According to Chappell & McGregor (1996: 4) there are four typical types of inalienably possessed nouns:

  • spatial relationships such as the ’top’ or ’front’ of something
  • physical parts, especially human body parts
  • kinship bonds
  • objects which are essential for a person’s survival

It is frequently recognised that inalienability does not actually express the semantic category of possession but instead the category of meronomy, or partonomy, expressing that one noun is related to another by being part of it. So as Goddard & Wierzbicka (2002: 50-51) say:

Both possessive constructions and “body part” constructions can be extended in various language-specific ways to include other types of semantic relations. In particular, it can be argued that so-called “inalienable possession” constructions in many languages are based on the prototype of the body part construction.

Physical parts and spatial relationships can be easily understood as being expressions of meronomy, but it's harder to see how kin terms relate to meronomy. (It is similarly hard for the essential objects type, but that's for another question.) To complicate matters further, I have examples from two languages where the kin terms do express meronomy, but they express very different types of part-relations:

In Koromu (Papuan, PNG) the kin terms express a relationship of being part of a family (Priestly, 2008: 285, emphasis added):

everyone in this place thinks like this about some people
  “these people are all parts of one thing
  I am part of the same thing”
they don’t think like this about other people

But in Kakabai (Oceanic, PNG) the kin terms express a relationship of being part of the movements of your blood (my personal research):

“tauḡa-gu”         banina   ba  tagu  kwasini-gu  isuna
older.sibling-1sg  meaning  is  1sg   blood-1sg   part-of-the-goings-of
‘“My older sibling” means [this sibling] is part of the movements of my blood’

I'm sure there are many more examples where kin terms express some other meaning other than a straight forward (metaphorical) part relation. So why are they typical inalienable nouns when there is no consistent part relation?


Chappell, Hilary & William McGregor. 1996. Prolegomena to a theory of inalienability. In Hilary Chappell & William McGregor (eds.), The grammar of inalienability, 3–30. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Goddard, Cliff & Anna Wierzbicka. 2002. Semantic primes and universal grammar. In Cliff Goddard & Anna Wierzbicka (eds.), Meaning and universal grammar, vol. 1, 41–85. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Priestly, Carol. 2008. The semantics of “inalienable possession” in Koromu (PNG). In Cliff Goddard (ed.), Cross-linguistic semantics, 277–299. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Be careful: speakers' intuitions about how their own language came to be a particular way are not necessarily reliable. Just because a present-day Kakabai speaker explains the phrase in this way does not necessarily mean that this was its historical derivation. – Colin Fine Jul 6 '14 at 16:05
  • @ColinFine that's a fair point. But this question is about speaker conceptualisations. The other inalienables are conceptualised as being straightforward parts of a person, but kin terms aren't. They're parts, but indirectly it seems. – curiousdannii Jul 7 '14 at 0:35
  • 1
    Well, maybe. Your question was "why are they typical inalienable nouns when there is no consistent part relation?". At one level the answer is "because that's how the language has developed", and if current conceptualisations are ex post facto rationalisations, as speaker intuitions sometimes are, they may not actually answer that question. – Colin Fine Jul 7 '14 at 11:20

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