On the interpretation of alienable vs. inalienable possession: A psycholinguistic investigation

Cognitive Linguistics 22 (4) (2011)
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Oceanic languages typically make a grammatical contrast between expres- sions of alienable and inalienable possession. Moreover, further distinctions are made in the alienable category but not in the inalienable category. The present research tests the hypothesis that there is a good motivation for such a development in the former case. As English does not have a grammaticalized distinction between alienable and inalienable possession, it provides a good testing ground. Three studies were conducted. In Study 1, participants were asked to write down the first interpretation that came to mind for possessive phrases, some of which contained inherently relational possessums, while o thers contained possessums that are not inherently relational. Phrases with non-relational possessums elicited a broader range of interpretations and a lower consistency of a given interpretation across possessor modifiers than those with relational possessums. Study 2 demonstrated that users assign a default interpretation to a possessive phrase containing a relational possessum even when another reading is plausible. Study 3, a corpus-based analysis of possessive phrase use, showed that phrases with relational possessums have a narrower range of interpretations than those with other possessums. Taken together, the findings strongly suggest that grammatical distinctions between different types of alienable possession are motivated.
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