Thursday, March 18, 2021

Possession versus ownership

All that discussion about possessive pronouns and oma versus keme -- and particularly the Malay structure in which the possessive predicate construction involves what is technically the verb of belonging -- got me to thinking: what actually is the logical relationship between these concepts of "one's own," "owning" and "belonging?"

It turns out there's a very straightforward one, and was basically already fully wired and ready to be discovered! Oma doesn't just mean "one's own," it's a verb meaning "to belong to!" The flexibility of lexical class in Koa had obscured this before. So for example:

ka talo oma ni
DEF house belong 1SG
"my own house"

...but technically oma ni is here actually an adjectival clause rephrasable as "the house that belongs to me," exactly analogous to

ka tupo ma polo
DEF horse IMPF run
"the running horse" or "the horse that is running"

We also have a lovely economical phrase for a Valentine's heart:

vi oma ni
IMP belong 1SG
"be mine"

All this is why oma didn't feel right when I was trying to say "this is my house": there's too much of a semantic of belonging or owning in there.

ti talo i oma ni
this house FIN belong 1SG
"this house is my own" or "this house belongs to me"

What we were really looking for was a purely conceptual relationship of possession, blanched of as much additional meaning as possible: that's exactly what keme is. After all, this is in origin a derivative of with; ti talo i keme ni just means "this house is mine," in the sense of "this house is associated with me." We're not trying to talk about owning or belonging in this imaginary conversation. It seems to be a distinction I'd never really considered before between possession and ownership.

There's this really fascinating-looking Oxford University Press cross-linguistic typological survey of possession and ownership across the world's languages, and one thing I was reading in the summary is that languages from cultures where ownership is 100% the same as possession tend to have very different corresponding linguistic structures than what we're used to. Clearly (A) I need to find a copy of this book and read it as soon as humanly possible, and (B) there's going to have to end up being a fuzzy limit to Koa's pretensions of universality where structure intersects with radically different underlying cultural needs. Still, I'll keep trying my best...

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