TL;DR: What is the semantic field or the big picture behind the English 'of'?
I seek an explanation like this which exposes the underlying semantic field of ‘tally’.

Addendum: of (as a Functional Morpheme) is too polysemous for me to query each individual meaning. Does the Semantic Field derive from its etymology: PIE etymon is *apo = "off, away"; Proto-Germanic is *af = 'away from'?

PS: After my long tiresome enervated search, Google discovered a book that addresses my question briefly: pp 209-212, 235-236 of The Semantics of English Prepositions; Spatial Scenes, Embodied Meaning, and Cognition (Reprint ed, 2007) by Andrea Tyler, Vyvyan Evans.

  • Why the downvotes?
    – NNOX Apps
    Dec 14 '15 at 23:30
  • 1
    You're requesting the impossible. A better question would be to ask what the syntactic distribution and function of "of" is. I could make up a semantic property, viz. "selecting a subset", but that would only get you 20% of the way to accounting for the facts of "of". Mentioning Indo-European and Proto-Germanic just confuses the issue, and I don't understand why you bring up etymologies.
    – user6726
    Dec 14 '15 at 23:45
  • Is this question a mistake: did you post a revision and fail to delete this?
    – user6726
    Dec 14 '15 at 23:47
  • @user6726 Please pardon any ignorance of mine; why is it impossible for 'of' to have a semantic field? Is this what you meant?
    – NNOX Apps
    Dec 15 '15 at 1:37
  • @user6726 No; this question was not a mistake. Will you please rewrite my question? Being inexperienced in Historical Linguistics, I am not sure what you mean by A better question would be to ask what the syntactic distribution and function of "of" is.
    – NNOX Apps
    Dec 15 '15 at 1:37

There really isn't a great deal of "big picture" left. Of is just a shadow of its former lexical self.

Originally, it came from the dual facts of separation -- A off B -- and relation -- A of B.
In Middle English, final /f/ and /v/ weren't distinguished, so the word had two meanings.
But the voiced of /əv/ reduced the vowel to shwa, while the voiceless off /ɔf/ retained its vowel.
So of sounds exactly like the -'ve contraction of have in should've, which leads to should of.
And like -'ve, of is now just a piece of the machinery, bleached of its semantics.

Semantically, of has been reduced to just a connector with two ends

  1. one end is attached to the object NP, and
  2. one end is attached to the NP or VP that of modifies

Thus: the walls of the room 'there is a relation between the walls and the room' walls room
The precise nature of the relation is unspecified and unclear except in context.

So, of -- rather like de in Romance languages -- isn't really a lexical item any more,
and has lost what little semantics it started with. Which wasn't much.


In English "of" is used to mark Genitive semantic case (though English lacks Genitive morphological case). There is nothing more to it. So, the one-word answer: Genitive.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.