In the Celtic languages when you want to say that you have/own/possess something, you say that the thing is at/by/with you, often with the prepositions merging with the pronouns.

For example, this is how to say ‘I have a book’ in those languages:

– Irish: Tá leabhar agam [lit. “is book at-me]
– Scottish Gaelic: Tha leabhar agam [lit. “is book at-me]
– Manx: Ta lioar aym [lit. “is book at-me]
– Breton: Ur Ul levr a zo ganin [lit. “a book is with-me”]
– Cornish: Yma lyver dhymm [lit. “here is book to-me”]
– Welsh (North): Mae gen i lyfr (North Wales) [lit. “is with me book”]
– Welsh (South): Mae llyfr (gy)da fi [lit. “is book with me”]
– Welsh (literary): Mae gynnaf llyfr [lit. “is with-me book”]

This kind of structure occurs in a number of other languages that don’t have the equivalent of the verb ‘to have’. Russian, for example, uses a similar construction to show possession:

– У меня есть книга (U menja est’ kniga) = I have a book [lit. “by/at me there is book”].

Do you know of any other languages that use this type of stucture?

25 thoughts on “Possession

  1. Modern Standard Arabic uses a very similar construction, actually, although the selection of preposition depends on the context:

    When talking about family members, friends, or other people, you use ل li:
    – لي أختان lī uxtān, “I have two sisters” [lit. to me are two sisters]

    If you talk about having something with you in the immediate present rather than just owning it, you use مع ma’a:
    – معي ألف درهم ma’ī alf dirham, “I have 1000 dirhams (in my pocket right now)” [lit. with me are 1000 dirhams]

    In virtually all other cases you use عند ‘and:
    – عندي بيت كبير ‘andi bayt kabīr, “I have a big house” [lit. by me is a big house]

    Often, though, this can be a matter of personal judgement (such as with diseases, when some speakers would say ل li and some would say عند ‘and), and in the Spoken Syrian dialect (I can’t speak for any others) you virtually always use عند ‘and.

  2. Finnish uses a similar structure: “I have a book” is “Minulla on kirja”. “Minulla” is in the adessive case, which means “on” or “at”.

  3. In Fijian: “I have a book” is “E dua na noqu ivola”

    “E dua” – There is one
    “na” – article
    “noqu” – first person singular possession (my)
    “ivola” – book

  4. As I recall, three different classical languages use this construction, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Latin (and Greek too) uses an existential sentence (form of “sum” to be) and places the possessor in the dative case, e.g. mihi equus est. Classical Arabic follows this dative construction as well, literally expressing “to me belongs the object.” I would be interested to know if other early Indo-European languages and other Semitic languages follow this dative of possession structure.

  5. Tibetan uses a similar structure

    ང་ལ་དེབ་ཡོད། nga la deb yod/

    [lit. I at book exists ]

  6. There are lots and lots of languages like this. I’m not sure if this exhausts the possibilities that languages exploit, but the difference between languages that use a verb (often etymologically derived from a word meaning ‘grasp’ or ‘hold’) and those that use a prepositional existential construction is one of the most important typological differences.

    Arabic and other Semitic languages, like Hebrew, use a preposition ʕinda or li to which personal suffixes fuse: ʕindī kitāb (Arabic); yeš li sefer (Hebrew).

    Many Bantu languages use the same strategy too, with the associational preposition/prefix na: to which subject prefixes fuse in certain environments. In Swahili, this leads to deletion of the verb root √li in unstressed environment: [ni/wa]na [ki/vi]tabu ‘I/they have (a/the) book(s)’ but niliye/walio na vitabu ‘I/they who have the books’. In Zulu, with incwadi ‘book’, the phrase is fused in spelling: nginencwadi ‘I have a/the book’; banezincwadi ‘they have a/the books’.

    There’s also the fusion of meanings between ‘have’ and ‘exist’ in many languages. Various sign languages use the verb usually interpreted as ‘have’ to mean ‘exist’ or ‘be present’: so in American or Quebec Sign Languages, HAVE BOOK on its own would mean ‘there is a book’ and only takes on the meaning ‘I/you/[s]he etc. have/has a/the book’ with the relevant indexing sign or eyegaze. French (apart from the more marked, semi-learned exister) ‘ave’ plus ‘there’ to signify existence: il y a X there exist(s) X. Same for Tagalog: the same verb used for ‘have/be’ may combines with doon to form mayroon X ‘there is/are X’.

  7. By the way, English have is directly related to the Latin √cap- ‘grab’ (as in ‘capture’); Latin habeō ‘I have’ is directly related to English give, again derived from the sense ‘grasp/hold’ from Proto-Indo-European *geb- (Glottalic reconstruction)/*ghebh- (Classical aspiration theory reconstruction). And it’s quite likely that the two roots are directly related via some morphological or interdialectal borrowing process in the Proto-Indo-European speech area that we have no clear an direct evidence for.

  8. Tamil, a South Dravidian language, also uses this ‘dative of possession’ structure as highlighted so well by our friend Christopher DeCou above:

    enniDam oru pustakam irukkiRadu
    to-me one/a book there is

    enakku oru pustakam irukkiRadu
    for-me one/a book there is

    Japanese too:

    Watashi ni hon ga aru
    to-me book there is

  9. In Hungarian, you use a type of existence to describe it. A sentence would, literally translated, sound something like “[there] is my cat” to say “I have a cat”.

  10. Judging from the perspective of Arabic, all of the possible orders mentioned in the post are possible. You can start with a noun or a verb, and you can say “with me” or “mine” equally.
    It would be sort of a long list to put down here hmm…

  11. Tiny pieces of pedantry, for which I apologise: one correction on your Cornish translation. Yma does not mean ‘here’ (though it is identical in spelling to Welsh yma ‘here’); it is pres. 3sg of the verb bos ‘to be’, and equivalent to Welsh mae, which in older literary Welsh was ‘y mae’. And thus the translation = ‘is book to me’, parallelling the Welsh construction exactly, though using a different preposition (viz. Cornish dhe ‘to’, the cognate of Welsh i ‘to’).
    Also, wouldn’t ‘a book’ in Breton be ‘ul levr’ rather than ‘ur levr’? But this may vary by dialect.

  12. Mark – thanks for the pedantry. My knowledge of Cornish and Breton is currently very limited so I was hoping someone would correct the examples if they needed it.

  13. I read somewhere that Russian borrowed this property from one of the Uralic languages spoken in Russia. Does anyone know if this is true? Do the other Slavic languages have this?

  14. Patrick mentioned Hindi. Here’s an example:

    I have a book.

    मेरे पास किताब है।
    mere paas kitaab hai

    my near book is (roughly)

    Also, Shoshoni uses a contstruction somewhat similar to Fijian (above):

    I have a dog.

    Ne sadee’ gande.

    my dog there-is

  15. Laurits: Ukrainian and Belarusian use constructions with “to be” too, other Slavic languages have a special verb “to have”. In fact this verb exists in Russian (иметь), but its use is limited.

  16. I just saw Duncan’s post right now. Just to add to it, we also use sometimes (in Standard Arabic and Classical rather than dialects) the world “lidá” [لدى], which comes to mean “with, for, at, in possession of”
    It would be combined with other articles like “laday” لدي (I have), or ladayh لديه (he has) and so on. It can be in the same examples mentioned by Duncan as well (either in family relations or others).

  17. As someone said it earlier, in Hungarian we have “there is/are+my/your/his/her/our/your/their something”. Like … I have a dog translates to “van (egy) kutyám” – “there is (a) my dog” or something like that, hard to explain.

  18. Latvian also doesn’t have a verb for “to have”. “I have a book” is “Man ir grāmata”, where “man” is the Dative form of “es” (“I”) and “ir” is the third person form of “būt” (to be)

  19. Hebrew has this construction in a sense.

    In the present tense, there is no copula; yesh (יש) is a verb that more accurately means “there is.” So “I have a book” is “yesh li sefer” (יש לי ספר) – there is to me a book.

    However, in the past and future tense, one uses the verb “to be.”

  20. Turkish
    ‘kitabım var’ = my-book there-is (I have a book)
    This is the general genitive construction for a fixed possession or with abstract nouns.
    For a temporary or doubtful possession, the locative construction is used.
    ‘sizde bir şehir planı var mı?’ = at-you one city map-of there-is question?
    (do you have [with you / at the moment] a map of the city?)
    Similar in other Turkic languages.

    ‘m(in)ul on raamat’ = to-me is book
    Similar to Finnish.

    ‘суг кинешк де’ (sug kineshk de) = to-me book is
    Similar in Chechen.

    ‘āmār bai (āche)’ = of-me book (is)
    Similar to other Indic languages.

    ‘nāku pustakam undi’ = of-me book is
    Similar to other Dravidian languages.

    ‘나는 책이 있에요’ (nanŭn ch’aeg-i isse-yo) = as-for-me book there-is

    This construction is extremely frequent throughout the world.

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