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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton June 7, 2023

Non-canonical possessive constructions in Negidal and other Tungusic languages: a new analysis of the so-called “alienable possession” suffix

  • Natalia Aralova ORCID logo EMAIL logo and Brigitte Pakendorf
From the journal Linguistics


A distinction between inalienable and alienable possession is considered to be crosslinguistically common. For the Tungusic languages, it is generally illustrated with examples that contrast inherently possessed body parts with body parts belonging to a non-inherent possessor, with the latter being formally marked with a suffix -ŋ(V). However, as we argue here for Negidal (Northern Tungusic), rather than marking ‘alienable’ or ‘indirect’ possession, the suffix -ŋ(i) flags the occurrence of non-canonical possessive constructions; the supposedly straightforward interpretation of the oft-cited examples involving body parts is merely a secondary effect of the particular kind of non-canonical construction involved. This analysis unifies the diverse constructions in which -ŋ(i) occurs, namely with obligatorily possessed body parts, with non-possessible items such as nouns denoting humans or environment terms as well as demonstratives or adjectives, and with other modifiers when the possessee is elided. We complement our investigation with the analysis of the cognate suffix -ŋi, whose main function is to mark the possessor in possessive constructions with an elided head. The function of both suffixes can thus be subsumed under the marking of non-canonical possessive constructions. This analysis can be extended to several Tungusic languages, as the comparison with Negidal’s sister languages shows.

1 Introduction

So-called (in)alienable possession is described as a crosslinguistically common feature whereby two distinct kinds of possession – inherent and permanent versus loosely associated and non-permanent – are formally distinguished in adnominal constructions (e.g., Chappell and McGregor 1996; Haspelmath 2017; Nichols 1988; see also the overview of the literature in the introduction to this issue). This category has also been widely noted in the Tungusic languages (Boldyrev 1976; see Avrorin [1959: 155–163] specifically for Nanai, Boldyrev [2007: 122–139] for Evenki, Nikolaeva and Tolskaya [2001: 135–141] for Udihe, Novikova [1960: 145–152] for Even, and Pevnov and Khasanova [2006: 503–504] for Negidal), which are also included by Nichols (1988: 591–592) in her classification of (in)alienable possession types. The Tungusic distinction is most commonly illustrated with the contrast between inherently possessed body parts (1a) on the one hand and body parts of dead animals that have entered the possession of some human (1b) on the other, with the latter being formally marked by a suffix -ŋ(V). Such examples appear to show that this formal opposition in possession marking is indeed one of inalienable versus alienable possession.

naj dili-ni
person head-px.3sg
‘(the) person’s head’
naj dili-ŋgo-ni
person head-ŋ(V)-px.3sg
‘(detached) head (e.g., of an animal) owned by a person’
(Nichols 1988: 565–566, taken from Avrorin 1959: 157–158; glosses and transcription modified)

However, in Negidal, a critically endangered language spoken in the Far East of Russia, the so-called alienable possession suffix [which takes the form -ŋ(i)] occurs in contexts that cannot be explained by any form of loose association or “socially or economically conferred ownership” (Nichols 1988: 568), such as with human referents or with the sun, casting doubts on an analysis in terms of alienability. Nikolaeva and Tolskaya (2001: 135–141) also point out that in Udihe the cognate suffix occurs in many more contexts than simply alienable possession; they describe the suffix as having five distinct functions (see Section 4.3 for details).

We here address the question whether an analysis of the suffix -ŋ(i) in terms of marking alienable possession is warranted by the Negidal data. As will be seen from the label poss (standing for ‘non-canonical possessive construction’) with which we gloss this suffix, and as is laid out in detail in Section 4, we provide an analysis in which the function of -ŋ(i) is not to mark alienable possession, nor does this suffix have various different functions as postulated for the Udihe cognate by Nikolaeva and Tolskaya (2001: 135–141). Rather, the seemingly diverse uses of this suffix in Negidal can all be subsumed under a single function, namely to flag the occurrence of non-canonical possessive constructions. These data illustrate how apparently straightforward examples of the so-called alienability contrast might upon close examination turn out to have very different underlying motivations, thus raising the possibility that other cases of supposed (in)alienability might in actual fact also have different causes (see also Rose, this issue).

We extend our discussion to the closely related suffix -ŋi, which marks possessors in constructions with elided head nouns (hence the gloss psr “possessor of elided head”). As will be detailed in Section 7, such constructions are non-canonical from a syntactic perspective and thus complement our understanding of non-canonical possessive constructions not only in Negidal, but also in other Tungusic languages.

The remainder of the article is structured as follows: after a brief introduction to the language and the data that form the basis of this investigation (Section 2), we introduce possessive constructions in Negidal in Section 3. In Section 4 we discuss the uses of the suffix -ŋ(i), which was previously considered a marker of alienable possession. In order to situate the Negidal data in a broader context we provide a brief overview of the cognate suffixes in other Tungusic languages (Section 5). Section 6 is devoted to the description of the suffix -ŋi, which marks the possessor in possessive constructions with elided possessee in Negidal as well as in other Tungusic languages. The article concludes with a discussion of the different non-canonical possessive constructions that are marked by these two clearly cognate suffixes (Section 7).

2 Negidal: the language and the data

Negidal is a critically endangered Northern Tungusic language spoken in the Far East of the Russian Federation on the Lower Amur river and one of its major tributaries, the Amgun’. At least two dialects used to be distinguished: Upper Negidal and Lower Negidal (Cincius 1982: 3). However, Lower Negidal appears to be extinct by now, and only a handful of speakers of Upper Negidal remain (Pakendorf and Aralova 2018), among whom only two elderly women are still fluent in the language.

Like its relatives, Negidal is a fairly agglutinative language with rich, exclusively suffixing morphology. It has nominative-accusative alignment, with obligatory indexation of the S/A argument on the verb; objects, in contrast, are not cross-referenced on verbs. Nevertheless, both S/A and object (pro)nominal arguments are commonly omitted if their referents are retrievable from the context. Due to vestiges of vowel harmony and consonant assimilation at morpheme boundaries, the surface forms of suffixes show some variation (Pakendorf and Aralova 2020).

This study is based exclusively on a fully annotated corpus of oral speech of Upper Negidal (Pakendorf and Aralova 2017). This comprises about 200 texts of diverse genres (folklore, autobiographical anecdotes, procedural texts, and conversations) numbering approximately 76,500 words in total. Nine elderly speakers – four of whom are by now deceased – are represented in the corpus, eight women and one man. Of these, the man and four women (a mother and three of her daughters) were/are fluent speakers, while the others, including another daughter, show differing levels of attrition (Pakendorf and Aralova 2018; corpus description[1]).

For our analysis of the contexts of use of the suffixes -ŋ(i) and -ŋi (cf. Section 6 for details on the distribution and morphonological behavior of these suffixes) we extracted all the examples found in the corpus, namely 656 for -ŋ(i) and 31 for -ŋi, and coded them for host (class of lexeme, such as human, animal, plant, mass noun, demonstrative, adjective, or numeral) and specific lexeme (e.g., ‘person’, ‘wood’, ‘good’, ‘this’, etc.); whether the item carrying either of these suffixes carried further derivational, case, or possessive marking and if so, which kind (cf. Section 3.1); the context of use of the suffixes; and the syntactic position of the item carrying them (see coding sheet: Aralova and Pakendorf 2023). We furthermore investigated all the lexemes belonging to particular semantic classes (kinship terms, body parts, animals, plants, food, personal names) to assess to what extent they occur with or without possessive marking in the corpus, and we scanned concordances of the possessive suffixes to gain an understanding of their functions in Negidal.

3 Possession in Negidal

Since an understanding of possessive marking is necessary in order to understand the function of -ŋ(i) and -ŋi, in this section we continue with a brief description of possessive constructions in Negidal (3.1) and the possessive classes (3.2) observed in the corpus.

3.1 Types of possessive constructions

In Negidal, adnominal and predicative possession are expressed with two different constructions. Predicative possession is expressed with the proprietive suffix -ʨi. This suffix marks the possessee, and the possessor is not overtly indexed. While the proprietive mainly occurs in predicative possessive constructions (2), it can also mark possessees in attributive and adverbial position.

bajan hutə-ʨi bi-ʨa-n
many offspring- prop be-pst-3sg
‘He had a lot of children.’
(APN_DIN_teadrinking: 48)

Adnominal possession is characterized by possessive suffixes on the head noun which index the person and number of the possessor (Table 1); the preposed possessor remains unmarked and is frequently dropped. The reflexive possessive suffixes index a possessor who is coreferential with the subject of the clause.

Table 1:

Possessive suffixes in Negidal (showing major allomorphs/variants).

1 inclusive -lti, -t
1 exclusive -β/-mi -βun
2 -s -sun
3 -n/-nin -tin
reflexive -j/-mi -βaj

As is crosslinguistically common (Creissels 2006: 141–144; Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001), the possessive suffixes in Negidal have several different nominal functions, namely to mark: (i) ownership (3a)–(3b); (ii) part-whole relationships (3c); (iii) the head in nominal modifier constructions (in which the ‘possessor’ characterizes the possessee, cf. Creissels 2006: 142 and Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001: 964; [3d]) and iv) associative possession (3e). Notably, the marking of prototypical possession, i.e., ownership of items that can be bought, sold, or given away, is relatively infrequent, making up only a small proportion of the occurrences of these suffixes in the corpus. As can be seen from (3b), the (pro)nominal possessor, which precedes the possessee (3a), can be freely omitted from such possessive constructions, since it is cross-referenced on the possessee with the possessive suffixes. In discourse, overt possessors are relatively rare.

bi suːn-mə-β təti-βka-kəl gun-ə-n
1 sg coat- acc-px.1sg say-nfut-3sg
‘Dress it in my coat.’
(TIN_swine: 90)[2]
hola-sun=kə eːkun gun-ə-n
blanket- px.2pl =foc what say-nfut-3sg
‘“What is your blanket made of?” – he says.’
(DIN_chevkan_tale: 50)
moː niŋtə-nin ɟukə-dukkəj ju-ʨe-ja-n
tree root- px.3sg ice-abl exit-res-nfut-3sg
‘…the root of a tree sticking up out of the ice’
(APK_spirits: 24)
i-dukin=da baka-ŋaːti-s taj lam ɟolo-βa-n
interr-abl=add find-deont-2sg dist sea stone- acc-px.3sg
‘ … where can one find a stone from the sea (lit. ‘sea stone’)?’
(DIN_APN_fighting: 141)
samoxodka-β iltən-ə-n aːʨin
?steamer.R- px.1sg pass-nfut-3sg neg
{A woman is driving a boat upriver and is unsure about where to go. She has been following a steamer, but then} ‘The steamer (lit. my steamer) passed [the riverbend] and disappeared.’
(GIK_chertovy_zuby: 21)

The notion of associative possession is very important in the context of our study, since it is this type of possession marking that triggers most of the productive occurrences of the suffix -ŋ(i) (Section 4.1.2).[3] In this kind of construction, possessive marking highlights a relationship between two participants that is salient in discourse or in the speech situation (cf. Creissels 2006: 143 and in particular Nikolaeva 2003; Pakendorf 2007). These participants are the ‘possessee’ and the ‘possessor’ cross-referenced with the possessive suffixes.

Thus, in Example (3e) above, the woman driving the boat had been hoping to find her way through the tricky Amgun’ channels by following the steamer (with which she otherwise has no relation at all); the importance that the steamer has for her at this moment of the narrative is expressed by the 1sg possessive marking (‘my steamer’). Similarly, in (4) below, the little girl says it is her needle that broke, but in fact the needle belongs to an evil spirit. The salient relationship that is highlighted by the 1sg possessive marking (‘my needle’) is the fact that it was very important to return the needle to the spirit, but it broke while the girl was using it.

uli-l-laːn gun-ə-n kilgədgə-jə-n inma-β…
sew-inch-ss.ant say-nfut-3sg break[intr.smlf]-nfut-3sg needle- px.1sg
{The evil spirit is asking for its needle, and the little girl answers:} ‘As soon as I started to sew, the needle (lit. my needle) broke.’
(DIN_APN_needle: 48)

3.2 Possessive classes

Our perusal of the Negidal corpus leads us to identify three different possessive classes of lexemes based on their morphosyntactic behavior: (i) obligatorily possessed nouns that practically always occur in a possessive construction; (ii) non-possessible items that generally do not occur in possessive constructions: these comprise semantically non-possessible nouns on the one hand, and formally non-possessible numerals, demonstratives, adjectives and participles on the other; and (iii) all other nouns which can occur both with or without possessive suffixes (including the proprietive), depending on the context. With respect to the function of -ŋ(i) it is the first two possessive classes that are relevant, since in the corpus data -ŋ(i) tends not to occur with optionally possessed nouns; we, therefore, provide more information on obligatorily possessed nouns and non-possessible items. In the following, we will use the term ‘direct possession’ to refer to possessive constructions in which the possessive suffixes attach directly to the head noun (following case suffixes where pertinent, cf. [3a], [3e]), and ‘indirect possession’ to refer to constructions in which the suffix -ŋ(i) intervenes between the root and the possessive suffixes.

The obligatorily possessed nouns comprise kinship terms on the one hand (5a) and body parts on the other (5b). (We exclude from consideration spatial/temporal relation nouns – these are nominals that mostly function as the heads of possessive constructions and are marked with one of the spatial cases and possessive suffixes which agree with the ‘possessor’, e.g., uskə daga-du-n [door near-dat.ess-px.3sg] ‘next to the door’.).

tiːnu min-dula əmə-jə-n okin-mi
yesterday 1sg.obl-loc come-nfut-3sg older.sister- px.1sg
My older sister came to me yesterday…’
(GIK_shuka: 1)
biː si   dəl-βə-s hoŋna-sin-ɟiŋa-β bosɑːktə-βə-s
1sg 2sg head-acc-px.2sg chop-tam1-fut1-1sg kidney- acc-px.2sg
talaka-ɟiŋa-β gun-ə-n haːkin-mə-s juː-β-ɟiŋa-β
eat.raw.meat-fut1-1sg say-nfut-3sg liver- acc-px.2sg exit-val-fut1-1sg
‘I will chop off your head, I will chop your kidneys finely and eat them, I will take out your liver.’
(DIN_Emeksikan: 97)

As will be seen in Section 4.1, these two subcategories of obligatorily possessed nouns differ in whether they occur with -ŋ(i) (body parts) or not (kin terms). There are only two contexts in which kin terms are found without possessive marking: in the vocative case (expressed by final vowel lengthening), and when carrying the comitative suffix -ʨil. This occurs only with kinship terms and expresses both a reflexive possessive relationship and a joint action (6).

bu akina-ʨil ɟuː-ji taj amban-ɟi kusi-ɟa-βun
1pl.ex two-coll dist devil-ins fight-fut2-1pl.ex
‘We, my brother and I, will fight with that devil the two of us.’
(DIN_Emeksikan: 249)

As to the lexical group of body parts, since prototypically these are in a very tight relation to their inherent possessor, most of these items in the corpus are indeed directly possessed, and the possessor is easily retrievable from the context. However, we observe some exceptions to this rule in the data: body parts in an extended sense, such as the integument, bodily effluvia, and bones, do not carry possessive marking when they refer to disembodied entities whose original ‘possessor’ is not identified. This includes examples of meat or fat used as food, hide used as fabric, pieces of fur caught on branches, or bones scattered on a battlefield.

The class of non-possessible items is heterogeneous and consists of different parts of speech. It comprises certain nouns referring to humans[4] (proper nouns, but also common nouns such as ‘person’), wild animals, plants, other environmental phenomena (such as ‘sun’) and nouns referring to large masses of uncountable entities (for instance, ‘wood’, ‘water’, food items) – this list is similar to, though not entirely overlapping with, Ainu non-possessible items (Bugaeva et al. 2022: 55). It also contains demonstratives, numerals, and modifiers such as adjectives and participles. Non-possessible items can occur with possessive markers in three cases: the nouns are (i) directly possessed when they function as the head in a construction with ‘characterizing’ nominal modifier (7) and (ii) indirectly possessed when their associative relationship to a discourse participant is highlighted for pragmatic reasons or when reference is made to a particular subset of an uncountable entity. (iii) As for the demonstratives, numerals, and modifiers, these are indirectly possessed for different reasons (described in detail in Section 4.2), for instance when they take the place of an elided head that would carry possessive marking. In all instances of indirect possession, the suffix -ŋ(i) is inserted before the possession marker, as will be shown in detail in Section 4.

siŋəjə gun-mi oɟaːβi gun-ŋati-s ɟoː bəjŋaː-nin
mouse say-ss.cond taboo say-deont-2sg house animal- px.3sg
‘Saying “mouse” is a taboo, you have to say “domesticated animal” (lit. ‘house animal’)’. (DIN_taboo: 1)

4 The suffix -ŋ(i) in Negidal

As mentioned in the preceding section, the suffix -ŋ(i), which we gloss as poss, ‘non-canonical possessive construction’, occurs with two categorically opposed classes of items: the obligatorily possessed body part terms and the heterogeneous class of non-possessible items. It always precedes a possessive marker,[5] either the possessive suffixes summarized in Table 1 or the proprietive suffix -ʨi. Below we provide a detailed discussion of the contexts of use of the suffix, making a distinction between the possession of nouns (Section 4.1) and the possession of formally non-possessible parts of speech (Section 4.2). The use of -ŋ(i) with such disparate classes of items can be explained by viewing it as a flag of non-canonical possessive constructions, as we argue in Section 4.3. Our analysis contrasts with that of Pevnov and Khasanova (2006: 503–504), who discuss the suffix -ŋ(i) in semantic terms, as a marker of alienable possession, as is common in descriptions of Tungusic languages (cf. Cincius 1982: 20); they contrast it with “not-indirect possession” (nekosvennaja prinadležnost’) that occurs with body parts, kin terms, domestic animals and cultural artefacts.

A word of caution is in order: as pointed out in Section 2, we are basing our study purely on our analysis of the Negidal corpus. Given the nature of the corpus (spontaneous oral speech produced by individuals for whom Negidal has ceased to be the primary language of everyday use and who show differing degrees of attrition), counterexamples to our generalizations do occur, and not all of the examples are clear (∼4 % were coded as ‘unclear’ for various reasons, see coding sheet). Nevertheless, since our database of examples is quite extensive, we feel confident in our overall analysis.

4.1 The suffix -ŋ(i) marking nouns

The vast majority of the tokens of -ŋ(i) marking nouns occur in adnominal possessive constructions which carry personal possessive suffixes, as will be illustrated throughout this section. However, in 19 cases the possessive phrase is in predicative position, and thus the ‘possession’ is indexed by the proprietive suffix -ʨi ([8]; see Section 4.3.1 on use of the noun ‘year’ with possessive marking). The possessor tends to be animate, generally a human being or an anthropomorphized character in a fairy tale.

ɑːŋ taj əmən nəkun-tin tonŋa anŋani-ŋi-ʨi
yes dist one younger.sibling-px.3pl five year- poss - prop
‘And the youngest is five years old [lit. has five years].’
(APN_tri_soseda: 56)

We first describe the use of -ŋ(i) with body parts (Section 4.1.1) before turning to the discussion of one of the most salient contexts of use of this suffix, namely the associative possession of non-possessible nouns (Section 4.1.2). Furthermore, certain non-possessible nouns acquire a reading of particularization in the context of possession, as we describe in Section 4.1.3.

4.1.1 Body parts

As mentioned in the introduction, one of the most frequently cited uses of the suffix -ŋ(i) is with body parts that have entered the possession of an individual who is not the inherent possessor. This is the use that has led to its previous identification as a marker of alienable possession (e.g., Pevnov and Khasanova 2006: 504). However, in the corpus we find hardly any examples of this type. In total, we have only four examples of nouns referring to body parts marked with -ŋ(i) (less than 1 % of all examples). Furthermore, rather than -ŋ(i) occurring with detached body parts that are in the possession of someone other than the inherent possessor (cf. [1] above), three of the four examples concern ‘extended’ body parts (‘hide’, ‘blood’, and ‘excrement’), with somewhat unclear contexts, complicating their interpretation. In the remaining example of an indirectly possessed body part this refers not to the part of an animate being, but to the part of a boat. In (9a) the ‘nose’ of the boat (i.e., its prow) is marked by -ŋ(i) plus plural reflexive possessive suffixes referencing the non-inherent possessors, namely the sisters who made it.[6] In contrast, in (9b) the ‘nose’ is associated with the boat, its inherent possessor, and is directly possessed.

kaltaka oŋokto-ŋ-ŋəj tulə-ʨa[-l] kaltaka-ŋ-ŋaj
half nose- poss- prfl .pl attach-pst[-pl]
tulə-ji-du-tin ərroj ədi-l-ʨa umnat
attach-prs.ptcp-dat.ess-3pl interj.evk blow(of.wind)-inch-pst ints
‘They had attached one half of the nose, as they were attaching the other half, suddenly the wind started to blow.’
(APN_two_sisters: 10)
hul-mi hul-mi ɟaɟa-βa βaː-ʨa taji-ŋ-ŋi βaː-jaːn
go-ss.cond go-ss.cond uncle.R-acc kill-pst dist-poss-prfl . sg kill-ss.ant
nɑː-ʨa lodka-j oŋokto-du-n
put-pst boat- prfl. sg nose- dat.ess-px.3sg
‘Going and going he killed a bear; having killed it he put it on the nose of the boat.’ (GIK_bear: 19)

In contrast to body parts, which do occur with -ŋ(i), no examples of the obligatorily possessed kinship terms carrying this suffix are found in the corpus.

4.1.2 Associative possession of non-possessible nouns

By far the largest proportion of productively used tokens of -ŋ(i) are found with non-possessible nouns when these occur in associative possession constructions. For example, in (10a) the person referred to by the 1pl possessive-marked noun bəjə ‘person’ is a human who has entered the hut of foxes who are holding a shamanizing session. The possessive marking indicates the relationship established by his having sat down among the foxes (who are here the speakers) and might, in addition, express a certain respect or awe on their part, since they assume he must be a shaman. In (10b) the associative relationship between the 2sg ‘possessor’ and the fox lies in the fact that the fox has tricked the addressee, a flying squirrel, into giving him her children one by one, which he then ate. Finally, in (10c) the setting of the sun has a direct impact on the two female protagonists cross-referenced by the 1pl possessive marking since they are lost in the forest and clearly will not be able to find their way home in the dark.

əj bəjə-ŋi-t    [ …] samaːn=mal bi-ɟiŋa-n
dp prox person- shaman=indef be-fut1-3sg
‘“Oh, this person (lit. this person of ours) is probably a shaman”, they say.’
(APK_fox: 127)
solaki-ŋi-s olɑːk gun-ə-n
fox- poss-px.2sg deceiver say-nfut-3sg
Your fox is a liar.’
(APN_omki: 39)
ŋənə-jə-βun ŋənə-jə-βun siβu-ŋi-βun tik-ʨa
dp go-nfut-1pl.ex go-nfut-1pl.ex sun- poss-1pl.ex fall-pst[3sg]
‘We go and go, the sun (lit. our sun) set.’
(APN_zabludilisj: 27)

An associative relationship flagged with possessive marking can also be of a more stable nature, such as that uniting a mother and her son in (11a), whom she refers to as ‘my Vova’ (a hypocoristic form of Vladimir), or that between a river and the person living on it (11b).

i vova-ŋi-β ɟo-tki-j əmə-jaːn taja-βa
and.R come-ss.ant dist-acc
ves ulguʨaːn-a-n
all.R tell-nfut-3sg
‘And my Vova came home and told all about it.’ (talking about her son)
(AET_bear: 35)
ɟepu-βkan-na-ji-du-j iʨe-je-n beja-ŋi-n see-nfut-3sg river- poss-px.3sg
bad-gida-li-n solaki noŋan-duki-n seːŋa-ja-n
opposite-side-prol-px.3sg fox 3sg-abl-3sg ???-nfut-3sg
‘While she was going to feed [her puppy] she sees, on the opposite side of the river [where she lives] a fox is ??hiding from her.’
(APK_1chindakan: 20)

In all of these cases, it is the possessive suffixes on the noun that express the pragmatically or situationally salient associative relationship, as shown for the directly possessed ‘steamer’ and ‘needle’ in (3e) and (4) above. Yet since the entities in Examples (10) and (11) belong to the class of non-possessible items, -ŋ(i) is necessary to license the possessive marking. Whereas in many cases the membership in the non-possessible class is semantically motivated (i.e., nouns denoting the landscape, wild animals or natural objects), the use of -ŋ(i) with proper nouns is a formal and not a semantic requirement. This is demonstrated by (11a): the same individual Vova could have been referred to by the speaker with directly possessed kin terms, such as omolgi-β ‘my son’ (boy-px.1sg) or hutə-β ‘my child’ (offspring-px.1sg).

4.1.3 Particularization via possession of non-possessible nouns

Non-possessible nouns referring to uncountable masses of an entity, such as wood, water, money, or food items, can carry possessive suffixes to pick out a particular subset of the entity that is in the possession of an individual and that is intended for their personal use. In this case, the suffix -ŋ(i) is required to license the possessive marking. Thus, ‘your water’ in (12a) refers to a particular subset of water that you need in the house for drinking, cooking, or washing. Possessive marking on the noun moː ‘tree, wood’ can result in two different readings: it can refer either to wood that is going to be used in the fire of the ‘possessor’ (12b), or to a piece of wood that is in someone’s possession for use as a staff or a stick. Similarly, the bread that is being sought in (12c) is only a very small and particular subset of all bread, namely the individual ration that was allocated during the war.

ineŋ-ti muː-ŋ-ŋi əmə-β-ŋati-s
day-advr water- poss- prfl . sg come-val-deont-2sg
‘You must bring the water (lit. your water) during the day.’
(DIN_rite: 12)
ŋonu-jə-n moː-ŋ-ŋi hena-dgi-je-n
to.leave-nfut-3sg wood- poss -prfl . sg carry.load.on.back-rep-nfut-3sg
‘He goes and carries the firewood on his back.’
(DIN_starik_staruha: 24)
əmna xlepu-ŋ-ŋaj ulguma-mi ŋənə-ʨa-βun
once bread.R- poss- prfl .pl ask-ss.cond go-pst-1pl.ex
‘Once we went to ask for our (ration of) bread, …’
(APN_DIN_conversation: 152)

This ‘particularization’ function of possessive marking of non-possessible nouns can also be found in some special cases, namely to refer to an individual’s age [(8) above and (14) below], to single out a particular individual from a larger set, and to derive the terms for ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ from nouns meaning ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ (13a), (13b), respectively.[7] The terms for ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ can be interpreted as referring to one particular individual among all the possible ‘old women/men’ (who in the case of spouses, of course, do not necessarily have to be old) who has a particular relationship with the ‘possessor’. These terms are already lexicalized,[8] as can be seen from the fact that they serve as the base for the derivation of the verbs ‘to marry’ (13c), (13d). A similar case of particularization via possessive marking can be found in Udihe, where indirect possessive marking of the nouns meaning ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ results in a meaning of ‘daughter’ and ‘son’, respectively (Nikolaeva and Tolskaya 2001: 139–140).[9] The language-specific nature of this kind of possessive marking can be seen in the fact that in Negidal the word for ‘son’ derives from directly possessed ‘boy’ [without addition of -ŋ(i)], while in Udihe the direct addition of possessive suffixes, without -ŋi, to the term for ‘old man’ results in a meaning of ‘husband’ (Nikolaeva and Tolskaya 2001: 127).

a. otikaː-ŋi-nin b. atikaː-ŋi-nin old.woman-poss-px.3sg
‘her husband’ ‘his wife’
c. otikaːŋ-laː- d. atikaːŋ-laː-
husband-vr wife-vr
‘to marry (from a woman’s perspective)’ ‘to marry (from a man’s perspective)’

With respect to a person’s age, it is the particularization via ‘possession’ of the noun meaning ‘year’ that has this function ([14], see also [8] above). As will be discussed in the following section, a reading of particularization is also attained when numerals carry possessive suffixes.

min-du bi-ʨa-n ɲuŋun anŋani-ŋi-β
1sg.obl-dat.ess be-pst-3sg six year- poss-px.1sg
‘… I was six years old.’
(GIK_olan: 3)

4.2 The suffix -ŋ(i) marking non-possessible parts of speech

As mentioned in Section 3.2, apart from non-possessible nouns the suffix -ŋ(i) occurs widely with other word classes. Here its use does not have any semantic motivation but is required for formal reasons. The possession of numerals (Section 4.2.1) can be analyzed as an example of particularization, similar to that described for nouns in Section 4.1.3. Another class of formally non-possessible items is demonstratives. We discuss the diverse contexts in which they occur with possession marking in Section 4.2.2. We also find -ŋ(i) with modifiers such as adjectives or participles in adnominal possessive constructions with elided possessee (Section 4.2.3); in these cases, the possessive suffix transfers from the head to the modifier, thus triggering the insertion of -ŋ(i).

4.2.1 Particularization via possessive marking of numerals

Possessive marking on numerals has a similar particularization effect as that seen for certain nouns (e.g., wood, water, years, or spouses), namely, it serves to single out a particular individual from a group (15a). With numerals higher than one the resulting reading is that of an ordinal numeral (15b).

omoŋ-ŋi-βun dəlbəni-ɲɟa-βa aja-t ə-ʨə aː-ja
one- poss-1pl.ex night-aug-acc good-advr neg-pst sleep-neg.cvb
One of us didn’t sleep well all night, freezing.’
(GIK_2tatarskoe: 62)
taji=gda ton-ŋi-tin dolin-du təgə-t-ʨa
dist=contr five- poss-px.3pl middle-dat.ess sit.down-tam2-pst.ptcp
bəjə-l-βa iʨe-je-n
person-pl-acc see-nfut-3sg
‘That one, the fifth that sat in the middle, saw the men.’
(DIN_kidnap: 41)

4.2.2 Possessed demonstratives

Another highly frequent use of the suffix -ŋ(i) is with the distal and proximal demonstrative pronouns taj ‘that’ and oj ‘this’. These demonstratives are very frequent in Negidal speech: in the corpus we find 4975 instances of taj and 1386 instances of oj.[10] Mostly they are used without any possessive marking, and when they do take possessive suffixes, these are always preceded by the marker of non-canonical possessive constructions -ŋ(i).

There are 147 examples with indirectly possessed demonstratives in the corpus, both distal and proximal, i.e., these constitute about one-fifth of all the examples carrying the suffix -ŋ(i). As found for some proper nouns, the use of -ŋ(i) with possessed demonstrative pronouns can be shown to be formally rather than semantically motivated, as illustrated by example (16): here the demonstrative refers to an inherently possessed body part, namely the foot of the person who is doing the bandaging, which takes direct possessive marking as seen in the phrase added as an afterthought. The fact that taj carries -ŋ(i) can thus only be explained by the fact that demonstratives are formally non-possessible and cannot be directly possessed.

taji-ŋ-ŋi […] kaβsa-ja-n bogdi-j
dist-poss- prfl . sg wrap.up-nfut-3sg
‘He bandaged all this, his foot.’
(DIN_starik_staruha: 62)

Possession of the distal demonstrative pronouns is very often associative, as seen in (17) with the following context: two women saw someone in a boat who they thought was a relative, so they called him, but when he got closer, they saw he was a stranger. The possessive marking here underlines the salient relation between the women and the man they were talking about and whose attention they were trying to draw.

taji-ŋi-βun ali-l-laːn gun-ə-n ja=ka
dist-poss-px.1pl.ex be.angry-inch-ss.ant say-nfut-3sg 1sg.R=foc
otkuda gun-ə-n nemec-duk priexal li
from.where.R say-nfut-3sg German.R-abl come.pst.R q.R
He [lit. ‘that one of ours’] got angry and said: “So where do I come from”, he said, “from the Germans, or what?”’
(APN_anecdotes: 27)

In addition, the distal demonstrative frequently occurs with possessive suffixes when it substitutes for a noun that would take possessive marking. For example, in (18) the distal demonstrative replaces the word nuptinman ‘lining’, which takes 3sg possessive marking since it stands in a part-whole relationship to the implied ‘possessor’, a fur rug. In its function as an anaphoric pronoun, taj takes the same 3sg possessive marking. As in (16), the possessive marking on the demonstrative has to be licensed with the suffix -ŋ(i), even though the noun referred to is directly possessed.

nuptin-ma-n    o-si-n man uli-jə o-si-n iʨe-je
lining-acc-px.3sg neg-nfut-3sg self sew-neg.cvb neg-nfut-3sg see-neg.cvb
bi taji-ŋ-ŋa-n uli-m
1sg dist-poss-acc-px.3sg sew[nfut]-1sg
‘She doesn’t sew the lining herself, she doesn’t see, I sew that.’
(DIN_komalan_prixozhka: 12)

The proximal demonstrative oj is used in deictic rather than anaphoric functions. It is frequently accompanied by a co-speech gesture, independently of its use with or without possessive markers. The possessive marking of the proximal demonstrative pronouns appears to have subtle pragmatic nuances that we as outsiders cannot access, since possessive-marked forms do not differ intonationally or gesturally from non-possessed forms. For instance, in (19), which is taken from a procedural explanation, the speaker does not emphasize the possessive-marked demonstrative intonationally, nor does she point while producing it, but she emphatically points and pronounces the final unpossessed demonstrative əj-gaʨin. It is thus not clear why she chose to add a possessive suffix to the first demonstrative. However, independently of the reasons why in some cases demonstratives receive possessive marking, formally they belong to the class of non-possessibles; thus, addition of possessive suffixes needs to be licensed through addition of the specialized marker -ŋ(i).

uː-li-dgi-s oji-ŋi-nen oː-ŋati-nin počti
scrape.hide(uu)-inch-rep-2sg prox-poss-px.3sg become-deont-3sg nearly.R
‘You again start to scrape, so that this side becomes nearly like this.’ (DIN_preparing_hide: 97)

Furthermore, both the distal and the proximal demonstrative occasionally function as a placeholder, substituting for a noun that cannot be immediately retrieved. When the delayed noun carries possessive marking, whether for semantic or pragmatic reasons, the demonstrative functioning as a placeholder carries the same possessive suffix, and -ŋ(i) is required to license this marking (see [16] above with the distal demonstrative as a placeholder and [20] with the proximal demonstrative in this function).

oɲi-m oji-ŋ-duli-n ɟaβa-ja-n del-duli-n
mother-px.1sg prox-poss-prol-px.3sg grab-nfut-3sg head-prol-px.3sg
‘My mother grabbed it by this, by its head.’
(DIN_rybalka: 25)

4.2.3 Modifiers of an elided possessee

The suffix -ŋ(i) also occurs on modifiers in constructions with an elided head noun. In the corpus, we find eight examples of -ŋ(i) occurring on a modifier: it marks participles, adjectives, and the term geː, which is polysemous between an adjectival reading ‘other’ and an ordinal numeral ‘second’. Furthermore, some of the examples of indirectly possessed demonstratives, especially the distal demonstrative, could potentially also be analyzed as modifiers with elided head nouns. It is important to note that the modifier in these constructions is not a possessor, since Negidal uses a dedicated, albeit clearly related, suffix to mark the possessor when the head of an adnominal possessive construction is elided (see Section 6). The examples below illustrate the use of -ŋ(i) with an adjective and a participle (21a) and the term geː (21b). In these cases the modifier carries the possessive and case marking that would have been found on the head noun, and -ŋ(i) is required to license the possessive marking on parts of speech that are not possessible. This requirement is again of a formal, and not semantic, nature: for example, ‘bucket’ is a noun that can take possessive suffixes directly (21c), so that the occurrence of -ŋ(i) on the modifier ‘second’ in (21b) cannot be explained by it having been copied from the omitted head.

tar əjəki biʨa uŋun keːruken-ŋ-ŋi mani-n ɟep-pa-n
dp dist.Evk frog bi.ptl hesit unripe- poss- prfl . sg self-3sg eat-nfut-3sg
uŋun-mi iː-ʨa-ŋ-ŋi okin-du-j
hesit-prfl .sg ripen- pst . ptcp -poss- prfl . sg
‘Well, as for the frog, it eats the unripe (berry) himself, and the ripe one he
keeps (lit: puts) for his older sister.’
(APK_frog_tale: 37)
geː-ŋ-ŋəj kaltaka-(βa)-n təsi-ja-(βun)
second- poss- prfl .pl half-acc-px.3sg gather-nfut-1pl.ex
‘We had gathered half of our second (bucket) [i.e., it was half-full].’ (APN_cheremsha_brodjaga: 68)
vedro-βaj ɟaβa-gaj təβli-nakan ŋənə-gaj …
bucket.R -prfl .pl pick.berries-ss.sim
‘Let’s take our bucket, let’s go picking berries …’
(APN_cheremsha_brodjaga: 88)

In summary, the suffix -ŋ(i), which was previously analyzed as a marker of ‘indirect’ or ‘alienable’ possession (e.g., Cincius 1982: 20; Pevnov and Khasanova 2006: 503–504), occurs with nouns denoting entities that are impossible to reconcile with alienable possession, and it also occurs with items belonging to very distinct possessive classes, both obligatorily possessed body parts and a variety of non-possessible items. This might appear to indicate that this suffix has a diverse range of functions, as was proposed for Negidal’s sister language Udihe by Nikolaeva and Tolskaya (2001: 135–140; 634–635). However, as we will outline in the following, it is indeed possible to subsume all the diverse uses under one single function, namely the marking of non-canonical possessive constructions.

4.3 Analysis in terms of non-canonical possessive constructions

To recapitulate, in Negidal the suffix -ŋ(i) is found in the following possessive constructions: (i) when the possessee is a body part that is in the possession of an individual who is not the inherent ‘possessor’ (i.e., what has up to now been analyzed as the marking of alienable possession); (ii) when the possessee is a noun that denotes a non-possessible entity, such as a human being or an entity pertaining to nature or a noun that denotes an uncountable and unpossessible mass, where the possessive marking serves to highlight a pragmatically salient relation or to pick out a particular item or individual; and (iii) with different formally non-possessible parts of speech, such as numerals, demonstratives, adjectives, or participles. In this third category we find possessive-marked numerals that pick out an individual from a group, demonstratives that carry possessive suffixes to highlight a salient relationship between the ‘possessor’ and the possessee or because they substitute for a possessive-marked noun, and adjectives or participles that take on the possessive marking pertaining to the head noun in constructions where the possessee is elided. What unites all of these constructions is the fact that they are non-canonical: body parts are prototypically attached to the body they were born on, so that ‘possession’ by a non-inherent possessor is unexpected and out of the ordinary. Similarly, non-possessible items such as humans, wild animals, plants, the sun, trees, water, numerals, demonstratives, adjectives, or participles are by definition not expected to be possessed; possessive marking for pragmatic or discourse-based reasons is thus clearly unexpected and non-canonical. The seemingly diverse contexts of use of -ŋ(i) can thus be explained by this suffix carrying a single function, namely to flag non-canonical possessive constructions. That these non-canonical possessive constructions occasionally comprise examples involving body parts that appear to show a distinction between inalienable and alienable possession is merely a secondary effect of the actual function of -ŋ(i).

The use of -ŋ(i) in Negidal is not necessarily a semantically driven feature but is often governed by formal requirements, as is shown in various instances. Thus, associative possession of proper nouns such as Vovaŋiβ in (11a) triggers indirect possessive marking, even though the same individual could be referred to by a directly possessed kinship term. Similarly, in some examples, a modifier (21b) or a possessive-marked demonstrative (16, 18) stands in for a possessee that would either obligatorily or optionally take direct possessive marking. Furthermore, possessive-marked proximal demonstratives occur in parallel with unpossessed forms without any easily discernible difference in use. Nevertheless, all the examples of possessive-marked demonstratives carry -ŋ(i).

To date, the suffix -ŋ(V) found in Tungusic languages has been treated as a marker of ‘alienable’, ‘indirect’ or ‘relative’ possession (e.g., Boldyrev 2007 for Evenki, Novikova 1960 for Even, and Nikolaeva and Tolskaya 2001 for Udihe; cf. Nichols 1988; Nichols and Bickel 2013), with analyses of its occurrence couched in semantic terms. Whereas Novikova (1960: 141–152) and Boldyrev (2007: 122–139) attempt to explain – not always successfully – all occurrences of the suffix -ŋ(V) by referring to a single function, namely that of marking ‘indirect’, ‘relative’, or ‘symbolic’ possession (kosvennaja, otnositel’naja, or uslovnaja prinadležnost’), Nikolaeva and Tolskaya (2001: 135–141) attribute five different types of functions to this suffix: “(i) temporary ownership […]; (ii) alienable possession […]; (iii) an abstract associative relationship through a certain activity […]; (iv) a substitutional meaning ‘instead of something’ […]; (iv – sic) the predicative function” (p. 135). These descriptions thus differ considerably from our analysis of -ŋ(i) in Negidal, for which we identify a single function based in part on formal grounds. We, therefore, turn to descriptions of several Tungusic languages to investigate to what extent our analysis of the function of -ŋ(i) in Negidal might be valid for the cognate suffixes in its sisters.

5 The marking of non-canonical possessive constructions in other Tungusic languages

We here summarize information on possessive constructions in four relatives of Negidal: Evenki, Even, Udihe and Nanai. Even and Evenki, which are spoken by small speech communities dispersed over the length and breadth of Siberia, are very closely related to Negidal, while Udihe and Nanai, which are spoken in geographical proximity to Negidal, are genealogically distant (Atknine 1997; Janhunen 2012). Our discussion is based on our interpretation of published descriptions and does not necessarily reflect the analysis of or the terms used by the original authors.

Judging from the available sources, the suffix -ŋi in Evenki functions in a very similar manner to -ŋ(i) in Negidal. As in Negidal, kinship terms and body parts appear to be obligatorily possessed, since they practically always occur with possessive suffixes, whereas terms denoting humans, environmental features, plants, wild animals or birds, and nouns denoting uncountable entities (‘water’, ‘bread’, ‘wood’) cannot carry possessive suffixes directly. Associative possession of such entities has to be licensed by the suffix -ŋi (Boldyrev 2007: 126–133; Nedjalkov 1997: 145). Furthermore, when adjectives, participles or demonstratives carry possessive suffixes because the head noun is elided, this possessive marking also has to be licensed with -ŋi (Boldyrev 2007: 133–136).

In Even, too, the suffix -ŋ occurs in the same contexts as -ŋ(i) in Negidal: with proper nouns, terms referring to people, the environment, wild animals and food, as well as adjectives, numerals, participles and demonstratives when the head noun is elided (Novikova 1960: 147–150). Interestingly, Novikova (1960: 141, 147) provides examples of this suffix attached to kin terms, with a reading of social rather than biological kinship (22).

timin kuŋakan hutə-ŋ-ə-n ɵliki- ŋ -ge-j child offspring- poss-ep-px.3sg
gel-ne-n nɵkiʨi-l-rəkə-n iret-le ʨukaʨan
search-am[nfut]-3sg shoot.arrow-inch-cond-3sg young.larch-loc bird
doː-n gɵːn-ni kuŋa- ŋ -təki-j:[nfut]-3sg say[nfut]-3sg child- poss
amə-ŋ-ə-s ekən-ɟ-i atikaŋ-rə-n
father- poss-ep-px.2sg marry-nfut-3sg
‘The next day the boy, the one who is considered his child, went to hunt squirrels (lit. went to look for squirrels for himself). When he started to shoot, a bird landed on a young larch and said to that boy: “The one who is considered your father is married to his older sister.”’
(Novikova 1960: 148, our glossing and English translation)

In Udihe, too, possessive constructions are similar to those found in Negidal: while kinship terms and body parts tend to be obligatorily possessed, ownership of a body part by someone other than the inherent ‘possessor’ is marked by -ŋi, as is ‘possession’ of ‘land’ and other landscape terms, terms denoting humans, the words for ‘tree’ and ‘money’ (and, somewhat unexpectedly, ‘cow’), as well as substantivized adjectives (Nikolaeva and Tolskaya 2001: 135–141).

As in Negidal, in Nanai body part and kinship terms (except in vocative use) are obligatorily possessed, while proper nouns and meteorological terms as a rule do not occur with possessive suffixes (Avrorin 1959: 119–127). The ‘indirect possession’ suffix -ŋgo/-ŋgu occurs frequently with non-possessible nouns that are associatively possessed, and can also be added to adjectives and interrogative pronouns (Avrorin 1959: 160–161).

In summary, the types of nouns and other lexemes that require addition of the suffix -ŋ(V) to license possessive marking overlap to a large extent across Negidal, Evenki, Even, Udihe, and Nanai: kinship and body part terms are obligatorily possessed, while terms denoting humans, environmental features, uncountable masses and materials cannot take possessive suffixes unless these are preceded by -ŋ(V). Adjectives, participles, and demonstratives that take possessive marking because they substitute for an elided head noun need -ŋ(V) to license the possessive marking. From this perspective, the analysis we propose for Negidal could be extended to -ŋ(V) in other Tungusic languages, namely that this suffix has as its single function the marking of non-canonical possessive constructions. Like the possession of a body part by an individual who is not the inherent possessor, a kinship relationship that is not a true biological relationship is unexpected and not canonical, explaining why such a relationship is flagged with -ŋ in Even (22), resulting in an apparent marking of alienable possession.

6 Possessor marking in constructions with elided possessee in Negidal and other Tungusic languages

The description of non-canonical possessive constructions in Negidal would not be complete without describing another suffix, namely -ŋi, which was briefly mentioned in the introduction. As opposed to -ŋ(i), which is found on the possessee and its modifiers, -ŋi occurs exclusively on possessors in adnominal possessive constructions with an elided head noun; hence we gloss it psr, ‘possessor of elided head’. This suffix differs slightly in form from that found with possessees: while in the latter case, the base form is -ŋ with -i added as an epenthetic vowel in certain morphonological environments,[11] the suffix that occurs with possessors has the base form -ŋi. This difference can clearly be seen when comparing two accusative-marked forms, one a possessee (23a) and one a possessor with an elided head noun (23b). In (23a) the bilabial fricative of the accusative case marker assimilates to the velar nasal of -ŋ(i), whereas in (23b) the accusative suffix retains its original shape following the vowel of -ŋi. Nevertheless, the two suffixes are clearly diachronically related (cf. Sunik 1982: 65) as well as functionally similar, as will be discussed in Section 7.

a. ʨoːka-ŋ-ŋa-s b. daβa-ŋi-βa
grass- poss-acc -px.2sg chum.salmon(autumn)-psr -acc
‘your grass’ ‘chum salmon’s (skin)’

Our analysis of -ŋi is based on 24 clear examples in the corpus (see coding sheet, which also contains several examples with calques from Russian and several unclear cases). This suffix is attested in those cases when the possessee is omitted from an adnominal possessive construction: compare (24a) with the overt head noun sobgo ‘fish skin’ with (24b), where -ŋi substitutes for the head of the possessive phrase ‘skin of a catfish’. Although in examples such as (24c) the possessee is present in the sentence, the possessor having been added as an afterthought, it is not present in its canonical position in the possessive construction, namely following the possessor.[12]

som sobgo-nin kak uŋun sapjan=da
catfish.R Nan-px.3sg like.R hesit morocco.leather.R=add
‘The skin of a catfish is like morocco leather.’
(APN_DIN_rybjakozha: 25)
som-ŋi kak sapjan-gaʨin
catfish.R-psr like.R morocco.leather.R-sml
A catfish’s [skin] is like morocco leather.’
(APN_DIN_rybjakozha: 27)
ɲan əmən dəl-βa-n ʨeka-ja taj amban-ŋi-βa
again one head-acc-px.3sg[3pl] dist devil- psr-acc
‘… they cut off another head of that devil (lit. they cut off another head of his, of that devil).’
(DIN_Emeksikan: 110)

Since possessive noun phrases are not restricted to any specific position in the clause we find -ŋi-marked possessors in subject (24b), direct object (24c), and predicate position (25), although the latter are rare in the corpus (see coding sheet).

babuška nikolaeva tože kazarov-ja-ŋi
granny.R also.R - -psr
‘Granny Nikolaeva was also one of the Kazarovs.’
(DIN_APN_za_chaem: 140)

Interestingly, the split in marking a modifier depending on whether it is a possessor (marked with -ŋi) or another type of modifier [marked with -ŋ(V)] is found not only in Negidal, but is also present in some, albeit not all, other Tungusic languages. For Evenki, Bulatova and Grenoble (1999: 14) postulate a formal distinction of the suffix that marks possessors from the so-called marker of indirect possession: they analyze the morpheme that attaches to possessors as having a long vowel (-ŋiː) as opposed to the short vowel they determine for the suffix that marks possessees. However, this distinction is not mirrored in Nedjalkov’s (1997: 123–125) analysis, which appears to identify the two suffixes as one and the same form, an analysis that also seems to be taken by Boldyrev (2007: 122–139).

In contrast, in Even there is a clear formal distinction between the suffix that attaches to the possessee, which consists solely of the velar nasal -ŋ (26a), and the suffix that attaches to possessors in constructions with elided head, which takes the form -ŋi (26b); Cincius 1947: 144, 148; Novikova 1960: 147–152). The latter can occur in subject, predicate, direct object, and attribute position and is called a “special possessive form of nouns” by Novikova (1960: 150–152).

hun buju- ŋ -ə-sən
2pl.obl wild.reindeer- poss -ep-px.2pl
‘your wild reindeer’
(Novikova 1960: 147, our glossing and English translation)
…taduk hin-ŋi-β man-riɟur ɲan min-ŋi-β ɟeb-ɟi-p
…then 2sg. obl - psr -acc also 1sg. obl - psr -acc eat-fut-1pl.ex
‘(Let’s first eat your stored fish), then, when we have eaten yours, we will eat mine.’
(Novikova 1960: 151, our glossing and English translation)

For Udihe, Nikolaeva and Tolskaya (2001: 141, 634) analyze the suffix -ŋi that occurs with possessors as clearly being identical to the “alienable possession suffix” and analyze it as expressing predicative possession: “The suffix -ŋi- here signifies that the possessive relationship is the main predication in the sentence. For obvious semantic reasons, only the alienable possessive relationship can be predicated by the construction in question.”

In contrast to Udihe, and like Even and Negidal, Nanai, too, makes a formal distinction between the suffix that marks possessees (-ŋgo/-ŋgu, [27a], [27b]) and that which marks possessors (-ŋgi, [27c], [27d]; Avrorin 1959: 155–163, 186–192), which Avrorin calls the “predicative-possessive form”. The same split is furthermore found in Uilta, a close sister of Nanai (Ozolinja 2013: 128–133, 253). In Nanai, possessors are marked with the suffix -ŋgi when they occur in predicative position, when they are postposed to their head (as an afterthought), or when the head is elided because it is retrievable from the preceding discourse (Avrorin 1959: 187–189).

a. Nanai b. Nanai
miː naj- ŋgo -i miː eŋgur- ŋgu -i
1sg human- poss -px.1sg 1sg wolf- poss -px.1sg
‘my human’ ‘my wolf’
(Avrorin 1959: 160, our glossing and English translation)
c. Nanai d. Nanai
naj- ŋgi soli- ŋgi
human- psr fox- psr
‘belonging to a human’ ‘belonging to a fox’
(Avrorin 1959: 186, our glossing and English translation)

Unlike the Tungusic languages spoken in Russia, Written Manchu (attested in northern China) has a genitive case form that marks the possessor in adnominal possessive constructions, but it lacks suffixes that attach to the head noun in such constructions, having neither the direct possession markers nor the suffix -ŋ(V). However, it does have a suffix -(n)iŋgə[13] that marks the possessor in predicative position or when the possessee is elided (Avrorin 1956: 99, 2000: 74, 86) and that thus corresponds to the suffix -ŋi found in Negidal.

In the Tungusological tradition, the suffix -ŋi is often considered a marker predominantly of predicative possession (Avrorin 1956: 94, 1959: 186–188; Nedjalkov 1997: 123–124; Nikolaeva and Tolskaya 2001: 634–635). In contrast, we analyze the function of this suffix as marking possessors of elided head nouns, with the predicative position of the NP being a secondary aspect that emerges from discourse. Our analysis is fully compatible with the data presented by Avrorin (1956: 99) on Manchu, Avrorin (1959: 186–189) on Nanai, and Novikova (1960: 150–152) on Even; a parenthetical insertion by Avrorin (1956: 97) indicates that the same might hold for Evenki.

We are thus faced with formally similar (and most probably related), yet distinct suffixes in at least three Tungusic languages that appear to have distinct functions, namely the marking of possessees on the one hand and the marking of possessors on the other. Nevertheless, as we discuss in the concluding section, these discrepancies can be reconciled under a unified analysis as markers of non-canonical possessive constructions.

7 Discussion and conclusions

To summarize, the Tungusic languages have one (Evenki in one analysis, Udihe) or two (Evenki in an alternative analysis, Negidal, Even, and Nanai) formally very similar suffixes that occur in possessive constructions. One of these has the form -ŋi in all the languages except for Nanai, where it is -ŋgi, the other is -ŋ in Even and Negidal (with insertion of an epenthetic schwa or [i], respectively) and -ŋgo/-ŋgu in Nanai. These suffixes are most probably cognate (cf. Sunik 1982: 65), with the protoform arguably being -ŋi – and, as shown by the Manchu data – the original function possibly being the marking of possessors in adnominal constructions in which the head noun is omitted. In the languages that have two formally distinct suffixes, the formal distinction corresponds to a syntactic distinction, since the suffix -ŋi occurs exclusively with possessors in constructions with elided head nouns, while the suffix -ŋ(V) occurs with possessees. However, while the formal split corresponds to the syntactic split between possessor- and possessee-marking, there is also non-correspondence between form and syntactic function, since like -ŋi the suffix -ŋ(V) occurs with modifiers of elided possessees. Thus, in some languages, two distinct suffixes are found in adnominal possessive constructions with an elided head noun. A diachronic analysis of these suffixes in the Tungusic languages might help elucidate how these distinct functions evolved but has to be left for a later stage.

In addition to the shared origin of these suffixes, they can also be analyzed as sharing an overarching function, namely the flagging of non-canonical possessive constructions. In Section 4.3, we argued that the suffix -ŋ(i) that occurs in possessive constructions in Negidal has erroneously been analyzed as a marker of alienable possession, following a Tungusological tradition. As our analysis shows, this suffix signals either the possession of a body part by a non-inherent possessor, or the possessive marking of non-possessible items, both semantically non-possessible nouns and formally non-possessible parts of speech, such as proper nouns, numerals, demonstratives, and adjectives. The suffix -ŋi that marks the possessor seems to have a similar flagging function, though with a different type of non-canonical construction. As pointed out in Section 3.1, it is quite common to omit the possessor from possessive constructions, since in adnominal constructions this is indexed by the personal possessive suffixes, and its identity can thus be retrieved fairly straightforwardly. The canonical Negidal adnominal possessive construction can thus be taken to consist of a head noun carrying possessive suffixes and an optionally expressed possessor; the inverse, namely an overt possessor and an elided head noun is unexpected and non-canonical. Therefore the function of -ŋi marking possessors of elided head nouns can be subsumed synchronically under the overall function that we propose for -ŋ(i), namely the marking of non-canonical possessive constructions. Judging from the available descriptions, this analysis could be extended to the cognate suffix(es) in Negidal’s sister languages.

Non-canonical possessive constructions are clearly a complex, multilayered and interlaced phenomenon, with semantic, formal, and syntactic factors playing a role (Figure 1). Regarding nouns, possession can be seen as non-canonical mainly for semantic reasons: the suffix is used either with body parts that are possessed by a non-inherent, i.e., non-canonical, possessor, or with nouns that refer to entities that cannot be possessed, such as humans or different natural entities. In the case of other parts of speech, the use of the non-canonical possession marker has purely formal reasons: all non-nouns are marked with -ŋ(i) in possessive constructions, irrespective of whether they are associatively possessed, refer to particularized individuals, or stand in for a directly possessed noun. Syntactic considerations are important with respect to constructions that are structurally non-canonical. Although possession of formally non-possessible modifiers such as adjectives and participles needs to be licensed with -ŋ(i), while possessors carry -ŋi, these seemingly disparate constructions share the omission of the head noun of an adnominal possessive construction. We summarize the different types of non-canonical possessive construction in Figure 1.

Figure 1: 
Types of non-canonical possessive constructions in Negidal.
Figure 1:

Types of non-canonical possessive constructions in Negidal.

Our study thus demonstrates that descriptions of the (in)alienability distinction supposedly found in Tungusic languages should be treated with caution. While this distinction appears to emerge straightforwardly from the oft-cited examples involving ‘alienably possessed’ body parts, close examination of all the contexts of use of the ‘alienable possession’ marker shows that this interpretation is merely a secondary result of the particular type of non-canonical construction involved. While it would of course be rash to conclude from this single case that all instances of inalienable versus alienable possession identified worldwide are erroneous, our study does indicate a need for caution when interpreting such data (cf. the introduction to this special issue, and in particular Rose, this issue).

Corresponding author: Natalia Aralova, Institut für Slavistik, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Kiel, Germany, E-mail:

Funding source: Kazan Federal University

Award Identifier / Grant number: Strategic Academic Leadership Program

Award Identifier / Grant number: MDP0346

Award Identifier / Grant number: ANR-10-LABX-0081


The ideas discussed here were first presented at the “Atelier morphosyntaxe” at the research unit Dynamique Du Langage on 15 December 2020, with an updated version presented at the conference “Malye Jazyki v Bol’šoj Lingvistike”, Moscow, on 24 April 2021; we thank the audiences of both events for their discussion and comments. We are particularly grateful to An Van linden for extensive comments on a draft of this article that helped us to refine our arguments. We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their careful and thoughtful reading of the article and their suggestions. We also acknowledge the generous support of the Endangered Languages Documentation Project (, which enabled our work on the Negidal corpus. Brigitte Pakendorf is grateful to the ASLAN project (ANR-10-LABX-0081) of the Université de Lyon, for its financial support within the French program “Investments for the Future” operated by the National Research Agency (ANR). Natalia Aralova’s work on this article was supported by the Kazan Federal University Strategic Academic Leadership Program. Last, but definitely not least, we are very grateful to all the speakers of Negidal who contributed to the corpus, and in particular to our main consultants Daria Nadeina and Galina Kandakova, whose patient help over many years was crucial to our work.

  1. Author contributions: The order of authors is alphabetic. Both authors collected, analysed, and discussed the data and wrote the paper.

  2. Data availability statement: The data coding sheet for this article may be viewed in the Zenodo repository at:















associated motion




archaic form of suffixes






particle derived from the copula bi-
















deontic future




distal demonstrative


discourse particle


epenthetic vowel


Evenki borrowing






future tense


















interrogative root








Nanai borrowing








personal (name)


non-canonical possessive construction


reflexive possessive






proximal demonstrative




possessor of elided head






nominal possession




Russian borrowing


repeated action




derivation suffix meaning ‘side’








same-subject converb




valency-changing suffix




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Received: 2022-02-14
Accepted: 2023-02-18
Published Online: 2023-06-07
Published in Print: 2023-11-27

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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