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This section examines some meaning aspects related to possessive pronouns. Subsection I argues that the meaning of the referential possessive pronouns comes very close to that of the definite article, but that, in addition, it introduces a partitioning of the denotation set of the head noun (or NP, but we will stick to the simple cases here). This latter part of the meaning can also be found with the other semantic types of possessive pronouns. Subsection II goes into the semantic relationship between the possessive pronoun and the referent of the noun phrase that brings about this partitioning: in the case of zijn boek'his book', for example, this relationship can be one of ownership, authorship, and probably many others.

[+]  I.  Partitioning of the denotation set of the head noun

Section has shown that the possessive pronouns are in complementary distribution with the articles, and we have used this fact to motivate the claim that possessive pronouns function as determiners of the noun phrase. Another reason to adopt this claim is that possessive pronouns also have certain semantic properties in common with the articles. This is clearest with the referential possessive pronouns, which have more or less the same meaning contribution as the definite articles. Consider Figure 1, in which A represents the set of entities denoted by the subject NP and B represents the set of entities denoted by the verb phrase, where A and B are both contextually determined, that is, dependent on the domain of discourse (domain D). The intersection A ∩ B denotes the set of entities for which the proposition expressed by the clause is claimed to be true.

Figure 1: Set-theoretic representation of the subject-predicate relation

Section has argued that the core meaning of the definite article is that all entities in domain D that satisfy the description of the subject NP are included in the intersection A ∩ B, that is, that the remainder of set A is empty; cf. (422a'). The referential possessive pronoun zijn'his' in (b) expresses a similar meaning but in addition introduces a partitioning of set A: the assertion is not about all entities that satisfy the description of the NP, but about a subset Asub of it that stands in a certain relation to the referent of the possessive pronoun. The fact that the possessive pronouns imply a partitioning of set A does not, of course, necessarily imply that set A is a non-singleton set. If domain D contains just a single book, the speaker can still use the noun phrase mijn boek'my book'; in this case the evoked alternative referent set is empty.

Example 422
a. De boeken verkopen goed.
  the books  sell  well
a'. de Npl: A - (A ∩ B) = ∅ & |A ∩ B| ≥ 1
b. Zijn boeken verkopen goed.
  his books  sell well
b'. zijn Npl: Asub - (Asub ∩ B) = ∅ & |Asub ∩ B| ≥ 1

Note that the relationship in question need not be one of possession but can be of various sorts and is largely determined by the non-linguistic context; see Janssen (1976: Section 3.1) for relevant discussion. The referent of the possessive pronoun in (b) may the author or the publisher of the books but also someone who copy-edited them or made a guess about which books would sell well.
      It is not only the core meaning of the definite articles that is associated with the referential possessive pronouns; other properties of definite noun phrases can also be found with noun phrases containing a referential possessive pronoun. For example, both types of noun phrase normally refer to entities in domain D that are assumed to be uniquely identifiable by the speaker; in a question like (423a), it is presupposed that the listener is able to identify the referent of the noun phrase mijn sleutels. And, just as in the case of the definite article, noun phrases with a referential possessive pronoun may introduce new entities into domain D that are somehow anchored to some known entity in domain D. An example such as (423b) does not presuppose that the listener knows who Janʼs wife is, but that the mention of Jan is sufficient to anchor the referent of the noun phrase zijn vrouw'his wife' to someone related to him.

Example 423
a. Heb je mijn sleutels misschien gezien?
  have  you  my keys  maybe  seen
  'Did you by any chance see my keys?'
b. Ik zag Jan daarnet. Zijn vrouw ligt in het ziekenhuis.
  saw  Jan just.now  his wife  lies  in the hospital
  'I saw Jan just now. His wife is in the hospital.'

Noun phrases with a referential possessive pronoun, like definite noun phrases, also exhibit exceptions to the general requirement that the noun phrase be uniquely referring. For example, if the noun phrase refers to a body part, like a leg or a hand, the noun phrase may be singular, thus leaving some vagueness with respect to which of the (two) hands or legs is intended; cf. example (424a). Something similar occurs with kinship nouns; an example such as (424b) does not presuppose that the speaker has only one nephew — apparently, it is not the referent that matters here but the relationship between the speaker and the person referred to. A similar case involving a non-kinship noun is given in (424c), which expresses that the train the speaker took that day was delayed.

Example 424
a. Jan schopte tegen mijn been.
  Jan kicked  against my leg
b. Mijn neef is ziek.
  my nephew  is ill
  'My nephew is ill.'
c. Mijn trein had weer eens vertraging.
  my train  had  again once  delay
  'My train again had a delay.'

      Due to the overlap in meaning between referential possessive pronouns and definite articles, the noun phrases introduced by a possessive pronoun in the primeless examples of (425) are virtually synonymous with the noun phrases in the primed examples, with a definite article and a postnominal possessive van-PP. This suggests that, apart from its reference, the meaning of the referential possessive pronouns in the primeless examples consists of two parts that correspond to, respectively, the meaning of the definite article and the modifying van-phrase in the primed examples: the first part involves definiteness, and the second part involves the partitioning of the set denoted by the head noun into two subsets, namely a subset that is in the relevant semantic relation with the referent of the possessive pronoun and a subset that is not.

Example 425
a. mijn/jouw/zijn boek
  my/your/his  book
a'. het boek van mij/jou/hem
  the book  of me/you/him
b. ons/jullie/hun boek
  our/your/their  book
b'. het boek van ons/jullie/hun
  the book  of us/you/them

      Since referential possessive pronouns are inherently definite, possessed indefinite noun phrases normally involve the presence of an indefinite article and a postnominal possessive van-PP, as in (426). As always, the indefinite article expresses that the intersection A ∩ B has the cardinality 1, without any implication for the remainder of set A, that is, A - (A ∩ B) may or may not be empty.

Example 426
a. een boek van mij/jou/hem/haar
  a book  of me/you/him/her
  'a book of mine/yours/his'
b. een boek van ons/jullie/hun
  a book  of us/you/them
  'a book of ours/yours/theirs'

For completeness’ sake, observe that the complement of the preposition van is a personal object pronoun, and not, as in English, a(n inflected) possessive pronoun like in a book of mine/yours/his/hers.
      Example (427a) shows that indefiniteness can also be inherited from the existentially quantified possessive pronoun iemands'someoneʼs'. That the complete noun phrase is indefinite is clear from the fact that the noun phrase iemands auto can occur in the expletive er-construction. The possessive pronoun in this example again introduces a partitioning of set A, but the speaker leaves open which subset of A is intended. The universally possessive pronoun also introduces a partitioning of set A, but now it is claimed that all subsets of A are subsets of B. As a result (427b) expresses more less the same thing as the simpler sentence De/Alle autoʼs staan verkeerd geparkeerd'The/All cars are wrongly parked', which perhaps accounts for the fact that (427b) feels somewhat marked.

Example 427
a. Er staat iemands auto verkeerd geparkeerd.
  there  stands  someoneʼs car  wrongly  parked
  'Someoneʼs car is wrongly parked.'
b. Ieders auto staat verkeerd geparkeerd.
  everyoneʼs car  stands  wrongly  parked
  'Everyoneʼs car is wrongly parked.'

      The reciprocal form elkaars'each otherʼs' and the interrogative and relative form wiens'whose' also introduce a partitioning of set A. In (428a), the cardinality of the antecedent of the possessive pronoun is equal to the cardinality of the partitioning of set A, and the members of the antecedent and the relevant subsets of set A are reciprocally related to each other: set A consists of three essays, each by a different pupil, and each of the pupils admires the essays written by the other pupils. In question (428b), it is assumed that the set of books is divided into subsets defined by, e.g., ownership, and the speakers asks, about a certain subset of books, to whom it belongs. In the relative construction in (428c), a certain partitioning is presupposed and used in order to enable the addressee to pick out the intended referent of the complete noun phrase.

Example 428
a. Die drie leerlingen bewonderen elkaars opstel.
  those three pupils  admire  each.otherʼs  essay
b. Wiens boeken zijn dit?
  whose books  are  these
c. de man wiens boeken ik gelezen heb
  the man  whose books  read  have
[+]  II.  Semantic relations between the pronoun and the noun phrase

The possessive pronouns owe their name to the fact that, in many cases, they refer to the possessor of the referent of the complete noun phrase; the noun phrase mijn boek'my book' typically refers to a book that is in the possession of the speaker. However, the term possessive pronoun (or possessive noun phrase more generally) is a misnomer since the kind of relation between the referent of the pronoun and the referent of the complete noun phrase is not always restricted to possession; the noun phrase mijn boek may also involve, e.g., a relation of authorship. In the following subsections we briefly discuss two systematic kinds of relation the referent of the possessive pronouns and the referent set of the complete noun phrase may enter into. The discussion in the following subsections does not aim at exhaustivity given that the creative powers of the language users far exceed our descriptive potential.

[+]  A.  Inferred relations

In a sense, the relation expressed between the referent of the possessive pronoun/noun phrase (from now on: possessor) and the referent of the full noun phrase in (429a) could be described as a relation of possession. However, the more general interpretation is that there is a kinship relation between the possessor and the referent of the full noun phrase. From the use of the noun moeder it can be inferred that there must be a daughter or a son, and (429a) expresses that the possessor is in this kinship relation to the referent of the full noun phrase; cf. Section 2.2.2. Examples such as (429b), which expresses that the referent of the proper noun is part of the addresseeʼs family, probably fall into the same category; this use of the possessive pronoun is particularly common when referring to members of the family, dear friends or favorite pets, even in those cases where the proper noun by itself would have sufficed for purposes of identification.

Example 429
a. zijn/Jans moeder
  his/Janʼs  mother
b. jullie Jan
  yourpl  Jan

That noun phrases containing a possessor can be truly ambiguous between the possessive reading and a reading involving some implied relationship can be made clear by means of the examples in (430). Since a house typically invokes the idea of an occupant, the inferred relation reading simply expresses that the referent of the possessive pronoun is living in the house in question, whereas on the possessive reading this person is actually the owner of the house. Example (430a) is only compatible with the inferred reading, whereas (430b) is compatible with the true possessive reading (and it may also be compatible with the inferred reading, in which case Jan is subletting the house).

Example 430
a. Jan huurt zijn huis van een Amerikaan.
  Jan rents  his house  from an American
b. Jan verhuurt zijn huis aan een Amerikaan.
  Jan rents.out  his house  to an American
[+]  B.  Thematic relations

A special case of the inferred relation is the case in which the possessive pronoun/noun phrase can enter into a thematic relationship with the head noun. This is especially clear with deverbal nouns like behandeling'treatment', which is derived from and inherits the thematic structure of the transitive verb behandelen'to treat'; cf. Section 2.2.3. Consider the examples in (431). In (431b) it is shown that the agentive argument of the verb behandelen may appear as a prenominal possessor in the noun phrase. If there is no postnominal van-PP, as in (431c), the prenominal possessor may be interpreted as expressing the agent or the theme.

Example 431
a. Zij/MarieAgent behandelt hem/PeterTheme.
  she/Marie  treats  him/Peter
  'She/Marie is treating him/Peter.'
b. haar/MariesAgent behandeling van hem/PeterTheme
  her/Marieʼs  treatment  of him/Peter
c. zijn/PetersAgent/Theme behandeling
  his/Peterʼs  treatment

With non-derived nouns, the possessor may also be an argument of the noun. Example (429a) above, which involves a kinship noun, may actually be used to illustrate this: the noun moeder'mother' selects an argument which is in a parent-child relation with the referent of the noun phrase. Other nouns that typically have this property are the so-called picture nouns like foto'photo' in (432); cf. Section 2.2.5. The prenominal possessor in (432b) can be interpreted as the maker of the picture, that is, with a similar semantic role as the subject of the sentence in (432a). If the postnominal van-PP is absent, as in the (c)-examples, the prenominal possessor can be interpreted either as the maker or as the person depicted. Of course, all prenominal possessor in (432) can also be interpreted as the possessor of the picture in question.

Example 432
a. Zij/MarieAgent maakt een foto van hem/PeterTheme.
  she/Marie  makes  a photo  of him/Peter
  'She/Marie is making a picture of him/Peter.'
b. haar/MariesAgent foto van hem/PeterTheme
  her/Marieʼs  photo  of him/Peter
c. haar/MariesAgent foto
  her/Marieʼs  photo
c'. zijn/PetersTheme foto
  his/Peterʼs  photo

For our present purposes the examples in (431) and (432) suffice. For a more extensive discussion of the thematic structure of nouns and the semantic roles that the prenominal possessors may have, see Chapter 2.

  • Janssen, Theo1976<i>Hebben</i>-konstrukties en indirekt-objektkonstructiesNijmegenUniversity of NijmegenThesis