Possession and Syntactic Categories

The semantic notion of “possession” is not straight-forwardly mapped onto a uniform syntax across languages. In English, this is represented by ’s, which is part of the nominal extended projection. Semantically, ’s denotes a two-place function, asserting that some kind of contextually determined relation holds between two entities.

Of course, other two-place functions in English are mapped onto a different syntactic category – they’re just transitive verbs. The question then arises why there shouldn’t be a verbal counterpart of ’s: something with the exact same semantics (or very close to it), but a verb. The most apparent candidate for such a verb would be have, but earlier influential work by Szabolcsi, Freeze, and Kayne has convincingly showed that it can’t be that.

In this work, I argue that the Oceanic language Äiwoo does have such a verb. In fact, in this language this is the only way to express possession at all. There is no nominal possessive whatsoever – even what looks like counterparts of English my, your(s), their(s), etc., are in fact possessive verbs. Every possessed DP contains a relative clause, based on this verb: “Ana’s dog” is, really, “the dog [that is Ana’s]”.

This offers an empirical proof that the mapping between syntax and semantics must be relatively flexible. If possession is just a tool to assert that a certain relation holds between two entities, nothing in our theory of grammar predicts that such a notion should only be limited to a specific syntactic category.

If you’re curious, find the manuscript under my publications!