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Review of  Possession and Ownership

Reviewer: David Douglas Robertson
Book Title: Possession and Ownership
Book Author: Alexandra Y Aikhenvald R. M. W. Dixon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 26.2564

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume emerges from a week-long workshop in 2010 whose participants came together to compare fieldwork findings from a wide variety of languages on a seemingly simple topic: possession. Working from a shared checklist of related parameters, their presentations, which became chapters in this book, highlight the fascinating ways in which possession is marked, and its additional functions across languages. The contributors present their chapters in a Basic Linguistic Theory framework (cf. Dixon 2010a,b and 2012), that is, the “cumulative typological functional framework” of linguistic description (ix), thus favoring observation, comparison and explanation over mutable formalisms.

Editor Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald contributes an introductory essay sharing its title with the volume (Chapter 1); this review will focus on her essay because it so concisely summarizes the substance of the rest of the volume as well as of the literature on possession. She launches this masterful summary with a glance (Section 1) at the cross-linguistic fundamentals of possession that serves as a key to the volume. Languages universally express the relationship of possession, both within noun phrases (elaborated in Chapter 2) and predicatively within clauses (Chapter 3). In the latter a dedicated construction or an 'associative' noun phrase, or both, are used. Constructions vary according to the various kinds of PRel (possessive relationship) and the Pr (possessor) and Pe (possessee) involved therein. The marking used for expressing possession can function in further ways (Chapter 4), with many languages tending to employ it to indicate various core and peripheral arguments. Possession holds interest for the anthropological linguist as well, reflecting as it frequently does the deep assumptions and values of a culture (Chapter 5). Possessorhood is bound up with notions of control and power (Chapter 6).

Aikhenvald goes into further detail about these topics. Her Section 2 surveys 'Meanings and Forms in Possessive Noun Phrases'; the core types are ownership, whole-part relations, and kinship relations. Marking of PRels in NPs can consist of word order, possessor marking, possessee marking, marking of both, or an independent marker morph. Prs tend to be high on the Nominal Hierarchy; Pes often are classified as involved in alienable versus inalienable PRels. Some languages can mark inalienable nouns as 'unpossessed' to turn them into free forms; some items cannot be possessed. Time, permanency, control, and proximity of possession can be grammatically reflected too. Further subcategorization of PRels is not uncommon in the form of classifiers, either of the PRel's properties (e.g. 'alimentary' possession versus other) or those of the Pe (the more well-known concept of noun classifiers).

Aikhenvald's Section 3 looks more deeply into clause-level possession, which can be expressed as a predication, as a grammatical relation, or via strategies such as topicalization or relativization. A given language may use more than one of these. The predication strategies for expressing possession include verbs of ownership, which often are reserved for relatively time-unstable PRels and often are exceptional in lacking various inflectional possibilities, or in having grammaticalized from another word, or in having Pr-focused ʹhaveʹ and Pe-focused ʹbelongʹ forms. Also often seen are copula constructions and verbless clauses (reflecting several degrees of relative time-stability in possessive relations), and possessive derivations.

With section 4 of Aikhenvaldʹs survey essay, she turns from form to function to summarize some additional uses of possession-marking. These include purpose or benefaction, argument marking in a variety of clause types, and relativization. Section 5 points out that possessive marking, as sensitive as it already is to cultural dynamics, is particularly prone to contact influences. Those dynamics are surveyed in a bit more depth in Section 6, which discusses interactions of grammatical possession with social relationships, values and concepts; with diachronic changes in culture; and with understandings of what is an essential possession. Section 7 summarizes the essay concisely.

The volume's other contributions follow, among them Chapter 2, “Ownership, part-whole, and other possessive-associative relations in Nêlêmwa (New Caledonia)” by Isabelle Bril, like the following single-language grammatical studies, opens by situating her discussion in this language's overall structure, then sketching the overt forms taken by possession in Nêlêmwa. There are separate “direct” (~close relation) and “indirect” (~looser/abstract relation) possessive pronouns, a distinction that is typical for an Oceanic language, as is the presence of noun classes: free, bound/relational, and possessive/relational classifiers. Unusually however, each noun class has distinct possessive properties; for example bound nouns are inherently relational (~possessed) entities. An interesting observation echoed throughout the volume is that animacy effects are observable in possession, with definite human Pr's participating in ownership PRel's (subdivided into the alienable and inalienable). Inanimate/non-specific Pr's appear in looser relations including part-whole, associatives and hyponyms. Modifying nouns have sometimes grammaticalized into adposition status, whether of locative, causal/benefactive or other function. Among the relations that are expressed in a possessive manner are, interestingly, quantification including numeral (both cardinal and ordinal) and measure such as 'piece of' and 'two of (them)'. Possessive predication is accomplished variously by non-verbal predication, positively or negatively/privatively by copulas, or by incorporation of body parts (in expressions of grooming). Notably, not all entities can be possessed.

The remaining chapters are similarly detailed explorations of a typologically diverse sampling among particular languages and cultures, here summarized in less detail. The first in a sequence of contributions that are primarily linguistically-oriented is Chapter 3, “Possession in Moskona, an East Bird's Head language” by Gloria J. Gravelle, examining a western New Guinean language's phonologically-marked noun classes, among other phenomena that touch on possession. Chapter 4, “Possession and ownership in Manambu, a Ndu language from the Sepik area, Papua New Guinea”, is contributed by editor Aikhenvald. This chapter concerns itself with examining how Manambu speech habits and grammar reflect both totemic subclan ownership of names and associated lands, and more mundane possession of objects. Alan Dench's Chapter 5, “Possession in Martuthunira” [Pama-Nyungan, Australia], is another anthropologically-informed study, taking care to note the expression of such concepts as kinship relations (also in local Aboriginal English) and extended ownership-related concepts like 'steal', 'keep'. In Chapter 6, “Possession in Nanti” [Arawak, Peru] by Lev Michael, the language in focus features both the most restrictive range of possessive concepts in the volume and a number of uniquely fascinating verb constructions involving novel expressions of possesive relations. A Tibeto-Burman language of India gets an analysis distinct from others in the volume in Chapter 7, “Possession and association in Galo language and culture” by Mark W. Post. He argues that a more relevant concept to the Galo forms discussed is ASSOCIATION of one entity by another, rather than its POSSESSION, an idea taken up by some other contributors also. Chapter 8 “Possessive constructions in Mandarin Chinese” by Yongxian Luo, is rich with illustrative examples and shows that many 'possessive' constructions have no possessive meaning at all. Chapter 9 is “Possession in Hone” [East Benue-Congo] by Anne Storch, where attention is given to contact-induced change in both the concepts and expression of Pr-Pe relations, and to the relatively prominent role of acquisition rather than ownership. Felix K. Ameka uses his Chapter 10, “Possessive constructions in Likpe (Sɛkpɛlé)” [Niger-Congo], to advance the stimulating view that “the primary meaning coded by possessive constructions is that of kinship and other socio-cultural relationships” (p.224); he too notes change due to contact. Among its many fascinating observations, Chapter 11 “Possession in Wandala” [a Central Chadic language], by Zygmunt Frajzyngier, makes the point that while this language fails to mark possessive modification as previously understood in the literature, it does code possession of X with a 'be with .X' construction that has grammaticalized from the predication of coexistence.

The first of two primarily anthropologically-oriented contributions comes in Chapter 12, “Spirits of the forest, the wind, and new wealth: defining some of the possibilities, and limits, of Kamula possession”, by Michael Wood. This study takes a Melanesian society as an exemplar of possession being conceived as much in terms of association as of dissociation and exclusion; Wood's analysis of the precedence taken by Kamula ancestral spirits' possessive claims to traditional resources (e.g. land) and new ones (e.g. wind power) is thought-provoking. The other anthropological piece is Chapter 13, “Being and belonging: exchange, value, and land ownership in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea” by Rosita Henry, who, like a majority of this volume's authors, keeps diachronic change in view. Here she presents a compelling case for seeing an ongoing negotiated coexistence of traditional 'inclusive' (tribal group) ownership with newly introduced 'exclusive' (individual) legal title to the land of a coffee plantation. The book is in a sense summarized with Chapter 14, “Possession and also ownership—vignettes”, in which co-editor R.M.W. Dixon refines a few linguistic and anthropological themes touched upon less deeply in the previous chapters. His section 1 discusses how languages lacking copulas express predicative possession, e.g. with possessive pronouns and comitative/privative case-marking. Dixon also examines, in section 2, instances counter to the generalization that the possessee is the head of a possessive construction (in that a Pe is “the only obligatory component and may make up a complete phrase on its own”, p.294). Reflecting the principle of iconicity, inalienable possession in some languages is conveyed simply by juxtaposition of Pr with Pe, and in some of the languages it is Pr which is the head of the expression; Dixon concludes that these constructions are not 'possessive' but 'identification' of an entity in terms of some part of it. Finally, with section 3 of the chapter, Dixon meditates on 'What can be possessed, and owned', examining the range of meaning of the English words 'own' and 'possess', then considering cross-linguistic and cross-cultural assumptions about which of those concepts applies in regard to one's name, language, and land.


“Possession and Ownership” is an invaluable contribution to the linguistic typology literature. The volume introduces a structured analytical means of understanding the great variety of forms taken by the expression of 'having', 'owning', and so forth. The book's nature as a cross-linguistic survey allows it to clarify many hitherto outstanding issues such as which are the core types of possesion that are recurrently encountered in languages, and which are more peripheral. An equally valuable contribution is to in turn consider what further uses possessive expressions get put to in the world's languages and cultures, and to identify tests for 'true' possessives versus such modified usages.

The book does a great service too in identifying a number of recurring principles in possessive marking that almost certainly are new to readers. For example, iconicity is pointed out, whereby more-alienable relations tend to be expressed by greater formal marking, and less-alienable ones by less or no marking; also noted is the presence of nominal-hierarchy effects, whereby speech-act participants as possessors often are 'more closely knit' with possessees than are third persons. Also quite stimulating is the editors' identification of areas needing further research, such as the range of variation in marking of 'lack' (p.27), in relativization of possessors (p.41), in possible 'semantic motivation' for the extended uses of possessive marking (p.43), and in connections between possession and taboo (p.50).

The fact that a typologically rich selection of languages are examined in such detail brings alive the concepts under discussion in a way likely to inspire and guide much further research. And the inclusion of an extensive bibliography accompanying Aikhenvald's introductory survey chapter is itself a highly useful guide to the state of the possession literature.

One can expect to put a fair amount of thought into reading this books, due both to the substantial information it introduces and to the somewhat light editorial hand that has been applied in compiling its diverse articles. As can so easily happen in this sort of volume, terminology is not quite uniform among the contributors; for example, chapter 2 uses “determiner” without explanation that this is equivalent to the otherwise-encountered “Pr”/“possessor”. The Abbreviations key (pages xv-xxii) is a thorough guide to the various articles' dozens of technical abbreviations, though it suffers from redundancies (both APPL and APPLIC for 'applicative', for example) and confusing overlaps (like Pr 'possessor', pr 'possessive pronoun' and pr- 'possessive prefix'--all used in chapter 3). This key includes many categories that will be unfamiliar to even linguistically sophisticated readers ('venitive' and 'ventive' are an eye-catching pair), such that a separate glossary would have been worth including. There are in addition passages which might have benefited from an editor's modifying the author's grammatical yet unidiomatic English phrasing. There are some mishaps in outline structure in certain articles. A random example is the empty heading “1 Introduction” in Chapter 11, followed by a subsection numbered 1.1 without any further subsections being present. A few typographical mistakes at first cause head-scratching; in Chapter 3, section 4.2 has consecutive subheadings I and II both titled 'POSSESSORS IN DIRECT POSSESSION PHRASES'; the first should read 'POSSESSEES...'. These however are quite minor concerns and the volume is very highly recommended as an addition to the burgeoning typological literature.


Dixon, R.M.W. 2010a. Basic Linguistic Theory: Volume 1 / Methodology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. 2010a. Basic Linguistic Theory: Volume 2 / Grammatical Topics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dixon, R.M.W. 2012. Basic Linguistic Theory: Volume 3 / Further Grammatical Topics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
David Robertson is a consulting linguist who specializes in Pacific Northwest languages. He is currently working on the documentation of Salish (Lower Chehalis) and pidgins (Chinook Jargon and previously undescribed pidgins of British Columbia).

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