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).

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4 thoughts on “Funky language features – the mystery of the missing possessive verb

  1. One more example of a language missing a possessive verb – Russian actually sounds exactly like the Arabic example. There’s no verb “to have”, but you can use the verb “to own” if you want to stress ownership. And it’s the same with “to be” – it doesn’t exist in the present tense, but you do have to use it in the past tense.

    У меня есть новая машина. (lit. With me there is a new car -> I have a new car.)
    Я имею новую машину. (I own the new car.)

    Я студент. (lit. I student. -> I am a student.)
    Я был студентом. (I was a student.)

    It’s a bit of an oddball among the Slavic languages in this respect and it makes you wonder – were all Slavic languages like this at one point? Or did Russian lose those verbs somewhere along the way?

  2. I think the translation ” There is a car near me.” for the Kannada sentence “Nanna hatthira gaadi idhe.” is rather literal and inaccurate. The “sense-translation” would indeed be “I have a car / vehicle.”

    Also, there is a verb “hondu” in Kannada whose sense is close to both “get” and “have” in English. So, the English sentence “I have a car.” can be translated as “Naanu gaadiyannu hondiruvenu.” – but his is more formal and “Nanna hathira Nanna hatthira gaadi idhe.” is more informal or colloquial. Consider an example that needs use of the verbal adjective “having” : “A man having a dozen cars walks a mile every morning!”. Kannada translation of this using “hatthira” is unthinkable! The only sensible translation of this in Kannada would be “Hanneradu gaadigalannu hondiruva avanu prati dina beligge ondu maili nadeyuvanu.”. Here the word ‘hondiruva’ is the verbal-adjective morphed form of the verb ‘hondu’.

    Perhaps the subject issue illustartes that every language has its own idiom.

  3. In fact, we can come up with more examples where there is no direct equivalent or direct equivalent is often not used in translation. Consider the verb “be” in English. Though the Kannada verb “iru” is the closest equivalent, that word is often not used in translating a sentence. For “She is pretty.” – the translation is more likely to be “Avalu sundari.”; but for “There was a prince named Rama.”, the translation would be “Rama emba obba raajakumaara iddanu.” where ‘iddanu’ is the past-tense male singular form for ‘iru’.

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