Liane Ströbel

Sensorimotor-based Concepts & Possession

The prototypical meaning of ‘have’ is ‘possession’.

‘Possession’ is an action-orientated complex act that contains a possessor and a possessee (as in Paul has a dog, money, a house) and involves other concepts such as ‘hold’, ‘take’, ‘seize’ (Meillet 1926:10).

Possession is a common feature of all basic level concepts of the arm/hand-string.

Newman (1996) for example describes the complexity of ‘give’ as a telic action, which involves a volitional act of transfer of an object (possessee) from a ‘former’ possessor to a ‘new’ possessor.

In sum, the abundance and diversity of the “figurative” uses of to ‘have’ (without any implication that such meanings are considered as such by native speakers), or any other basic level concept can be reduced to two predominant properties of its literal use: conceptual simplicity and semantic complexity.

The diversity of the figurative ‘have’-extensions correlates with the internal complexity of this basic morpheme.

The semantic complexity inherent in the literal meaning of ‘have’ is a rich source for potential “figurative” extensions and turns it (like many other basic level concepts) into an attractive candidate and a productive source for a diversity of metaphorical and metonymical understandings of more complex notions.

The figurative meanings of ‘have’ include meanings that involve something other than the possession of a concrete object, e.g. ‘have’ in its function as

a) a temporal (The girl has lost the money, which her father doesn’t know. French: La lle a perdu l’argent, ce que son père ne sait pas. German: Das Mädchen hat das Geld verloren, wovon ihr Vater nichts weiß. Spanish: La muchacha ha perdido el dinero, lo cual su padre no sabe. Italian: La ragazza (…) ha perduto il denaro, ciò che suo padre non sa. (Heatwole and Pei 1977: 109–113)) or

b) modal auxiliary (Paul has to go for a walk with the dog. French: Paul a un exposé à faire. German: Paul hat zu tun. Spanish: Pablo tiene que trabajar hasta las siete. Italian: Paolo ha da nire i compiti per domani.).

Besides the fact that on a diachronic level, in many languages ‘have’ has been derived via semantic bleaching of active possession verbs such as ‘take’, ‘hold’, ‘get’, ‘grasp’, and ‘seize’ etc. (Givón 1984: 103; Heine 1997: 48), many semantic and functional extensions of ‘have’ in which it is functioning more as a grammatical morpheme than a lexical item can be regarded as the result of one or more grammaticalization processes.

The successive stages of the transition or grammaticalization of a full verb that denotes a concrete act of possession into a verb with an abstract meaning have been described in detail by Heine (1997).

All grammaticalized forms of ‘have’ share the fact that to the degree to which they are deprived of their semantic content or meaning, they gain grammatical functionality.

In these constructions, ‘have’ represents a grammaticalized form (similar to ‘have’ + verb constructions, e.g. in English I have finished or in French J’ai fini).

Therefore, the main function of the semantically ‘empty’ verb ‘have’ in combinations of ‘have’ and an abstract noun (e.g. to have doubts) is to translate a non- predicate (the noun doubts) into a predicate.

In other words, in the construction ‘have’ + abstract noun, the verb does not make an independent contribution to the meaning of the sentence, but serves instead to transform a non-predicate into a predicate, similar to the copula (Hengeveld 1992: 32), by strengthening the relation between the subject (X) and the utterance (Y):

Paul (X) is tired (Y). Paul (X) est fatigué (Y). Paul (X) ist müde (Y).

The boss (X) is in a good mood (Y). Le patron (X) est de bonne humeur (Y). Der Chef (X) ist in / hat gute(r) Stimmung (Y).

Paul (X) is angry (Y). Paul (X) est en colère (Y). Paul (X) ist wütend (Y). (Busse and Dubost 1983: 137f.)

The strengthening of the relation of X to Y and the semantic emptiness can be illustrated with the help of a possessive pronoun as in Yesterday, we (X) had a discussion (Y). ~ our (X) discussion (Y); Hier matin, nous (X) avons eu une discussion (Y). ~ notre (X) discussion (Y); I (X) had a feeling (Y). ~ my feeling. Il (X) avait un pressentiment (Y). ~ son (X) pressentiment (Y) (ne le trompait pas).

The advantages of the test with the possessive pronoun are that an equivalent control verb (e.g. discussion vs. discuss) is not necessary.

This becomes especially important in those cases, in which the high frequency of empty verb constructions has blocked the rise of a synthetic form: e.g. J’ ai faim. [~ ma faim] 1psg have-1psg hunger [~ my hunger] Ø (vs. Latin es[s]urire, ~ ‘to be hungry’) ‘I am hungry’; I have a foot in the door. ≠ my foot; I have/take a hand in something. ≠ my hand; Paul has an eye to business. ≠ his eye; Elle a peur / crainte. 3psg have-3psg fear, Ø / craindre, ~ ‘to be afraid’ ‘She is afraid’ [~ sa peur] [~ her fear].

With the help of the possessive pronoun it is also possible to separate the group of figurative ‘have’-constructions (e.g. the English example to have courage or avoir du courage in French) from metaphorical constructions:

I have a foot in the door . ≠ my foot

I have/take a hand in something . ≠ my hand

Paul has an eye to business . ≠ his eye

In these cases, ‘have’ is nothing more than “a semantically empty supportive device, functioning as a carrier for tense, mode, aspect, and possibly other distinctions” (Hengeveld 1992: 33).

Similarly, van Peteghem (1991: 5f.) describes an empty verb as an “élément de surface” (‘surface element’), whose presence is mainly due to the grammatical category of the predicate.