Split possession

Split possession: An areal-linguistic study of the alienability correlation and related phenomena in the languages of Europe. By Thomas Stolz, Sonja Kettler, Cornelia Stroh, and Aina Urdze. (Studies in language companion series 101.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2008. Pp. x, 546. ISBN 978902720568. $195 (Hb).

Reviewed by Giorgio Iemmolo, University of Pavia

This book  is a valuable typological-funtionalist insight into the domain of possession. It reveals new facts about possession in European languages to linguists interested in typology, areal linguistics, and language universals.

The authors focus on the existence of possession splits in European languages, which are usually considered to lack this feature. Therefore, the authors dispute Johanna Nichols’ (1992) position (among others) that European languages do not allow possession splits.

Possession splits can be realized not only with overt marking, as observed in many non-European languages, but also by means of a variety of factors that affect obligatoriness, such as the systematical blocking of overt marking in a particular context.

The results from the fifty language sample demonstrate that possession splits are caused by both genetic and geographical factors, even though these criteria do not sufficiently explain the phenomenon. The areal distribution of posession splits reflects the European isogloss in which the core (i.e. Standard Average European) represents an innovative pattern that lacks split possession. Additionally, European languages show a general tendency to realize pronominal possession splits in cases in which at least two syntactic areas are subject to split possession. However, in cases in which a pronominal split is not allowed, a general dispreference for the splits to occur at the same time in genitive and predicative constructions has been demonstrated.

European languages show similarities in the distribution of splits—that is, in pronominal possession the split occurs between kinship terms and body-part posession, whereas in predicative possession the split divides psycho-mental states from other concepts. Additionally, languages differ according to the number of splits allowed in any syntactic area. Accordingly, polysplits are predominantly found in pronominal possession, expecially in languages spoken in the Northwest and  the Southeast of Europe.

Furthermore, the authors demonstrate that the kind of possession splits that affect European languages are determined  by inalienability in only a few cases, whereas the majority of splits are brought about by other semantic distinctions such as the reference to the ego. Nevertheless, the role played by semantic factors in defining the occurrence of possession splits is narrowed by the presence of other stronger factors governed by syntax and pragmatics (e.g. definiteness, animacy, time individuation, syntactic weight), whereas typological parameters do not rule possession splits.

Possession splits are determined by three parameters—namely, the possessor, the possessee, and the relationship between them. This tripartition is a useful tool for classifying the types of splits found in language. Accordingly, splits determined by the possessor are strongly bound to empathy, whereas possessee-determined splits rely on the control of the possessor over the possessee. Finally, the possession splits triggered by the relation itself are ruled by time and manner distinctions.


Nichols, Johanna. 1992. Linguistic diversity in space and time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.