
Exclusive ~~~ ~~~ tō tāua tā tāua tō tātou tā tātou
Second Person tōkoe tākoe tō kōrua tā kōrua tō koutou tā koutou
Third Person tōna tāna tō rāua tā rāua tō rātou tā rātou


Wuvulu language is a small language spoken in Wuvulu Island.[42] Direct possession has a close relationship with inalienability in the Oceanic linguistics. Similarly, the inherent possession of the possessor is called the possessum.[43]

The inalienable noun also has a possessor suffix and includes body parts, kin terms, locative part nouns, and derived nouns. According to Hafford's research, "-u" (my), "-mu" (your) and "na-"(his/her/its) are three direct possession suffix in Wuvulu.[44]

  • Body parts

Direct- possession suffix "-u"(my), "-mu" (your) and "na-"(his/her/its) can be taken to attach the noun phrase of body part.[45]

Taba-u taba-mu taba-na
my head your head his/her/its head
  • Kin terms

Kin terms in Wuvulu language take singular possessive suffixes.[45]

ʔama-u ʔama-mu ʔama-na
my father your father his/her/its father
  • Derived nouns (Nouns that derived from other words)


ʔei wareamu (Your word) is derived from the verb ware (talk)

This kind of word can take the direct possessor suffix. "-mu" (your {singular])

faʔua, ʔei ware-a-mu

true the talk-DER-2SG

Your words are true.[45]


Here is a table displaying the predicative possessive pronouns in Tokelauan:

Singular Dual Plural
1st person incl. o taua, o ta

a taua, a ta

o tatou

a tatou

1st person excl. o oku, o kita

a aku, a kite

o maua, o ma o

a maua, a ma a



2nd person o ou/o koe

a au/a koe

o koulua

a koulua

o koutou

a koutou

3rd person o ona

a ona

o laua, o la

a laua, a la

o latou

a latou


Here is a table showing Tokelauan premodifying possessive pronouns:

Possessor Singular reference Plural reference
1 singular toku, taku, tota, tata oku, aku, ota, ata
2 singular to, tau o, au
3 singular tona, tana ona, ana
1 dual incl. to ta, to taua

ta ta, ta taue

o ta, o taue

a ta, a taua

1 dual excl. to ma, to maua

ta ma, ta maua

o ma, o maua

a ma, a maua

2 dual toulua, taulua oulua, aulua
3 dual to la, to laue

ta la, ta laue

o la, o laua

a la a laua

1 plural incl. to tatou, ta tatou o tatou, a tatou
1 plural excl. to matou, ta matou o matou, a matou
2 plural toutou, tautau outou, autou
3 plural to latou, ta latau o latou, a latou
1 singular hoku, hota

haku, hata

ni oku, ni ota

niaku, niata

2 singular ho, hau ni o, ni au
3 singular hona, hana ni ona, ni ana
1 dual incl. ho ta, ho taua

ha ta, ha taua

ni o ta, ni o taue

ni a ta, ni a taua

1 dual excl. ho ma, ho maua

ha ma, ha maua

ni o ma, ni o maua

ni a ma, ni a maua

2 dual houlua, haulua ni oulua, ni aulua


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cinque and Krapova are citing Lamiroy (2003). "Grammaticalization and external possessor structures in Romance and Germanic languages", p.259, who is in turn citing Leclère (1976). "Datifs syntaxiques et datif éthique."
  2. ^ Technically, the obligatory occurrence of a possessor is a property of certain morphemes called obligatory possession, but linguists often use the term inalienable possession to mean that.
  3. ^ For example, in the Native American language Diegueño, the alienable possessive marker (?-əny) appears to originate from the inalienable possessive marker (?-ə), suggesting the latter to be older.[26]


  1. ^ "Haspelmath Possessives" (PDF).
  2. ^ Matthews, P. H. (2007). Inalienable possession. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780199202720.001.0001. ISBN 9780199202720.
  3. ^ a b c d e Lichtenberk, Frantisek; Vaid, Jyotsna; Chen, Hsin-Chin (2011). "On the interpretation of alienable vs. inalienable possession: A psycholinguistic investigation". Cognitive Linguistics. 22 (4): 659–689. doi:10.1515/cogl.2011.025. S2CID 143993134. ProQuest 919350399.
  4. ^ a b c d Nichols, Johanna; Bickel, Balthasar. "Possessive Classification". World Atlas of Language Structures. Retrieved 2011-02-26.
  5. ^ Nichols, Johanna; Bickel, Balthasar (2013). Dryer, Matthew S; Haspelmath, Martin (eds.). "Possessive Classification". The World Atlas of Language Structures Online.
  6. ^ Nichols, Johanna; Bickel, Balthasar. "Feature/Obligatory Possessive Inflection". World Atlas of Language Structures. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
  7. ^ a b c d Heine, Bernd (1997). Cognitive Foundations of Grammar. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 85–86. ISBN 9780195356205. Retrieved 6 November 2014.
  8. ^ Matthews, P. H. (2007). Noun class. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780199202720.001.0001. ISBN 9780199202720.
  9. ^ Cinque, Guglielmo; Krapova, Iliana (2008). "The two "possessor raising" constructions of Bulgarian" (PDF). Working Papers in Linguistics. 18: 68. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
  10. ^ Heine, Bernd (1997). Possession: Cognitive Sources, Forces, and Grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 182.
  11. ^ a b Krasnoukhova, Olga (2011). "Attributive possession in the languages of South America". Linguistics in the Netherlands. 28 (1): 86–98. doi:10.1075/avt.28.08kra.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Guéron, Jacqueline (2007). "Inalienable Possession". In Everaert, Martin; van Riemsdijk, Henk (eds.). The Blackwell Companion to Syntax. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 589–638. doi:10.1002/9780470996591. ISBN 9780470996591.
  13. ^ Martins, Silvana Andrade (2004). Fonologia e gramática Dâw. Utrecht, Netherlands: LOT. pp. 546–547.
  14. ^ a b c Hyman, Larry M.; Alford, Danny; Elizabeth, Akpati (1970). "Inalienable Possession in Igbo". Journal of West African Languages. VII (2).
  15. ^ Dol, Philomena (1999). A Grammar of Maybrat: A Language of the Bird's Head, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. University of Leiden. pp. 93–97.
  16. ^ Dryer, Matthew S. "Order of Genitive and Noun". The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  17. ^ Nichols, Johanna; Bickel, Balthasar. "Obligatory Possessive Inflection". World Atlas of Language Structures. Retrieved 2011-03-06.
  18. ^ Valentine, J. Randolph Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2001. §3.3.1. pg. 106 ff.
  19. ^ Nichols, J. D.; Nyholm, E. A Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1995.
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  22. ^ a b c d Vergnaud, Jean-Roger; Zubizarreta, Maria Luisa (1992). "The Definite Determiner and the Inalienable Construction in French and in English". Linguistic Inquiry. 23 (4): 595–652.
  23. ^ a b Kockelman, Paul (2009). "Inalienable Possession as Grammatical Category and Discourse Pattern". Studies in Language. 33 (1): 29–30. doi:10.1075/sl.33.1.03koc. S2CID 59504908.
  24. ^ a b Barker, Chris (2011). "Possessives and relational nouns" (PDF). In Maienborn, Claudia; von Heusinger, Klaus; Portner, Paul (eds.). Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  25. ^ a b c d Stockwell, Robert P.; Schachter, Paul; Partee, Barbara Hall (1973). The Major Syntactic Structures of English. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. ISBN 978-0-03-088042-1.
  26. ^ a b Nichols, Johanna (1992). Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time (ACLS Humanities E-Book ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 116–123.
  27. ^ Herslund, Michael; Baron, Irène (2001). Dimensions of Possession. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 1–15. ISBN 978-9027229519. Retrieved 11 December 2014.
  28. ^ a b c Haspelmath, Martin. "Alienable vs. inalienable possessive constructions" (PDF). Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Leipzig Spring School on Linguistic Diversity. Retrieved 9 November 2014.
  29. ^ Matthews, P. H. (2007). Head marking. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780199202720.001.0001. ISBN 9780199202720.
  30. ^ a b c Guéron, Jacqueline. The Blackwell Companion to Syntax, Volume I (Chapter 35). Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. pp. 595–596.
  31. ^ Kempchinsky, Paula (1992). "The Spanish possessive dative construction: θ-role assignment and proper government". In Hirschbühler, Paul; Koerner, E.F.K. (eds.). Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages (20 ed.). Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 135–148. ISBN 90-272-3591-0.
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  38. ^ a b c Good, Jeff ed. (2008). Linguistic Universals and Language Change. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 197.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  39. ^ a b WILSON, WILLIAM H. 1982. Proto-Polynesian possessive marking. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
  40. ^ Vökel, Svenja. 2010. Structure, space, and possession in Tongan culture and language: An ethnolinguistic study. John Benjamins Publishing.
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  42. ^ Hafford, James (2015). "Introduction". Wuvulu Grammar and Vocabulary: 1.
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External links[edit]