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Possession as a lexical relation: Evidence from the Hebrew Construct State
Daphna Heller, Rutgers University
The literature on genitives (Partee 1997, Barker 1995) has generally assumed that possession (or ownership) is a
special case of contextual relations. This has been challenged by Vikner & Jensen (2001) who  based on purely
theoretical considerations  analyze possession as a lexical relation: they posit a type shifting rule that applies to
sortal nouns and adds an extra argument slot introducing possession. This paper presents an analysis of the
Construct State (CS) in Hebrew which supports the view that possession is a lexical relation. Throughout the
paper, I compare the CS (1a) to a second genitive construction, the Free State (FS), assuming that the genitive
phrase in the latter is a modifier (1b), as opposed to the argumental nature of the genitive phrase in the CS.
(1) a. anfey
ha-ec (CS)
ha-anafim Sel ha-ec (FS)
branches the-tree
the-branches of the-tree
both: the tree’s branches (roughly)
Based on new data, I argue that the head noun of a CS, which is morpho-phonologically distinct from the base
form of the noun, denotes a function from individuals into individuals (type <e,e>) that takes the genitive DP as
its argument. Consequently, the denotation of the CS as a whole is the unique individual which is the value of
the function for the individual denoted by the genitive DP. I then provide different data to show that the
semantic content of the function is restricted to lexical relations and disallows contextual ones.
It follows from the functional nature of the head noun that the CS as a whole would denote a unique
individual (or maximal, when the head is plural) independent of the nature of its argument, i.e. the genitive
phrase. Empirical support for this prediction comes from cases where uniqueness is not dictated by world
knowledge and thus must be due to the construction. (2) shows that an individual introduced by a singular CS
with a definite genitive phrase is unique in the context, while an individual introduced by a singular FS with a
definite genitive phrase is not: introducing a second (distinct) worker of the library is impossible only with the
CS in (2a).
(2) a. [CS oved
ha-sifriya] xasam et
worker the-library blocked Acc the-entrance the-main
… #ve-od
oved Sel ha-sifriya xasam et ha-axorit
and-more worker of the-library blocked Acc the-rear
b. [FS oved Sel ha-sifriya] xasam et ha-knisa
worker of the-library blocked Acc the-entrance the-main
… ve-od
oved Sel ha-sifriya xasam et ha-axorit
and-more worker of the-library blocked Acc the-rear
‘A worker of the library blocked the main entrance, and another worker blocked the rear one.’
(3) shows the same for a plural CS with an indefinite genitive phrase (The numerical ‘one’ is used to get the
indefinite, as it is almost impossible to get a specific reading for CSs with a bare genitive phrase). When the
continuation (3c) is added to (3a), the ‘other workers’ must be from a different library, i.e. the CS introduces all
the workers of the one library, but when it is added to (3b), the ‘other workers’ can be from the same library, i.e.
no maximality effect is observed for the FS.
(3) a. [CS ovdey sifriya
patxu be-Svita…..
workers library(fem) one(fem) opened in-strike
b. [FS ovdim Sel sifriya
patxu be-Svita…..
workers of library(fem) one(fem) opened in-strike
both: ‘Workers of a library went on strike…’ (roughly)
…. aval ovdim axerim hif’ilu et ha-sifriya ka-ragil
but workers others operated et the-library as-usual
‘…. but other workers operated the library as usual.’
Additional evidence for uniqueness comes from restrictions on adjectives modifying the head noun and from the
behavior of head nouns that, due to their phonological nature, do not have a distinct form in the CS. Note that
the uniqueness prediction departs from the common assumption in the literature that CSs exhibit
“(in)definiteness spread”: the idea that the head of the CS (which cannot be directly marked by the definite
Possession as a lexical relation: Evidence from the Hebrew Construct State, Daphna Heller
article) inherits its (in)definiteness value from the genitive DP (see, for example, Borer 1988, Ritter 1991, Siloni
1997). The “(in)definiteness spread” approach predicts that the whole CS will be (in)definite in accordance with
the value of the genitive phrase, whereas in my analysis the CS denotes a unique individual independent of the
nature of the genitive DP (but see Dobrovie-Sorin 1999 for a related analysis with different consequences for
“(in)definiteness spread”).
Having established the functional nature of the head of the CS, we turn to the semantic content of this
function. The CS may express lexical relations (such as kinship and part-whole), but not purely contextual
relations. In a context of a professional meeting about parenthood where each participant brings a pair of parents
to elucidate their point, we can refer to the parents who came with the psychologist using the FS in (4b), but not
the CS in (4a), which can only be used to refer to the biological parents of the psychologist.
(4) a. horey ha-psixolog (CS)
ha-horim Sel ha-psixolog (FS)
parents the-psychologist
the-parents of the-psychologist
both: ‘The psychologist’s parents’ (roughly)
Interestingly, the CS may also express possession (or ownership) which is generally assumed to be a special
case of contextual relations (Partee 1997, Barker 1995). The CS in (5a) denotes the (female) dog the boy owns,
and cannot refer to the dog that bit the boy in a context where one dog bit a boy and another one bit a girl (This
is parallel to facts discussed by Storto (2000a,b) for the English double genitive).
(5) a. kalbat ha-yeled (CS)
Sel ha-yeled (FS)
dog(f) the-boy
the-dog(fem) of the-boy
both: ‘The boy’s (female) dog’ (roughly)
These data suggest that the function denoted by the head of the CS is formed lexically and is not recovered from
the context. In particular, in accordance with Vikner & Jensen’s (2001) theory, an extra argument slot is
lexically available for inherently relational noun, and a type shifting rule adds such an extra slot to introduce
possession. Unlike in Vikner & Jensen’s theory, however, the CS is not ambiguous between various lexical
relations; rather it always denotes the most natural relation: while the FS in (6b) can refer to the roof my parents
own (e.g. the roof of their house), this is impossible for the CS in (6a), because the relational head noun forces a
part-whole reading, and a roof is not a part of ‘my parents’.
(6) a. *gag ha-horim Seli (CS)
ha-gag Sel ha-horim Seli (FS)
roof the-parents mine
the-roof of the-parents mine
‘My parents’ roof’
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(eds.) Proceedings of SALT X. Ithaca, NY. CLC Publications.
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Regional meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Chicago, Il. CLS, University of Chicago.
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