Saturday, 13 September 2014

Possession. Can you live without this verb?

"Possession is nine points of the law", goes the early seventeenth-century proverb. What would happen to our understanding of possession if we had no verb to express it?

Scottish Gaelic (and other Celtic languages) has no possessive verb.  I quote from "Gaelic made easy", by John M. Paterson (1952):

We know that when you want to say that a person has anything, you put it as being "at him". Thus THA TAIGH AIG IAIN, A house is at John, or, John.....THA FIOS AGAINN GUM BHEIL AIRGIOD GU LEOIR AGAIBH, We know that you have plenty of money; or [literally], knowledge is at us that money galore is at you.

What would happen if we took away our English verb 'to have'? In Gaelic, we're stating the facts - there's a house and it's with John. There is some money and it happens to be in your pockets. To me, this sounds less permanent, accepting the transient nature of the world by the very grammar used. It makes me think that the things we talk about owning don't really belong to us in the first place - they belong to someone else and we're borrowing them for a while.

It's easy to forget that, really, everything is a gift; everything we use, borrow, eat. How about giving up the verb 'to have' for the day?

(You might want to check out the Story of Stuff for more on this topic)


  1. Interesting. We also use possession when talking about the past. I have been to Germany recently. How do Gaelic speakers refer to the past?

  2. True, but I think the semantics are different between ' have' in its own sense and 'have' as an auxiliary verb. I'm only looking at a simple grammar, and I think you're asking about the present perfect, so I'll need to do some more reading. However, Mr Peterson says:

    To say a thing happens in past time in Gaelic, take the doing-word [sic] and put an H after the first letter... But if the word begins with a vowel you put DH in front of it.