Parallels between cross-linguistic and language-internal variation in Hebrew possessive constructions

  • 1 Department of Linguistics, New York University, 10 Washington Place, New York, NY 10003, USA


Grammatical constraints in one language often surface as statistical tendencies in another, suggesting that cross-linguistic comparative studies can play a central role in the study of language-internal “free” variation. This paper applies this approach to the case of the variation between two Hebrew constructions: possessive dative (PD) and ordinary possession. While both constructions convey a possessive meaning, PD additionally highlights the fact that the possessor was affected by an event involving his or her possessed object. To elucidate the concept of affectedness, we turn to European languages that have encoded in their grammar various concrete reflexes of this notion, such as the animacy of the possessor (animate possessors are more often perceived as affected). We show that these concrete reflexes, while not grammatically encoded in Hebrew, have a statistical effect in that language as well. This makes it possible to predict the choice of construction in any given context using these objective proxies of affectedness. Furthermore, we argue that certain categorical restrictions on PD, previously attributed to formal syntactic factors, are best captured as consequences of the semantic affectedness condition. Our results illustrate the continuum between categorical constraints and statistical tendencies, both across languages and within a single language.

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Linguistics publishes articles and book reviews in the traditional disciplines of linguistics as well as in neighboring disciplines insofar as these are deemed to be of interest to linguists and other students of natural language. The journal also features occasional Special Issues in these fields.