Month: February 2014

Funky language features – the mystery of the missing possessive verb

The verb ‘have’ is used to indicate possession.  When a speaker of the English language says, “I have a car“, the listener can infer that the speaker possesses a car.

Have” is a word that we use a lot.  I doubt anyone can imagine English without the word “have” in it.

So, it will come as a surprise to many to know that many Indian languages have no such verb.

Yes, you heard it right.  Many Indian languages have no verb like “have”.

Speakers of those languages say “There is a car near me” instead.

Below is “I have a vehicle” in three Indian languages:

Tamil:  En kitta vandi irukku  (translation into English: there is a vehicle near me)

Kannada:  Nanna hatthira gaadi idhe   (translation into English: there is a vehicle near me)

Hindi:  Mere paas gaadi hai    (translation into English: there is a vehicle near me)

Expressing Possession in Asian Languages

Some other Asian languages lack a word for “have”.

Japanese does not have a word for “have”.  Neither does Korean.

In Malay, the word for “is” is “ada”.

But “ada” can be used to mean “have” as well, as you can see from the examples below.

In the following examples, “saya” means “mine/my” (the meanings of the other Malay words are obvious).

Malay: Guru saya ada motokar baru.   (translation:  My teacher has a new car)

Malay: Bapa saya ada di rumah.      (translation:  My father is in the house)

Mandarin Chinese is an exception to this pattern.  It has a verb meaning “have”.  It is 有 (yǒu).  有 (yǒu) can also mean “to exist”, but the word commonly used for “is” is different.  It is 是 (shì) meaning “to be”.

So, a good number of widely spoken languages in South Asia don’t use a possessive verb.

But this does not mean that these Asian languages lack a mechanism to express possession.

It only means that the expression of possession and ownership uses alternative mechanisms such as idiomatic expressions (“is near” in the case of Indic languages) and context (word order and semantics in the case of Malay) in large parts of South and South-East Asia.

Expressing Possession in European Languages

In Europe, the possessive verb seems to be the preferred tool to denote possession.

We’ve already encountered the verb “have” in English, and we know that it is distinct from the verb “is”.

Below are examples from a few other European languages:

French:

I am = Je suis

I have = J’ai

Polish:

I am = Jestem

I have = mam

Modern Greek:

I am = Είμαι (Eímai)

I have = έχω (écho̱)

Latin:

I am = sum

I have = habeo

Expressing Possession in Sanskrit

Sanskrit, unlike ancient Greek and Latin does not have a possessive verb.

I asked a Sanskrit scholar if possessive verbs like “have” appear anywhere in the Vedas.

He answered in the negative.

There is no evidence for the existence of possessive verbs in Vedic Sanskrit.

Some Interpretations and Flights of Fantasy

Some economists surmise that early human societies (hunter-gatherer societies) did not know the concept of ownership.

In early human societies, food from a hunt was shared, because it could not be hoarded (there was only so much food that one could eat, and what was not eaten would spoil).

So, early languages would not have had a verb like “have”.

The most important conversations in those languages would have been sort of like:

Person 1:  “Is there food?

Person 2:  “Nope.  There is no food today.

Another type of conversation that would have been critical to self-preservation would have gone like this:

Person 1:  “There is a tiger behind you!  Run!

Person 2:  “There is an antelope to your right!”

In societies centered around herding, the herds could have been common property.

Daily conversations would have gone:

Person 1:  “How many cows are there?

Person 2:  “There are 200 cows.

Sentences like “I have thirty cows” weren’t yet needed.

Economists surmise that it was farming that gave rise to concepts like ownership and property.

Farming for the first time allowed people to have a surplus of food.

This excess food could be stored, divided and traded.

Trade might have motivated the invention of language tools for talking about ownership.

It seems that in Europe languages converged on one such tool – the possessive verb.

It seems that in India languages chose another such tool – the idiomatic usage of the verb “is near”.

Historical Linguistics Questions

There is no evidence for the use of possessive verbs in Sanskrit.

However, I do not know if ancient (Vedic) Sanskrit used the idiomatic “is near” mechanism found in modern Indian languages for expressing ownership.

If it didn’t, it would suggest that the Indian vernacular mechanism for expressing ownership evolved after the period of time when the Vedas were composed or in a different geographical area.

If it did, it would suggest that the Vedas were composed after the Indian mechanisms for expressing possession were developed and in the same geographical area (assuming accurate oral transmission that preserved ancient language features).

I’d be very grateful if someone with a better knowledge of Vedic Sanskrit would be able to tell me whether such an idiomatic usage of “is near” to indicate ownership is attested in Vedic Sanskrit texts.

I’d also love to find out what mechanisms for expressing the idea of ownership existed in Old and Avestan Persian.

(Modern Persian – Farsi – has a verb “daestaen” meaning “have”, but Farsi is very different from Old Persian).

I’ve made a lot of assumptions in proposing those historical implications.  But this article was written merely to discuss possibilities.

ADDENDUM:

I’ll add examples from other languages below as and when I get them from readers (with their permission to post them here).

Arabic

Omar Khayyam (http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=97267188) in a comment on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Funky-language-features-mystery-missing-1356867.S.5838734689329766403) said:

Arabic has no “have”. You don’t need a verb to say “I have a car” = “عِــنْــدِي سَــيَّـــارَةٌ” (By me a car). Nevertheless, there are the verbs “مَــلَــكَ” and “امْتَلَكَ” (to possess/own), which are used to stress that something belongs to someone, like, for example, in juridical documents. In a newspaper article you’d write “الأمير الوليد يمتلك طائرة خاصّة من نوع بوينغ ٧٤٧” (Prince Al-Walid owns a Boeing 747″ rather than “عِنْدَ الأمير الوليد طائرة خاصّة من نوع بوينغ ٧٤٧ “, even if it is grammatically correct.
As to the verb “to be”, Arabic has no need of it in the present tense. For example, “مَلِكُ الـمَـغْرِبِ غَـنِــيٌّ جِدَّا ” (word for word = The King of Morocco very rich). But in the past you need the verb “كَـانَ ” (to be/to exist). For example, “كَـانَ الملك الحسن الثّاني غنيّا جدّا ” (King Hassan II was very rich).

Funky language features – the third spatial deictic reference in Japanese, Korean and Tamil

The words ‘here’ and ‘there’ are spatial deictic references that are familiar to all English speakers.

‘Here’ means ‘near the speaker’.

‘There’ means ‘not near the speaker’.

Two words related to ‘here’ and ‘there’ are ‘this’ and ‘that’ which work much like ‘the’ but refer to things that are ‘near the speaker’ or ‘not near the speaker’.

So, in English, all spatial deictic references are relative to the speaker.

Here is an illustration of spatial deixis taken from the Wikipedia article on deixis.

But there are languages in which there are more than two spatial deictic references.

Japanese, Korean and Tamil have three each.

In Japanese, they are koko, soko and asoko.

In Korean, they are yogi, kugi and chogi.  (Here is a very nice lesson on deixis in Korean http://www.talktomeinkorean.com/lessons/l1l7).

In Tamil, they are inge, unge and ange.

The reason for the additional deictic reference is that in these languages, distances are perceived not just with respect to the speaker, but also with respect to the listener.

So,  in Japanese, Korean and Tamil respectively, koko, yogi and inge mean ‘near the speaker’.

Then, soko, kugi and unge mean ‘near the listener’.

Finally, asoko, chogi and ange mean ‘far from both the speaker and the listener’.

The “near the listener” deixis seems like a rather useless feature to have in a language (it is disappearing from modern Tamil).

In the modern world, when you talk to someone face to face (not on the phone), you are usually standing just a few feet from them.

So, anything “near the speaker” is also “near the listener”.  One of those spatial references is therefore redundant.

But then, if one of the spatial references was so useless, why did it appear in Korean and Japanese in addition to Tamil?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Korea and South India are peninsulas, and Japan is an island.

All three countries have long coastlines.

So, some ancestors of the inhabitants of Korea, Japan and South India might have lived off of deep-water fishing.

On the ocean there is an immediate use for the “near the listener” deictic.

Imagine a fleet of boats spread out on the ocean looking for fish to spear or net.

The boatmen would have no features to use to communicate directions.

The only features they’d have had to identify positions would have been their own boats.

So, they’d probably have had conversations with each other that went as follows:

Boat 1:  Are there any fish near you (the listener)?

Boat 2:  No, there are no fish near me (the speaker).  Are there any fish near you (the listener)?

Boat 1:  No, there are no fish near me (the speaker).  We should look for fish away from both of us (pointing)?

In such conversations, all three deictics would have been used.

The sentence “Are there any fish near you (the listener)?” would have used the word soko (in Japanese), kugi (in Korean) and unge (in Tamil).

The sentence “No, there are no fish near me (the speaker)” would have used the word koko (in Japanese), yogi (in Korean) and inge (in Tamil).

The sentence “We should look for fish away from both of us (pointing)” would have used the word asoko (in Japanese), chogi (in Korean) and ange (in Tamil).

I am just guessing at all this, of course.  Part of the fun of working in linguistics is that you can extrapolate from tenuous linguistic clues, and indulge in wild flights of fantasy.

But what I am proposing is not entirely unimaginable.

In 2011, in a small cave (called the Jerimalai cave) in East Timor, archaeologists found bones from 2843 individual fish, some of which were caught 42000 years ago.  50% of the bones were those of deep-water tuna fish. The finds also included fish hooks dating from between 23000 and 16000 years ago.

More details on the Jerimalai find here: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/ancient-human-fishermen-111128.htm