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Dealing with postmodified possessors in early English

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Abstract

Post-modified possessors have always been problematic in English because with such complex possessors the desire to put a topical possessor before the possessum brings into conflict two principles which English and many other Germanic languages strive to follow, namely that (1) the head of the possessor phrase should get the possessive marking and (2) the marking of the possessor phrase should be adjacent to the possessum, i.e. at the right edge of the possessor phrase. The so-called &#8216;group genitive&#8217; found in the phrase <i>the king of France&#8217;s daughter</i> satisfies the second (&#8216;right edge&#8217;) principle but violates the first (&#8216;head marking&#8217;), while the alternative &#8216;split genitive&#8217; <i>the king&#8217;s daughter of France</i> obeys the first principle but destroys the unity of the possessor phrase.This paper documents the rise of these two constructions in English and the rather abrupt favouring (in writing, at least) of the group over the split genitive near the beginning of the Early Modern English period. It also investigates the role and nature of the complexity of the possessor phrase in the choice between the two constructions in the period (e2, 1570&#8211;1639) when both constructions are common in English writings. It is clear that the group genitive has always been favoured when the post-modification was of the simple and easily processed sort found in <i>the king of France</i>, while the split genitive was generally used to position the possessor N at the right edge of the possessor phrase when the post-modification was of a more complex sort. However, although there is a strong correlation between the complexity of the possessor phrase and the choice of construction, other factors were clearly at play also and need to be investigated further, as does the relationship between the disfavouring of the split genitive and the availability of an alternative construction in which a complex possessor is post-nominal within a prepositional phrase, e.g. <i>the daughter of the king of France</i>.It is widely assumed that the development from the split genitive to the group genitive in English was a simple matter of the reanalysis of the possessive marker from an inflection to a clitic, but some minor constructions that we find in the period when the group genitive was gaining ground over the split genitive raise difficulties for such an assumption. For example, sometimes the possessive marker appears both on the possessor N and at the edge of the complex possessor <i>of</i> phrase, e.g. <i>my lordys of Warwykys shyp</i> &#8216;my Lord of Warwick&#8217;s ship&#8217;, and in other examples a complex possessor phrase is placed before the possessum but only the head is marked, e.g. <i>my lordes of Suffolk men</i> &#8216;my Lord of Suffolk&#8217;s men&#8217;. Such examples as well as some other facts seem most consistent with an analysis which treats the possessive marker found in the group genitive in the morphology, rather than in the syntax. Thus the diachronic facts support a sort of analysis which has been proposed for English solely on synchronic facts.

References

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