The expression of possession

The expression of possession. Ed. by William B. McGregor. (The expression of cognitive categories 2.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2010. Pp. 435. ISBN 9783110184389. $29.95.

Reviewed by Dimitrios Ntelitheos, United Arab Emirates University

This book is a collection of nine articles focusing on how possession is expressed in different languages. William McGregor’s introduction discusses basic issues related to possession, such as the nature of possessum and possessor entities and of the possessive relation, including attributive/adnominal, predicative, and external possession.

The first article in the collection, by Peter Willemse, Kristin Davidse, and Liesbet Heyvaert, probes the information status of the possessum in English adnominal possessive constructions, showing that its treatment as a definite noun phrase does not adequately capture its properties. It introduces a taxonomy of givenness, showing that possessum referents can have a status at any point in this hierarchy. Jan Rijkhoff discusses co-variation between form and function of adnominal possessive modifiers in Dutch and English and concludes that the term ‘attributive possession’ is too general to capture the distribution of possessives. In Doris Payne’s contribution, the semantic/thematic relation between predicate possession and location is examined in a critical fashion on the basis of data from Maa to show that possession cannot be just a metaphorical extension of location.

Sonja Eisenbeiβ, Ayumi Matsuo, and Ingrid Sonnenstuhl provide a crosslinguistic overview of child language acquisition studies of possessive structures, and show that children follow a step-by-step process in the emergence and range of functions acquired of possessive structures. Mirjam Fried introduces a constructional account of plain vs. situational possession in Czech, and shows that the possibility of something becoming a possessum lies in cultural concepts and expectations of what can be possessed rather than animacy or concreteness.

Frantisek Lichtenberk turns the discussion to possessive constructions in Oceanic languages. Most Oceanic languages have two distinct types of attributive possession, in which the possessive affix attaches directly to the possessum (which overwhelmingly signals inalienable possession) or to a possessive classifier (which expresses some types of inalienable possession). Miriam van Staden discusses possessive clauses in East Nusantara, a linguistic area of East Indonesia and Timor. One of the languages, Tidore, exhibits a split, argument-referencing system in which verbal arguments are marked on the predicate differently than possessive arguments, which blurs the distinction between attributive and predicative possession.

In Hein van der Voort’s account of possessive expressions in Southwestern Amazon, two main adnominal possessive strategies are described, in which a possessive element attaches to either the possessor or the possessum. Finally, Kearsy Cormier and Jordan Fenlon discuss possession in British Sign Language, showing that it exhibits many of the patterns found in spoken languages (e.g. attributive versus predicative possession, the expression of inalienable possession), but differs significantly in its inherent use of ‘space’  in the expression of possession.

This collection of articles is essential reading for researchers, academics, and advanced linguistics students interested in the expression of possession crosslinguistically and the relation between the linguistic forms of different possessive structures and their semantic or grammatical functions.