Thursday, July 20, 2017

Saxon genitive ... a confusing little construction

Ukraine Today, an English-language paper from Ukraine, had this headline today ... er quite a while ago
Ukraine Today: Russian Ambassador's in Ukraine party goes off course
The party was not, of course, an "in Ukraine party". Not even "a party in Ukraine" - well, sort of, I suppose, as it was at the embassy. It was a party thrown by the Russian Ambassador in Ukraine (or "to" as we'd probably say).

But that curious possessive construction we have in English - the "Saxon genitive" it's sometimes called - actually attaches to the end of the whole phrase. Weird but true! It's "the Russian Ambassador in Ukraine's party" that went off course.

Once upon a time, I had a native Ukrainian speaker tell me that I had mistranslated a Ukrainian phrase as "the president of the United States' speech", because he wasn't the president of a speech that belonged to the United States. But Ukrainian grammar does possessives differently from English, and you really can't say "the president's of the United States speech" or "the president's speech of the United States". Those things don't mean what "the speech of the president of the United States" (which is how Ukrainian does it) means.

All those textbook examples - "the king of England's crown", "the boy next door's old jalopy", even something like "my neighbor I haven't met yet's dog"- look deeply weird to non-English speakers. But that's how English does it.

Put that 's on the last word in the entire phrase that describes the possessor.



At 3:11 PM, July 22, 2017 Blogger Peter Threadgill had this to say...

That Saxon genitive must have driven the Latinizers bonkers

At 7:12 AM, July 23, 2017 Blogger ctirip had this to say...

The natural work-around, of course, is simply to rearrange the sentence in a less confusing format (confusing even to English speakers), as you intimated in the first paragraph:

"Party held by Russian Ambassador to Ukraine goes off course."

But the real unknowns remain: (1) what was the original destination of the party? (2) who was driving to party? (3) what caused the party to go off course? (4) and where did the party stop?

At 10:13 AM, July 23, 2017 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

I don't think it is confusing to native speakers of English; the original was written by a Slavic speaker (don't know if Russian or Ukrainian). Your questions are good ones, though!

At 8:34 PM, July 27, 2017 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

And yet plurals in English are the opposite: Attorneys General, daughters-in-law...

At 10:13 PM, July 27, 2017 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Yep, plural markers go on the head noun. I think that's one reason this construction confuses people.

At 9:34 AM, July 30, 2017 Blogger Adrian Morgan had this to say...

What's especially odd about the English genitive is that it has some characteristics of a clitic and some characteristics of an inflection. The property of attaching to the end of phrases invites a clitic interpretation, but The Cambridge Grammar rejects this on the following rather pedantic grounds (my paraphrase). Comparing "the child feeding the ducks' happiness" with "the child feeding the geese's happiness", we observe that in the former case (attached to a regular plural) the clitic is not pronounced, but in the latter case (attached to an irregular plural) it is. The Cambridge Grammar argues that this sensitivity to the morphological structure of a word disqualifies a clitic interpretation. I am more inclined to take the view that grammatical categories are convenient fictions and to accept it as a hybrid situation.

At 11:39 AM, July 30, 2017 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

But that's the same with plural possessive anyway. The ducks' food versus the the geese's food. And I think you're right.

At 8:39 PM, July 30, 2017 Blogger Adrian Morgan had this to say...

Right, but to consider only simple examples like that (what CGEL calls the head genitive as opposed to the phrasal genitive) would leave open a few loopholes, so in my summary I skipped straight to the phrasal examples. Ref: pp 480-1.


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