You can leave your head on

Today, I want to look at a characteristic shared patchily by many languages of West Africa, across language families: the existence of two different possessive constructions. What this means is that in these languages, there are two formal ways to express ownership and relations between two entities, and they entail a difference in meaning. Have a look:

Jalonke (Guinea, Mande): n xunjaana ‘my younger sibling’

Bambara (Mali, Mande): anw teri ‘our friend’

Kujireray (Senegal, Atlantic): fuhow Damien ‘Damien’s head’

Do you get a hunch what types of relationships might be encoded in this construction? Perhaps it helps to look the second type and the contrast in meaning:

Jalonke: n ma xalisina ‘my money’

Bambara: i ka mobili ‘your car’

Kujireray: yaŋ ya Damien ‘Damien’s house’

You probably have concluded that ownership and social relations can be seen as more permanent, inherent, inalienable, and that this close relationship is reflected in language: in these cases, the possessor and the possessed object are adjacent to each other. If relationships and ownership are seen as less permanent, more loose, an element is inserted between the possessor and the possessed item, iconically signalling this larger distance. So if I say n ma xunna ‘my (alienable) head’, I’m necessarily talking about a severed head, perhaps of an animal, and not my own body part. Neat, isn’t’ it?

Now these heads would be alienably possessed…

But of course things aren’t quite that simple. The type of possessive construction chosen for a particular relation depends on how that relation is (or was, since languages change slower than society) construed in a particular culture. In Jalonke for instance, husbands are inalienable to their wives, and teachers to their students. But a man would say ‘my wife’, 
n ma ginɛna – a reflex of the greater power of men to end marriages and teachers to terminate apprenticeships that is not reciprocal. Children as well are seen as alienable in Jalonke – perhaps an index of the fact that children are often fostered in and out, so not seen as inalienable blood relatives so much than as temporary household members.

And last, but not least, nominalised verbs also occur in these two constructions. This means that a phrase such as ‘the killing of the hunters’ is not ambiguous in languages with two possessive constructions: the entity that undergoes a change of state will be the possessor of an inalienable construction (muxɛɛ faxaa ‘the killing of people’) and the entity that brings about a change of state will be the possessor of an alienable construction 
(n ma muxi faxa ‘my killing of people’). Should I tell you about intransitive verbs as well? Perhaps I should leave that to the intrepid linguists.

The data on Kujireray are from Rachel Watson’s thesis, referenced in the previous post. Bambara is always my very own rusty knowledge, and you can find out more about Jalonke possession (including intransitive verbs!) here:

Lüpke, Friederike (2007): It’s a split, but is it unaccusativity? Two classes of intransitive verbs in Jalonke. In Studies in Language 31 (3), pp. 525–568.

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