Related: https://english.stackexchange.com/q/126519/17952


I recently was explaining a couple of Marathi phrases to my friend, and I realized that the language doesn't have the word "to have". We have multiple different ways of expressing posession, but I found a particular one rather interesting: When I want to say "I have a pen", I instead say "My pen is" (literally translated). Other ways to express posession are: "There is a pen near me", "There is a pen with me", or "There is a pen in my custody"

Japanese seems to have a similar (possibly not the same) construct to "My pen is" (watashi-no pen-desu) when it comes to possession. Russian uses something similar to "X is near me" (У меня есть X)1.

On the other hand, in English, we use the verb "to have" for possession and the object being possessed is the direct object of the verb. French and Spanish do something similar.

How do different language families express possession?

1. Credit @Alenanno and @snailboat for this info

  • I believe several languages say something like "to me" and I think Hebrew is one. I'm also pretty sure the same verb is used for both "to be" and "to have" in several languages and I think Thai is one. Sep 16, 2013 at 13:22
  • "watashi-no pen-desu" only means "my pen is" when translated word for word. The direct translation is "() is my pen" with the implicit subject, "this", dropped. "I have a pen" does not mean the same as "This is my pen", but I guess the question is whether they're expressed in the same way in Marathi.
    – dainichi
    Sep 17, 2013 at 10:28
  • @dainichi I know, the exact translation of any way of expressing possession will be "X is my pen" or "I have a pen". The literal translation is what I'm talking about; different languages use different ways of stringing together words to express things. Sep 17, 2013 at 10:36

1 Answer 1


The WALS (World Atlas of Language Structures) provides an account.

The five values of the parameter in their analysis are:

  1. Locational (possessor marked by locative case/adposition; 48/240 languages)
  2. Genitive (possessor modifies possessed; 22/240 languages)
  3. Topic (possessor appears as the topic; 48/240 languages)
  4. Conjunctional (possessed modified by adverb/conjunction; 59/240 languages)
  5. "have" (lexical verb with two arguments: possessor and possessed; 63/240 languages)

They give examples of each type here.

In their typology, Russian would be type 1 (with the preposition у "near" marking the possessor); Japanese would be type 2, since in boku no pen "my pen", the possessor and the possessed are related through a genitive construction.

Standard English, French and Spanish would be type 5, although Gaelic-influenced English would have type 1 (The pen is at me) in a calque of the Gaelic construction.

  • 1
    They're grouping Dative with Locative, so Hebrew Yesh li 'I have', lit 'There is to me' would also be type 1.
    – jlawler
    Sep 16, 2013 at 0:26
  • Similarly with the Russian construction, whose complement is in the genitive.
    – jogloran
    Sep 16, 2013 at 1:28
  • That's actually a posessive pronoun in communicative [or evidential] persons only (1st and 2nd, Sg. and Pl. alike), and the genitive construction is used for the [descriptive or non-evidential] 3rd person only (both Sg. and Pl. alike as well).
    – Manjusri
    Dec 9, 2013 at 7:51

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