Semantics Workshop: ‘Understanding Possession’

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Saturday, April 5th, 2014 – Room 3212
9.00-10.00   Invited Speaker:
Kilu von Prince (ZAS)
Lexical relationality and the alienability distinction – a perspective from Daakaka
10.00-10.20   Coffee Break
10.20-10.55   Marcel den Dikken (CUNY Graduate Center)
On the morphosyntax of (in)alienably possessed noun phrases
10.55-11.30   Balkiz Öztürk Basaran and Eser Erguvanli Taylan (Boğaziçi University)
Possessive Constructions in Turkish: PPs in Disguise
11.30-11.45   Coffee Break
11.45-12.20   Chiara Gianollo (Universät Köln)
Internal and External possession in the diachrony of Greek
12.20-12.55   Neil Myler (NYU), Einar Freyr Sigurðsson (University of Pennsylvania), Jim Wood (Yale University)
Predicative Possession Builds on Top of Attributive Possession: Evidence from Icelandic
12.55-13.55   Lunch
13.55-14.30   Ellen Brandner (University of Konstanz)
On possessive (reflexive) pronouns, equatives, and the structural basis of Principle A
14.30-15.05   Bronwyn M. Bjorkman and Elizabeth Cowper (University of Toronto)
Possession and necessity: from individuals to worlds
15.05-15.20   Coffee Break
15.20-16.20   Invited Speaker:
Chris Barker (NYU)
Pair semantics
Alternate 1   Giorgos Spathas (University of Stuttgart)
Disentangling own: evidence from association with focus
Alternate 2   Neil Myler (NYU)
Predicative Possession Constructions Vary in the 1st-Merge Position of the Possessor: An Existence Proof from Cochabamba Quechua

Theme description

Possessive relations are expressed in the world’s languages by a myriad of dedicated grammatical means. In recent years, possession has received notable attention from semanticists as well as (morpho)syntacticians (see Barker 2011 and Börjars & Denison 2013 for recent overviews). Despite these efforts, many important aspects of how possession is encoded in human language remain poorly understood.

The aim of the workshop is to bring semanticists and (morpho)syntacticians together to enhance our understanding of possession.

The expression of possession typically involves a possessee, a possessor and an element that marks the existence of a possessive relation. The semantic and syntactic properties of these three interact with pragmatics as well as with the morphosyntactic and semantic context. At each of these levels important questions arise.


With respect to the possessee, Partee (1983/1997), Löbner (1985), De Bruin & Scha (1988), Barker (1995) and many others propose that a distinction must be made between relational and non- relational—or sortal—nouns. Relational nouns semantically function as two-place predicates, while non-relational nouns behave as one-place predicates. This distinction between relational and sortal nouns raises several important questions:

  • What is the connection between semantic and syntactic arguments (see e.g. Von Prince 2012)?
  • Is a two-place lexical entry the only way to arrive at relational interpretations (see e.g. Partee & Borschev 2003 and Le Bruyn, de Swart & Zwarts 2013)?
  • Are some possessive constructions limited either to relational or sortal nouns, as proposed by Barker (1995)?
  • Can the relational vs. sortal distinction derive the split between alienable and inalienable possession (see e.g. Vergnaud & Zubizeretta 2003, Chappell & McGregor 1996, Aikhenvald & Dixon 2013 for discussion) or is a further semantic decomposition of possessed nouns needed to do so?


Some possessive constructions impose semantic and syntactic restrictions on the possessor. For example: (i) The Dutch possessive –s suffix can only occur on proper names, (ii) Possessors that co-occur with linking morphemes in the Austronesian language Daakaka must be animate (Von Prince 2012). Such restrictions raise the follow questions:

  • In which module of the grammar do these restrictions arise? Semantics, the lexicon, morphology or syntax? Or are they the result of interplay between these modules?
  • What is the range of cross-linguistic variation with respect to these restrictions and how can we account for (the restrictions on) this variation?

In some languages, non-pronominal possessors can be doubled by a possessive pronoun (e.g. Dutch Jan zijn boek (Jan his book)):

  • What are the morphosyntactic properties of such possessor doubling (see e.g. Grohmann & Haegeman 2003, Corver & Van Koppen 2010, Salzmann & Georgi 2011, Schoorlemmer 2012)?
  • How is possessor doubling interpreted by the semantics?

Possession markers

The world’s languages display an impressive array of variation with respect to the morphosyntactic means to signal possession (see e.g. Aikhenvald & Dixon 2013; Börjars & Denison 2013; Nichols & Bickel 2005; Dryer 2005). It can be signaled by genitive case, prepositions, dedicated possessive markers, construct state, etc. The relation between this morphosyntactic variation and the semantics of possession remains largely unexplored in the literature.

  • Do different markers of possession invoke different semantics (see e.g. Partee & Borschev 2003 for discussion)?
  • Does the marker itself introduce a relational semantics or does it merely reflect that another element does so?
  • Is there a limit on the morphosyntactic variation in possession marking and how can we account for (the restrictions on) this variation?

Semantic composition, syntactic structure, context and pragmatics

Finally, the role of semantic composition, syntactic structure, context and pragmatics in possession is still poorly understood.

  • Which semantic compositional processes play a role in possession?
  • What is the syntactic structure of possessive constructions (see e.g. Szabolcsi 1983, Kayne 1994, Den Dikken 1998, Corver 2003, Coene & d’Hulst 2003)? How does this syntactic structure relate to semantic composition?
  • Can the syntax and semantics of possession be reduced to that of locative constructions (see e.g. Freeze 1992, Kayne 1993, Belvin & Den Dikken 1997)?
  • Is there any competition between possession markers, and if so, are there any meaning effects associated with this competition (see e.g. Le Bruyn & Alexandropoulou 2013 for a recent discussion on French inalienable possession).
  • How much of relational interpretations can be derived from context or pragmatic reasoning (see e.g. Vikner & Jensen 2002 for discussion)?

We invite abstracts for 35 minute talks (25 talk, 10 discussion) that enhance our understanding of possession by either directly or indirectly addressing one or more of the above questions. Possible formats include but are not limited to:

  • New theoretical insights in the semantics or (morpho)syntax of possession.
  • Theoretical (semantic, (morpho)syntactic or pragmatic) explorations of possession that aim to derive (part of) the variation we find cross-linguistically.
  • Studies—synchronic or diachronic—of (part of) a language specific possession paradigm, both from well-studied and lesser-studied languages, that show us what the relevant semantic or (morpho)syntactic building blocks of possession patterns are.
  • Micro- or macro-comparative studies of (parts of) possession paradigms, that show us what the relevant semantic or (morpho)syntactic parameters underlying the variation in possession patterns are.
  • Studies working out the semantics of previously explored syntactic/morphological analyses, investigating how syntax/morphology maps to semantics.

Read the call for papers


Invited Speakers

Important dates

  • First call & opening of the submissions: June 15, 2013
  • Second call: September 15, 2013
  • Third call: November 15, 2013
  • Abstract submission deadline: December 1, 2013
  • Notification of acceptance: January 31, 2014
  • Workshop: April 5,  2014.


  • Aikhenvald, A., & Dixon, R. (2013). Possession and Ownership (Vol. 6). Oxford University Press.
  • Barker, C. (1995). Possessive descriptions. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
  • Barker, C. (2011). Possessives and relational nouns [Chapter 45]. In: von Heusinger, K., Maienborn, C., & 
  • Portner, P. (eds.), Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1009-1130.
  • Belvin, R. & Den Dikken, M. (1997). There happens to, be, have. Lingua, 101 (3/4), 151-183. 
  • Börjars, K., Denison, D., & Scott, A. (2013). Morphosyntactic categories and the expression of possessionAmsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • De Bruin, J., & Scha, R. (1988). The interpretation of relational nouns. In: Proceedings of the 26th annual meeting on Association for Computational Linguistics, Association for Computational Linguistics, 25-32.
  • Le Bruyn, B., & Alexandropoulou, S. (2013). Inalienable possession : the semantics of the definite article. Paper submitted for publication in: Aguilar-Guevara, A., Le Bruyn, B., Zwarts, J., Weak Referentiality, to be published with John Benjamins. [available online at
  • Le Bruyn, B., de Swart, H. & Zwarts, J. (2013). Establishing relations. Manuscript of a paper to be presented at SALT 23. [available online at
  • Chappell, H., & McGregor, W. (eds.) (1996). The grammar of inalienability: A typological perspective on body part terms and the part-whole relation (Vol. 14). de Gruyter.
  • Coene, M & D’Hulst, Y (2003). From NP to DP, Volume II: the expression of possession in noun phrases. John Benjamins.
  • Corver, N. (2003). A note on micro-dimensions of possession in Dutch and related languages. In Germania et alia: a linguistic webschrift for Hans den Besten.
  • Corver, N. and Van Koppen, M. (2010). Ellipsis in Dutch possessive noun phrases: a micro-comparative approach. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics, 13, 99-140.
  • Den Dikken, M. (1998). Predicate inversion in DP. In Alexiadou, A. & Wilder, C. (eds.), Possessors, predicates, and movement in the Determiner Phrase, John Benjamins, 177-214.
  • Freeze, R. (1992). Existentials and other locatives. Language, 68 (3), 553-595.
  • Georgi, D., & Salzmann, M. (2011). DP-internal double agreement is not double Agree: consequences of Agreebased case assignment within DP. Lingua, 121 (14), 2069-2088.Grohmann, K. & Haegeman L. (2003). Resuming reflexives. Nordlyd, 31 (3), 46-62.
  • Kayne, R.S. (1993). Towards a modular theory of auxiliary selection. Studia Linguistica, 47 (1), 3-31.
  • Kayne, R.S. (1994). The anti-symmetry of syntax. The MIT Press. 
  • Löbner, S. (1985). Definites. Journal of semantics, 4(4), 279-326.
  • Nichols, J., & Bickel, B. (2005). Possessive classification. In: Haspelmath, M., Dryer, M., Gil, D., & Comrie, B., The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, Oxford University Press, 242-245.
  • Partee, B. (1983/1997). Uniformity vs. versatility: the genitive, a case study. Appendix to Theo Janssen, 1997. In: van Benthem, J., & ter Meulen, A. (eds.), Compositionality. The Handbook of Logic and Language, Elsevier, 464–70.
  • Partee, B., & Borschev, V. (2003). Genitives, relational nouns, and argument-modifier ambiguity. In: Lang, E., Maienborn, C., & Fabricius-Hansen, C. (eds), Modifying Adjuncts, Mouton de Gruyter, 67-112. 
  • von Prince, K. (2012). Nominal possession in Daakaka: Transitivizing vs. linking. In Proceedings of AFLA (Vol. 18). [available online at]
  • Schoorlemmer, E. (2012). Definiteness marking in Germanic: morphological variations on the same syntactic theme. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics, 15 (2), 107-156.
  • Szabolcsi, A. (1983). The possessor that ran away from home. The Linguistic Review, 3, 89-102. 
  • Vergnaud, J. R., & Zubizarreta, M. L. (1992). The definite determiner and the inalienable constructions in French and in English. Linguistic Inquiry, 23(4), 595-652.
  • Vikner, C., & Jensen, P. (2002). A semantic analysis of the English genitive. Interaction of lexical and formal semantics. Studia Linguistica, 56(2), 191-226.