Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by John Quiggin on July 28, 2014

The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.

I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.

The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.

So, some questions to start off with

First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?

Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?



Anarcissie 07.29.14 at 12:24 am

What we call the possessive case in English corresponds to the genitive case in several other languages. ‘Genitive’ means ‘denoting what kind of’ rather than ‘denoting literal possession'; it is a way of forming a word that serves as a sort of adjective. Thus, ‘girls’ clothing’ may mean, not that the clothing belongs to some girls, but that it is the kind of clothing associated with or purposed for girls. I think this usage is fairly widespread, at least in Indo-european languages.


BCC 07.29.14 at 12:28 am

Though not a native speaker, I am aware of the occasional deletion of the possessive particle 的 in Chinese when referring to family members and possibly other cases. For example, 我的妈妈 “my mom” can become 我妈妈–literally, “I mom”, but with the same meaning as before. This might suggest a link between linguistic possession and ownership, but a native speaker could let us know more.


Sandwichman 07.29.14 at 12:54 am

It might be worth looking into John R. Commons’s distinction between the restrictiveness of ownership and the productivity of that which is owned. That might even be a more broadly-held notion among American legal realists of the early 20th century, such as Robert Hale.

Going back over the economists from John Locke to the orthodox school of the present day, I found they always had a conflicting meaning of wealth, namely a material thing and the ownership of that thing. But ownership, at least in its modern meaning of intangible property, means power to restrict production on account of abundance while the material things arise from power to increase the abundance of things by production, even overproduction.” John R. Commons, Institutional Economics. Vol. I: Its Place in Political Economy, p. 4

“The distribution of income, to repeat, depends on the relative power of coercion which the different members of the community can exert against one another. Income is the price paid for not using one’s coercive weapons. One of these weapons consists of the power to withhold one’s labor. Another is the power to consume all that can be bought with one’s lawful income instead of investing part of it. Another is the power to call on the government to lock up certain pieces of land or productive equipment. Still another is the power to decline to undertake an enterprise which may be attended with risk. By threatening to use these various weapons, one gets (with or without sacrifice) an income in the form of wages, interest, rent or profits. The resulting distribution is very far from being equal, and the inequalities are very far from corresponding to needs or to sacrifice.” — Robert L. Hale, “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep., 1923), pp. 470-494


Bloix 07.29.14 at 1:41 am

1) The “possessive case” does not unambiguously denote legal ownership at all. “Tom’s cabin” merely means that Tom lives there – he might own it, or he could be renting, or it could be owned by his father, or by his master. Children speak of “Tommy’s house” without implying that Tommy owns the house. We can discuss “Tom’s boss,” “Tom’s mother,” “Tom’s ex-wife,” “Tom’s neighborhood,” “Tom’s home town,” “Tom’s favorite drink,” “Tom’s crazy ideas,” “Tom’s place in history,” even “Tom’s creator” (i.e. HBS) and none of these imply ownership.

2) I have found myself in some arguments that have taken unpleasant turns when I assert that self-ownership is a metaphor that often conceals more than it reveals. If you contend that, except as metaphor, ownership of one’s body is not a coherent concept – that we *are* our bodies, we don’t *own* them – you may find that you make some of your readers unhappy. This kind of argument is offensive in particular to many feminists, but to others as well. The inviolable right of the property owner (in the most bourgeois conception of property rights) is the primary manner that many people reason about limits on intrusions on the body, and anything that appears to be arguing against this line of reasoning opens one up to attack.

For example, I have argued that the communal and familial right of the Jewish people to self-perpetuation trumps the trivial insult to the body that is the result of circumcision, and I get back the argument that the infant’s ownership of his own body is inviolate and since he cannot give reasoned consent, there is no possible value that can justify the invasion of his property right to his own body.


Sandwichman 07.29.14 at 1:42 am

And then there is, of course, Herr Marx from the German Ideology. The notion of ‘command over other people’s labour’ comes from Adam Smith.

“When the narrow-minded bourgeois says to the communists: by abolishing property, i.e., my existence as a capitalist, as a landed proprietor, as a factory-owner, and your existence as workers, you abolish my individuality and your own; by making it impossible for me to exploit you, the workers, to rake in my profit, interest or rent, you make it impossible for me to exist as an individual. — When, therefore, the bourgeois tells the communists: by abolishing my existence as a bourgeois, you abolish my existence as an individual; when thus he identifies himself as a bourgeois with himself as an individual, one must, at least, recognise his frankness and shamelessness. For the bourgeois it is actually the case, he believes himself to be an individual only insofar as he is a bourgeois.

“But when the theoreticians of the bourgeoisie come forward and give a general expression to this assertion, when they equate the bourgeois’s property with individuality in theory as well and want to give a logical justification for this equation, then this nonsense begins to become solemn and holy.

“Above “Stirner” refuted the communist abolition of private property by first transforming private property into “having” and then declaring the verb “to have” an indispensable word, an eternal truth, because even in communist society it could happen that Stirner will “have” a stomach-ache. In exactly the same way here his arguments regarding the impossibility of abolishing private property depend on his transforming private property into the concept of property, on exploiting the etymological connection between the words Eigentum and eigen and declaring the word eigen an eternal truth, because even under the communist system it could happen that a stomach-ache will be eigen to him. All this theoretical nonsense, which seeks refuge in etymology, would be impossible if the actual private property that the communists want to abolish had not been transformed into the abstract notion of “property”. This transformation, on the one hand, saves one the trouble of having to say anything, or even merely to know anything, about actual private property and, on the other hand, makes it easy to discover a contradiction in communism, since after the abolition of (actual) property it is, of course, easy to discover all sorts of things in communism which can be included in the concept “property”. In reality, of course, the situation is just the reverse. In reality I possess private property only insofar as I have something vendible, whereas what is peculiar to me [meine Eigenheit] may not be vendible at all. My frock-coat is private property for me only so long as I can barter, pawn or sell it, so long as it is marketable. If it loses that feature, if it becomes tattered, it can still have a number of features which make it valuable for me, it may even become a feature of me and turn me into a tatterdemalion. But no economist would think of classing it as my private property, since it does not enable me to command any, even the smallest, amount of other people’s labour. A lawyer, an ideologist of private property, could perhaps still indulge in such twaddle.


godoggo 07.29.14 at 2:03 am

BCC, not a native speaker, but 我頭痛 comes to mind. Leaving out 的 is pretty common.


Joshua W. Burton 07.29.14 at 2:05 am

The Draco Tavern story Grammar Lesson, by Larry Niven, should be required reading before proceeding with this thread — and probably with the Gaza ones, now that I think about it.


Joshua W. Burton 07.29.14 at 2:09 am

The search “draco tavern grammar lesson” fetches the full text on Google Books. Here’s a link that works for me; I have no idea whether anything user-specific is embedded in it that will make it unusable for others.


godoggo 07.29.14 at 2:28 am

…and anyway 的 indicates an adj. before a noun, not necessarily possession.


godoggo 07.29.14 at 2:32 am

God sci-fi is annoying.


godoggo 07.29.14 at 2:36 am

…or I guess an implied noun, yadda yadda.


Anarcissie 07.29.14 at 2:38 am

So, 的 is very like an Indo-european genitive.

To go on…. property is a social agreement in a community as to what one is allowed to control, and how. These could be very complicated, multi-layered, multi-dimensional. (‘My bed in our room at the company’s stockholders’ meeting.’) They could extend to human bodies. For example, there are people who believe the government ought to be able to control the interior of certain people’s bodies. In the past there have been people who believed some could have total control over the bodies of others. It doesn’t seem that possession of one’s self (body) is a reliable absolute model for any other kind of possession.


godoggo 07.29.14 at 3:05 am

Wikipedia page on genitive mentions 的 but it does other stuff too.


mud man 07.29.14 at 3:11 am

Equating possession with ownership seems like a pathology of urban-industrial civilization, to me.


MPAVictoria 07.29.14 at 3:24 am

“For example, I have argued that the communal and familial right of the Jewish people to self-perpetuation trumps the trivial insult to the body that is the result of circumcision”

Oh god. Now you have done it. There is no more rabid online group then anti circumcision commenters. They. Just. Won’t. Stop.

/that said I totally agree with you.


Scott P. 07.29.14 at 3:38 am

i agree that the concept of self-ownership doesn’t really work, in large part because, unlike other forms of property, the self is morally speaking unalienable: one doesn’t have the right, morally speaking, to sell oneself (i.e. to make oneself a slave).


Alan White 07.29.14 at 3:53 am

Invoking rights, shouldn’t one have individual rights to refuse even well-motivated interventions on one’s body (like even simple blood transfusions ala Jehovahs), but not communally expansionist rights to sell body parts for personal gain (an extra kidney) or even for plausibly altruistic reasons that entails publicly sanctioned self-sacrifice (donating your healthy heart to a dying child)? Protective ownership versus unlicensed property ownership of one’s own body? (I’m excluding the mind and mental products.)


dr ngo 07.29.14 at 3:58 am

Not a philosopher at all, nor remotely well-read in philosophy, I tend only to lurk in such threads, but I am compelled to ask Scott P. @16: why not? In many of the societies I have studied not only do people have the (legal) right to sell themselves as slaves, but many of them do it. Admittedly the “slavery” practiced in Southeast Asia was not as harsh or absolute as that practiced in the US ante-bellum South, but I would think that was incidental to the case.

Or I could just quote Ruddigore: Besides, if a man can’t forge his own will, whose will can he forge ?


godoggo 07.29.14 at 4:03 am

Anybody tried to procure some nembutal lately?


ZM 07.29.14 at 4:10 am

Part of your problem is English traditionally doesn’t really have a grammar. The old grammar schools used just to teach Latin grammar – I suspect this is why older English writing has more interesting arrangements of words whereas now you are meant to use dull and overly repetitive sorts of arrangements.

The possessive case is also known as the genitive case – but the genitive case signifies a wider range of relationships than only possession but possession is included in these. So saying Uncle Tom’s Cabin does not necessarily imply that the relationship between Uncle Tom and the cabin is legal possession . Other examples given by the Cambridge Grammar are Mary’s sister or the accident’s result – apparently these are called monovalent constructions – subject determiner’s where the two kinds of complement tend to be in competition with one another (p. 476).

With regard to slavery and self-ownership – the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania exhibited a man the other year who for performance art reasons sold himself – I thought this was deplorable but it did receive some praise as an interesting thought piece. I have tried to google the man, but I can’t remember his name, so no luck.


Sandwichman 07.29.14 at 4:13 am

One can presumably sell one’s soul, though.


ZM 07.29.14 at 4:20 am

Oh – I see others already made the point about the genitive case. I should have read the comments.


Moz of Yarramulla 07.29.14 at 4:35 am

“For example, I have argued that the communal and familial right of the Jewish people to self-perpetuation trumps the trivial insult to the body that is the result of circumcision”

I’m not sure where this is satire, or merely a target for it. Where does this justification to modify the bodies of our inferiors end, if indeed it does end? If chopping off “trivial” parts is ok, is tattooing their wrist a step too far? Does this extend to harvesting duplicate organs? Or killing them for medical research? And who gets to decide which people are sufficiently inferior for this to apply?

Personally I feel that the property/possession rights discussion would be better located somewhere else. I don’t want people classing my body as just another lump of meat to be bought and sold, legislated and litigated, edited and modified. I’m much more into “legal recognition of inherent rights” and similar approaches. The rights of children are a useful way to think about some parts of this. When in the progression from a couple of cells to a human do various rights come into force?


Plume 07.29.14 at 4:42 am

To the propertarian, ownership seems only to apply to business owners, not workers. Not consumers. Not to any collective ownership of the commons. Ownership is owning a business and all who huddle under the roof of that business. One does not own one’s own labor power. The boss does.

I have tried over the years — really tried — to find a way to delink this view from the concept of slavery, and have never been successful. I can’t help seeing a direct link between the slaveholding south and the propertarian as heir; between the states’ rights/property rights slaveholding south, and the propertarian heir.

Also, “company time and my time.” I think Marx is really useful there, too. Capitalism is based upon, and requires, unpaid labor to produce profits and high compensation for ownership. So one works on company time in a deeper sense of that phrase. For a small part of the day, a worker is paid for his or her production, but the rest of the day they are not paid at all. This is how the capitalist makes that profit and that high compensation. So “company time” is something ominous, and connected to unpaid slave labor, rather than a friendly old saying we take for granted. Most of the day literally is spent entirely for the company, not the worker. The day is not his or hers, at all, except for a small portion of it.


john c. halasz 07.29.14 at 5:03 am

One doesn’t own oneself as if it were an independent object. One inhabits one’s body as a part of one’s relation to the surrounding world. And one only becomes one (a) self, through one’s relations to others. How can one participate in a discourse, when its basic conceptual “grammar” is so bad?


Scott Martens 07.29.14 at 5:15 am

Okay, as an actual linguist (certified and everything!) I should point out there is no possessive case in English for regular nouns and there has not been one since before Chaucer. The “‘s” is a clitic preposition, and the proof is that a case ending could only attach to individual words, while “‘s” can attach to whole phrases:

The woman at the desk’s hair is too long.

It’s not the desk’s hair, it’s the woman’s. IIRC, there is some discussion of how English lost its genitive case and got a possessive clitic preposition, with some late medieval texts writing “his” in place of “‘s”.

And in Chinese, 的 indicates a lot of things, including introducing a relative clause. To conflate it with a case ending doesn’t get you anywhere. We westerners tend to see Latin in every language, even now in the 21st century when we ought to know better.

A lot of languages make a grammatical distinction between alienable possession and inalienable possession, and this would pose problems for any translator of Nozick because he implies that the inalienable self could be alienated. But in general, I don’t like to look at philosophical problems in terms of grammar. That line of argument almost always goes wrong. Most languages have some way of expressing “my father” (and not yours), and to conflate that with ownership of property is just weird. Property in the sense of western liberal philosophy doesn’t even in exist in many cultures.

I would look at self-ownership from the slightly Marxist perspective that property is a social relation. To be my home means to possess an enforceable right to keep you off my lawn. But no property relation of any kind is unhindered or absolute. Seen from that perspective, self-ownership as some kind of absolute high principle seems a bit silly. If I possessed complete absolute self-ownership, I could have no obligations of any kind to anyone. Instead, there are social relations that give me a legitimate right to prevent others from using my body in some ways, but not in others. If Nozick is going to look at bodies at property, then just like with real property, the question is what claims to my body are are or should be acknowledged as legitimate and which ones aren’t. Nozick’s argument is “start from an assumption of complete autonomy and water it down using only just acts”, but that situation doesn’t correspond to a reality of any kind.


Chris Bertram 07.29.14 at 6:02 am

The key book in English is G.A. Cohen’s Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality, which is his demolition of Nozick. Among the things he argues there is that critics who say that the concept of self-ownership is incoherent (including Kant) are wrong, but that the thesis of self-ownership is nevertheless false. That is, it is not conceptually confused to think of people as self-owners, but they are for all that not correctly thought of as self-owners.


Chris Bertram 07.29.14 at 6:04 am

@Scott “If I possessed complete absolute self-ownership, I could have no obligations of any kind to anyone.”

That seems wrong. Assuming that they are also self-owners, you have the negative duty not to encroach on their property, including their property in their own person.


Bloix 07.29.14 at 6:24 am

#25 – many people would view your example as non-standard. Some people say (but don’t write), “the woman at the desk, her hair is too long,” but this is the sort of thing that grade school teachers try to beat out of their students.

It’s more acceptable in compound nouns (Mary and John’s wedding, Sam and Harry’s Steak House) but to me it still seems at least informal.


Tony Lynch 07.29.14 at 6:31 am

But if others self-ownership necessarily threatens/diminshes mine? Hobbes?


Peter T 07.29.14 at 6:34 am

“That seems wrong. Assuming that they are also self-owners, you have the negative duty not to encroach on their property, including their property in their own person.”

To whom would one owe that duty, absent the social relations defining property? How would it be enforced, absent various socially-agreed exceptions?


godoggo 07.29.14 at 6:35 am

“but this is the sort of thing that grade school teachers try to beat out of their students.”

It’s perfectly OK in Chinese though. :D


John Quiggin 07.29.14 at 6:40 am

@Scott I’d never heard of clitic prepositions before! Getting this kind of information is one of the reasons I love CT so much. But I think the grammatical distinction you are drawing is orthogonal to the point I’m making. Whether possession is indicated by a case or by a preposition, the same problem arises. It’s particularly striking in Tok Pisin (Pidgin) where “bilong” (from English “belong”) takes the place of “of” (at least as I understand it.

I agree that it’s a mistake to pose philosophical problems in terms of grammar. But, in this case, I’d say the mistake has already been made by Nozick, and it’s necessary to clear up the grammatical confusion before responding.


ZM 07.29.14 at 6:42 am

It is very incorrect to think property title comes before social obligations or supersedes them – in English legal theory for instance all land is crown land that people are granted tenure to by the crown with which they exist in mutual obligation in the Kingdom. The social obligation precedes and determines the property title.

A commenter – Nevil Kingston-Brown – on John Quiggin’s blog thread on this topic mentioned The Gender of the Gift (which is also relevant to the marriage thread) – he quoted this review of the book

“Strathern’s highly-acclaimed 1988 study of Highland New Guinea society sets out the concept that Melanesian persons are dividual. She argues that personhood arises from relations between others and the continuing relationships that each person engages in – that people in Melanesia are “multiply-authored”. The dividual aspect of personhood stresses that each person is a composite of the substances and actions of others – the dividual person is composed of components from the entire community.”


Chris Bertram 07.29.14 at 6:44 am

@Peter T: your comment trades on an ambiguity in “social relations”. There’s no conceptual reason why members of an anarchic community can’t mutually recognize one as self-owners, and in that sense self-ownership would form part of their system of social relations.

@TonyLynch Hobbesian individuals in the state of nature don’t have self-ownership (claim rights over their bodies and powers), they have liberty rights to make use of anything that they want to (even one another’s bodies) in pursuit of their aims.


Chris Bertram 07.29.14 at 6:53 am

ZM: your “it’s very incorrect” is simply dogmatic assertion. The question of whether a person has the moral right to exclude others from ownership of a thing or piece of land can’t be settled merely by stipulating that all property is a matter of positive law. There may be prior relationships that positive law ought to reflect, to bend itself to. When, for example, the Berne Convention recognizes the moral rights of authors, I take it that there is some moral fact that is presupposed about the relationship between a creator and what they create. There’s plenty of evidence that some of these propensities to assert claims over things and to recognize the claims of others are quite deeply ingrained in our human nature.


Plume 07.29.14 at 7:10 am

John Quiggin @33,

I agree that it’s a mistake to pose philosophical problems in terms of grammar. But, in this case, I’d say the mistake has already been made by Nozick, and it’s necessary to clear up the grammatical confusion before responding.

But isn’t that what Wittgenstein did? Pose philosophical problems in terms of grammar, attempt conditional, provisional answers in the form of grammar as usage — in his mystical aphorisms — which is why, perhaps, he became so important for the Language Poets.

Some quotes:

*Philosophical problems can be compared to locks on safes, which can be opened by dialing a certain word or number, so that no force can open the door until just this word has been hit upon, and once it is hit upon any child can open it.

*A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push it.

*Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.


ZM 07.29.14 at 7:12 am

Scott Martens,
The Cambridge Grammar argues the other side:

“We have been assuming that all the examples in [63-65] have genitive case-inflection, but we need to show that this analysis is to be preferred over one in which the genitive marker is a clitic, a separate syntactic word that merges phonologically with the preceding word – as ‘m is a critic that merges with I in I’m ill.

An obvious difference between ‘me and the genitive marker is that the latter can never stand alone as a phonologically independent word, whereas clitic ‘m alternates with the non-clitic am. This is not a conclusive argument…..

The status of the genitive as an inflectional case is most evident in head genitives. With the personal pronouns no other argument is possible …
Further evidence for an inflectional analysis is that genitive formation is sensitive to the internal morphological structure of the noun ….

The realisation of the genitive is crucially bound up , therefore, with the inflectional formation of the noun, and this – like the suppletive genitives of the personal pronouns – rules out an analysis where the genitive is formed by the addition of a separate word cliticised by the noun.’ pp. 480-481


ZM 07.29.14 at 7:41 am

Chris Bertram,
I don’t think it’s dogmatic, it’s common sense. The notion of property or individual ownership is a social notion. Why would a person who was abandoned to the elements at birth and subsequently lived their lives out in exclusion from all human kind think up property rights – and how would they come to have the language (which is also social) to do so?

Property is a social construct – I can’t see how it can truly be argued property iof all things is a foundational moral condition? And the western rhetoric of ‘human nature’ generally excludes all the other ways of human being not congruent with its claims.

I don’t mean by this that moral obligations to respecting persons’ bodies etc are only socially constructed rather than there being moral absolutes against torture etc – I just mean that the particular idea of property is necessarily preceded by a social context with social obligations.

Copyright is a good example of this – individual claims to the right to profit from their thoughts/creative works etc excludes poor people from gaining knowledge or entering in to commodified cultural realms . Social obligations to all people should mean that laws should not privilege the author and those that can buy knowledge over those who cannot.


Chris Bertram 07.29.14 at 7:51 am

ZM: You are confused, and your reference to language underlines that. Since we are a social species, the natural/social contrast as you are using it is just a mistake.


ZM 07.29.14 at 8:03 am

The nature/culture(or social) distinction has existed in western thought since the classical period. And the dominant western idea of human nature has been used to justify authoritarian property based politics, liberal or not, since around Hobbes at least.

What do you think is mistaken with the way I have written of the distinction in classing property as social rather than either natural or foundational in terms of moral absolutes?


Chris Bertram 07.29.14 at 8:16 am

Well think of language. It is conventional but also rests on natural capacities we have as members of a social species. (I don’t think appealing to the history of western thought is going to get you very far here, since traditional and pre-scientific distinctions like this may misrepresent the facts.)


Stephenson quoter-kun 07.29.14 at 8:23 am

Also, we can refer to people as “having” an eye colour, or a broken heart, or a complete lack of surprise, and we call these things “properties” of the person in question. We can, at the risk of slight ambiguity, say that my hometown is one of my properties. In fact, that usage is fairly common in software development.

The linguistic origin of this use of “property”, and how it relates to exclusive property rights, is sadly beyond me, but it does reinforce the point that we have some ambiguity in our reference to things being the “property of” a person.


ZM 07.29.14 at 8:35 am

But a person who was abandoned and lives in exile from humanity will have the capacity of language as an infant but if they are never found and welcomed in to society they won’t learn their mother tongue or any other human tongue – they will likely make some basic sounds to express their feelings and maybe to communicate with local animals in the forest they are abandoned in.1 They are not likely to come up with the concepts and words for property as they are in their mother land and mother tongue while they are abandoned alone in the forest.

There is Herodotus’ account (I hope this is an accurate retelling) of two quarreling kings who wanted to know whose language was original so they required two infants to be brought up enclosed in a cottage and never spoken to but given bread – so when one of the children said one of the kingdoms’ word for bread this was decided to be the original word for bread – but I think it an unlikely tale myself, and I would doubt any results if you replicated the two Kings’ experiment of isolating infants to see whether notions of social obligations or property were original .

1. Accounts of children who have been found after growing up alone in forests usually say it is very difficult for them to learn social language and customs


Peter Erwin 07.29.14 at 9:14 am

Stephenson quoter-kun @ 43:
The linguistic origin of this use of “property”, and how it relates to exclusive property rights, is sadly beyond me,

A quick look at the Online Etymological Dictionary yields this:

c.1300, properte, “nature, quality,” later “possession, thing owned” (early 14c., a sense rare before 17c.), from an Anglo-French modification of Old French propriete “individuality, peculiarity; property”…

This would suggest the “quality of” meaning in English is (somewhat) older, with the “ownership” aspect a later derivation; on the other hand, both the French word and the Latin word proprietas from which the French word was derived also included the meaning “ownership”, so the various senses tend to go together.


Scott Martens 07.29.14 at 9:29 am

@ZM: The Cambridge Grammar is then wrong. The idea that a clitic must have some allomorphic independent form is utterly silly nonsense. By their criterion, if I changed the rules of English writing (not the English language, just its spelling conventions) and wrote every “‘s” as “es”, then said the “e” is silent unless preceded by an “s” or “z” sound, we would speak exactly the same language but the lexical status of that marker would be unambiguous.

@Chris: On the contrary. If I am the sole, inviolate owner of my body and I infringe on your property – whether your body or otherwise – what can you do about it that does not violate my personal ownership of my body? Yes, Nozick of course allows that the violater loses some rights, and that is not the kind of argument I have in mind. What I do have in mind is taking Nozick to his logical extreme in taking liberal arguments to their extremes: A woman’s self-ownership may constitute an argument for legitimizing abortion, but seen in absolute terms, it’s an equally good argument for legitimizing child abandonment. Having children creates obligations that undermine your self-ownership, and clearly we can allow a right to abortion without a right to child abandonment. Ergo, you can have autonomy in some ways and not in others. In so far as one regards a body as potentially alienable property, we can note that there is no absolute property in land or things in any society anywhere, and there is no absolute self-ownership or personal autonomy either.


JPL 07.29.14 at 9:32 am

I haven’t got time now, but the phrase “Tom’s owner” belongs to a grammatical pattern in English whereby a construction involving a verb and a noun phrase is nominalized, i.e., converted into a construction that plays the syntactic role of a nominal in a larger construction. For example, 1) a verb – nominal construction (verb – direct object), such as “Denmark conquered England .” becomes “Denmark is England’s conqueror.” or, “Ford killed Lincoln.” becomes “Ford is Lincoln’s killer.” and so forth. Or 2) a nominal – verb (intransitive) construction such as, “The plane crashed.” becomes “The plane’s crash was controversial.” Within the noun phrase what in main clauses is expressed with verb – nominal or nominal – verb is now expressed with the “genitive” or “possessive” marker in construction with what was the main clause nominal, while the main clause verb is now the head (or “innermost constituent”) of the nominalized construction. The ‘s (or ‘of’ as in “killer of Lincoln”) indicates an abstract grammatical dependency relation which is preserved (invariant) in the move from a verbal construction to a nominal one. (The verb would be the “head” and the nominal a dependent; in the deverbal nominal phrase, the deverbal nominal is the head and its former object or subject is the dependent. It has nothing at all to do with “possession” in the concrete sense; “Tom’s owner” is related to “X owns Tom.” English strictly speaking does not have a genitive case, but this sort of pattern can be found in languages that have genitive cases in the true sense. (See also, for example, “Quiggin’s stirring of the waters was deplorable”.)

There are many languages that do make a grammatical distinction between inalienable (e.g., one’s body and its parts) and other kinds of “possession”.

I’m sorry, I could express this more elegantly, but I did this note in a great hurry.


JPL 07.29.14 at 9:46 am

Scott Martens @26

I would use the term ‘enclitic’ rather than “clitic preposition”. (It comes at the end of the element it’s in construction with.)


John Quiggin 07.29.14 at 9:49 am

Sandwichman @5 That’s uncannily close to my thoughts about the question. Maybe I’m a Marxist after all.


Scott Martens 07.29.14 at 9:53 am

@John: Two of my favourite example languages are Cree and Ojibwe, both fairly similar (think, related like French and Spanish, or maybe German and Swedish), and both spoken over a large chunk of Canada, and, unlike most Native North American languages, both have a significant written literature and even something you could call a literary tradition. I like to freak out the undergrads by explaining how both languages have no adjectives and they conjugate for four persons instead of just 3.

What they do have that is kinda cool is conflation of conjugation and possession. Possession in Cree is marked by prefixes to nouns, and the same set of prefixes is used to conjugate verbs. Furthermore, some nouns must always indicate who possesses them. There is no single word for “father” in Cree, because to be a father is always to be someone’s father, and the morpheme for father can only appear with possessive prefix to indicate “my father”, “your father”, “his/her father”, etc.

Now, the thing is, whether a thing is intrinsically possessed in Cree is only peripherally related to whether a thing can be intrinsically possessed. All body parts and kinship terms are inherently possessed, but I think there is non-possessed word that means something like a corpse. The thing is, IIRC, shirts are inalienably possessed in Cree, but pants aren’t. (Or maybe it’s the other way around.) This leads me to see alienation in Cree as a bit like gender in French: Yes, sometimes the feminine noun really is a woman, but a lot of the time it’s an arbitrary category.

So, I think it would be a huge pain in the ass to translate Nozick into Cree – you would have to indicate the potential to alienate something grammatically inalienable. But, I think it would have to be possible, because you clearly can alienate things that are grammatically inalienable.

The putatively “possessive” markers in grammar indicate a relation whose type is ambiguous and must be uncovered through context and other words. Even the darkest corners of the patriarchy, “my wife” and “my husband” get expressed the same way. I imagine “my master” and “my slave” look syntactically the same everywhere, and no one imagines they are similar relationships.


Scott Martens 07.29.14 at 10:00 am

@JPL: Meh. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. It has a syntactic function just like a proper word: It’s a preposition. It precedes its object and indicates the relation to its antecedent.


Scott Martens 07.29.14 at 10:07 am

@JPL: Ehh… okay, postposition.


ZM 07.29.14 at 10:18 am

Scott Martens and JPL,

Which English grammar books are you both reading that say there is no genitive case? Although there is no traditional English grammar since they read Latin grammar instead when Anglo Saxon turned into English, all the grammars I’ve looked at say there is a genitive case.

The Oxford Modern English Grammar and TheCambridge Grammar of the English Language both say there is a genitive case.

A Shakespearian Grammar also says there is a genitive case but that the Elizabethan period was a very destructive one for inflections generally. It notes some inflections fell out of practice but retained their power; some inflections were both kept and retained their power (eg. his as the genitive of he for of him); some inflections were retained but their power was lessened or lost. It gives lots of examples, like Piers Plowman has ‘myn one’ where myn is the genitive of I; and the genitive use of your , our, their &c.; and the subjective genitive like ‘the kindred of him hath been flesh’d upon us’ ‘tell thou the lamentable tale of me’ and so on.


Robert 07.29.14 at 10:24 am

I guess the Marx quotation above is attacking Stirner’s distinction between possession and property. I thought that distinction was fairly common among 19th century anarchists.

As I understand it, when capitalism first emerged, many saw the conversion of self-employed peasants and artisans to wage-workers as an imposition of bondage. My name links to a post with quotations supporting this view, gathered by Christopher Hill.


David J. Littleboy 07.29.14 at 11:16 am

“I like to freak out the undergrads by explaining how both languages have no adjectives”

I tried to freak out a famous linguist (Ray Jackendoff) by pointing out that Japanese adjectives conjugated for tense, and he wasn’t freaked out at all. I need a more obscure language.

The Japanese possessive is even more flexible than the English one. The standard translation of “of the people, by the people, for the people” uses the same possessive marker for all of of, by and for. Oops; something’s getting lost in translation there…


William Timberman 07.29.14 at 11:31 am

Amazing, fascinating. As often happens to me here here at CT, I walk away early in the thread thinking not much of interest to me personally is going on, and return late to find a full-blown debate going on about, of all things, mind-body dualism, discussed in terms of a) property, and b) grammar. Whatever will they come up with next?

Looking over the detailed progression of the thread, I think I tend to side with Scott Martens and john c. halasz, or maybe better, with the Marxists and the Buddhists. Talking about the body as something that the consciousness owns, as though it were a bank account, or a cornfield, or a poodle, is truly weird. If such an odd concept is honest-to-God true, it seems to me unavoidable that everyone else owns a piece of me as well — my parents, my kids, my blowhard Tea Party uncle, the well-meaning folks in my golf or bridge club, or the PTA. Honestly folks, is hers, mine and ours REALLY meant to be taken literally here, or are we jes’ funnin…?


David J. Littleboy 07.29.14 at 11:39 am

“There is no single word for “father” in Cree, because to be a father is always to be someone’s father, and the morpheme for father can only appear with possessive prefix to indicate “my father”, “your father”, “his/her father”, etc. “

Japanese largely works like that as well. It’s quite useful, actually, since in conversation you have to switch, thus making it clear you know who is being talked about. (In novels, the speaker is almost never specifically identified, since there’s enough information in any spoken phrase to identify the speaker.) In principle (for objects as well as relatives), Japanese does it by sticking an “honorific” in front of the word to make it something belonging to the other party and leaving it off when you are talking about your own , but for family names, the morpheme often changes as well: haha (my mother) vs. okaasan (your mother). It’s not easy: within the family, you address and refer to your parents with the honorific, but outside the family, you refer to them without said honorific. Younger Japanese get it wrong so often, hearing someone get it right is surprising.


Mdc 07.29.14 at 12:12 pm

Scott Martens:
Very interesting. Is it just coincidence, then, that German uses “s” in many of its genetive endings? It’s also weird that the preposition’s object is not the owner or the source or the class, like it would be with other ‘belonging’ prepositions (‘of’, ‘from’), but rather the thing owned or sourced or specified. Do we have any other prepositions of belonging that work in that direction?


ZM 07.29.14 at 12:56 pm

this book has a lot of information on the genitive in Old English- The Genitive Case in Anglo Saxon Poetry https://archive.org/stream/genitivecaseina00shipgoog#page/n12/mode/2up
It looks at a whole range of things: giving and taking, use and experience, motion and mental activity , rule and control, believing and dis believing, emotion, help and pity and so on. It looks very detailed.

And this looks at the types of modern genitive – (this author puts a great number of charts and n sums and verticle and horizontal axes in this article) ‘Genitive and of-construction in modern written English. Processability and human involvement ‘ by Rolf Kreyer

“Early categorisations of the genitive meanings can be regarded as attempts to apply the categories of Latin or Ancient Greek to Modern English. Thus, Poutsma (1914: 40ff.), for example, distinguishes six meanings of the genitive (‘possessive’, ‘origin’, ‘subjective’, ‘objective’, ‘appositive’ and ‘of measure’)….. However, the question remains as to whether the semantics of the English genitive is appropriately described by categories found in ancient languages.
a. POSSESSIVE GENITIVE: Mrs Johnson’s passport Mrs Johnson has a passport
b. SUBJECTIVE GENITIVE: her parents’ consent her parents consented
c. OBJECTIVE GENITIVE: the family’s support (…) supports the family
d. GENITIVE OF ORIGIN: the girl’s story the girl told a story
e. DESCRIPTIVE GENITIVE: a women’s college a college for women
f. GENITIVE OF MEASURE: ten days’ absence the absence lasted ten days
g. GENITIVE OF ATTRIBUTE: the party’s policy the party has a (certain) policy
h. PARTITIVE GENITIVE: the baby’s eyes the baby has (blue) eyes
1. Zunser’s hymn: the hymn that Zunser produced
2. Their advice: They advised5
3. Her amazement: Someone/Something amazed her
4. Her tormentors: the ones who torment her
5. Their Hebrew lesson: The Hebrew lesson they study
6. His abruptness: He is abrupt
7. Miss Taylor’s coffee break: the break Miss Taylor spent drinking coffee
8. Halsey’s grocery: the grocery that Halsey owns
9. Her patient’s closet: the closet that her patient uses
10. Hazel’s head: the head that is part of Hazel
11. Your PTA: the PTA of which you are a member
12. Esteban’s doctor: the doctor of whom Esteban is a patient
13. Detroit’s long cold streets/tomorrow’s weather: the long cold streets in
Detroit/the weather for tomorrow
14. Miscellaneous

1. X is kin to Y (Kinship)
Peter’s father – Peter is kin to his father
2. X has (a/..) Y (Possessive) Peter’s car – Peter has a car
3. Y is part of X (Partitive)
Hazel’s head – the head is a part of Hazel
4. X Verb(Y) (Subjective)
Her parents’ consent – her parents consented
5. so. Verb(Y) X (Objective)
The boy’s release – so. released the boy
6. X has Y at their disposal, X makes use of Y (Disposal) Peter’s doctor – Peter has the doctor at his disposal
7. (the) Y in X, (the Y for X), … (Time & Space) Detroit’s cold streets – the cold streets in Detroit Tomorrow’s weather – the weather for tomorrow
8. X is Adj(Y) (Attribute)
The victim’s courage – the victim is courageous
9. X produces/tells/writes … Y (Origin)
The general’s letter – the general wrote a letter”

He seems to goes on to list 104 types of genitive and of-constructions in his own typology but it is so lengthy I haven’t read it and won’t copy it out here



Sandwichman 07.29.14 at 1:40 pm

John @49: We’re all Marxists now… Or should that be Marx’s?


HR 07.29.14 at 1:55 pm

Actually the annotations here: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/978-0-393-05946-5/ examine the influence of Marx (and mid-nineteenth century economic thinking generally) on Stowe. The scholar Bill Gleason of Princeton has also written at length about slaves and cabins here: William Gleason, ““I Dwell Now in a Neat Little Cottage”: Architecture, Race, and Desire in The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” in In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on the Bondwoman’s Narrative,” eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins. Basic/Civitas, 2004.


Anarcissie 07.29.14 at 4:11 pm

In order to escape from the obvious fact that property is a social construction, some of the propertarian libertarians I have argued with, and maybe Nozick (I forget) invoke the quasi-religious concept of Natural Law. Hence, I have been told, an earlier version of the Declaration of Independence, following Locke, said that men were ‘self-evidently’ endowed by their Creator with rights of life, liberty, and property. Thus, property is not a human construction but is ordained by capital-N Nature or Nature’s God. As is usual in religious matters there is no successful way of arguing against the proposition with a true believer since it is an article of faith. As Nietzsche remarked, God is in the grammar.


Scott Martens 07.29.14 at 4:17 pm

@ZM, #53:

A. M. Zwicky. On Clitics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club.
A. M. Zwicky and G. Pullum. Cliticization vs. Inflection: English N’T. Language,
59(3):502–513, 1983.
A. M. Zwicky. Clitics and Particles. Language, 61(2):283–305, 1985.

Dammit, this is the second time this week I’ve had google my own thesis for a reference.

Just look up the “Zwicky Criteria” or “Zwicky-Pullum criteria” if you want access to the whole debate. It looks like at first like an incredibly boring set of papers on a minor bit of English syntactic pedantry – whether “‘s” and “n’t” are clitics or suffixes. But it opened the gateway to a flood of bitching and moaning because the Zwicky criteria are the only really general principles we have for deciding what is and isn’t a word at all. This is not a trivial issue at all. Linguists would shed blood on that subject, if we could be bothered to bring knives to conferences.

English does have a genitive case analogous to Latin and German, but only for pronouns.

@Mdc: IIRC (which I may not, English is not actually my strong suit as a linguist, it’s just my native language), the thinking is that either the Old English suffix broke free to live a life as an autonomous (or semi-autonomous) lexeme, or that at one time people said things like “John his father” and eventually dropped everything but the “s”. Both of these possibilities occur in other languages, and the relevant period is thin on well attested speech. But someone with more background in issues in English linguistics should answer.


Plume 07.29.14 at 4:19 pm


That is a very good point.

I have had those arguments, and the propertarians in questions swear they don’t believe in a god, but they still tout the supposed higher power, “natural law,” which (to them) overrides humankind in the present.

I tell them that humans invented these “rights,” and there is no higher power. They counter that if that is the case, then governments can just take away those rights. And this response always puzzles me. As if the folks using force will suddenly stop and say:

“Uh, Ned. We can’t bust in on those people because, well, they have ‘natural rights’ and all.”
“You’re right, Bob. I forgot. Okay, men!! It’s back to the barracks for us. These people are protected by a higher power!”


PJW 07.29.14 at 6:34 pm

“The man was listening closely but what he said next: I wouldn’t name him because if you cain’t name somethin you cain’t claim it. You cain’t talk about it even. You cain’t say what it is.” (Outer Dark)

Interesting thread.


Bloix 07.29.14 at 6:41 pm

“or that at one time people said things like “John his father” and eventually dropped everything but the “s”. “

IIRC, “John his father” is a folk etymology. That is, at one time people did say it but only because they were inaccurately reconstructing the history of ‘s.


CJColucci 07.29.14 at 8:54 pm

I think it was John Mackie who said there is no natural law of property, but it is natural that there be some law of property. I think what this means is that, humans being what they are, as society develops beyond a very rudimentary state, people will naturally develop some notion of property, just because it’s damned convenient. That much is natural. The details are a matter of collective agreement and can be criticized on a variety of grounds and changed for a variety of reasons, but not because some particular arrangement violates uppercase Natural Law.


John Quiggin 07.29.14 at 9:46 pm

@61 Can Marx really have influenced Stowe? Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, and based on books published before that. The first English translation of the Communist Manifesto was published in London in 1850.


Sandwichman 07.29.14 at 9:51 pm

@68 I wondered that myself. But… http://tinyurl.com/lwczozd


Billikin 07.29.14 at 9:52 pm

David J Littleboy: “The Japanese possessive is even more flexible than the English one. The standard translation of “of the people, by the people, for the people” uses the same possessive marker for all of of, by and for.”

You mean this translation?
“人民の人民による人民のための政治” (I threw in government for good measure. ;))
of -> の
by -> による
for -> のための


Main Street Muse 07.29.14 at 10:04 pm

It makes me very sad to think the language of capitalism is now being used to define existence and being. Self-ownership seems a cold approach to life. Who am I? I am self-owned! What is this hand here? Oh – I own it!

To paraphrase Whitman:

“I celebrate my self-ownership, and use my self-owned voice to sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me absolutely does not belong to you.
For I own it!”

In terms of the economic approach to “ownership,” I view labor from the perspective of a free-lancer; time (to me) is money, with many variables and factors to consider about each project.

The value of labor is a fascinating topic. But self-ownership, to me, less so… and not very poetic at all.


Billikin 07.29.14 at 10:07 pm

IIUC, anthropologists used to think that hunter-gatherers did not have a concept of private property, but later recognized that they did, in the form of personal possessions, which they controlled and did not share freely. But I guess that still would not be private property according to Marx and/or Smith: “In reality I possess private property only insofar as I have something vendible, whereas what is peculiar to me [meine Eigenheit] may not be vendible at all.”


shah8 07.29.14 at 11:12 pm

Yeah, count me in among those impressed by Sandwichman’s quote at 5.

It made this unusual op-ed:http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=198657 far more legible in my reread than when I read it originally.

And yes, this is a very worthwhile thread and I’m impressed by many of the comments and wishing I was smart enough to contribute. Oh well, gives me a chance to sound smart when I monologue about “time’s up”, with plentiful Alex Trebek mentions to the unwary.


Mdc 07.29.14 at 11:36 pm

But if ‘John’s’ comes from ‘John his…’, and ‘his’ comes from ‘he’s’ (which *seems* plausible), then ‘he’s’ comes from ‘he his’… Infinite regress!


Anarcissie 07.29.14 at 11:50 pm

-s is from the Anglo-Saxon masculine singular genitive ending for some nouns. It goes back to Proto-indo-european, shows up in Greek, Latin, German, etc. No ‘his’ involved. It is interesting that it seems to have broken loose and become a sort of floating pre- or rather postposition, especially in less formal speech.


ZM 07.30.14 at 12:00 am

From memory, Property is a right in the USA because the constitution makers included it as one of the ‘we take these things to be self-evident’ things even though they are not historical or commonsensical- the numbered part where life, liberty, and property is inalienable (except through due process?) is I think the part that gives corporations personhood in the US (but also gives protections to people from being enslaved).

In England and English-derived law countries all land is crown land and people have tenure through the crown, but this tenure is not inalienable.


Anarcissie 07.30.14 at 12:55 am

ZM 07.30.14 at 12:00 am @ 76 — Propertarian-libertarians do not believe that the Constitution creates rights, only that it recognizes them as something already existing somehow. Questions of ontology and epistemology are thereby raised, and I have raised them, but (among believers) to little avail.

One might say that, in reason, no intelligent, willful beings would knowingly and voluntarily support a social order which would produce their death or enslavement, thus getting life and liberty to apparently fall out of Nature, out of the way things are; but in fact many people do seem to support regimes which will kill of enslave them. In any case property, the social construction of possession, is much more complicated, so it seems well beyond such simplicities. And so a sort of religion must be created.


Shatterface 07.30.14 at 12:58 am

If we all spoke Pravic, as in LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, this wouldn’t be an issue.

They don’t even have a word for ‘my’, even for non-transferable items like relatives or body parts, they just use ‘the’, as in the blanket, the mother, the hand.


bob mcmanus 07.30.14 at 1:04 am

Since the topic seems drifting from linguistics or semantics

Understanding Society discusses C B MacPherson’s Possessive Individualism

“Macpherson offered the basis of a strong critique of a certain kind of liberalism — the liberalism that places essentially the whole normative weight on the value of the individual and his/her liberties, and essentially no emphasis on the social obligations we all have towards each other.”


David of Yreka 07.30.14 at 1:55 am

I think that the use of well-defined words embedded in a grammatical structure lead us to a literal meaning, which sometimes needs a bit of additional processing in order to make sense. Thus, for example, we can say “John blew his top”, which, for some meanings of “blew” and “top”, could be construed as meaning, literally, that John caused his own head to explode.

That isn’t to say that the literal meaning makes sense. To make sense, such sentences sometimes have to be seen as metaphorical: in other words, John’s head has metaphorically exploded, i.e. he spewed metaphorical ash, lava bombs, magma, and superheated gas all over the place, metaphorically bombarding his audience into a metaphorylated semblance of those poor people of Pompeii.

My point is, that if we look at phrases like “John’s reputation” and “John’s accident” and “John’s overwhelming fear of ants” as conveying a metaphorical ownership, not a literal ownership, then the fact that one cannot own fear, accidents, and so on doesn’t really cause the kind of trouble that a literal interpretation of the grammatical structure might seem to create.

I will now stretch the point to absurdity by conjecturing that perhaps phrases like “John’s car” are themselves metaphorical in origin. Suppose that in some idealized Golden Age the only possessives we had were those that denoted parts of our own bodies. Then “John’s head” would have been literally plausible, i.e. its literal meaning would not have had to have been seen as implausible. But “John’s land” might have, in this mythical time, been literally implausible: how could anybody own the land? It must be a metaphor, i.e. that John is emotionally attached to that land to the point where, to him, it is very like a part of himself.

But I don’t have to go anywhere near that far to say that phrases like “John’s brother”, “John’s lawyer”, and “John’s owner” are all quite consistent with the idea that (1) one can’t really own any of these, and that therefore (2) a metaphorical reinterpretation of the literal meaning is needed in order to make sense of them. In the case of “John’s slave”, the literal meaning is sometimes, sadly, sufficient. But that’s our choice; it isn’t a grammatical necessity.


ZM 07.30.14 at 2:23 am

But the genitive does not convey relations only of possessive owner to property – it conveys other relationships too (apparently up to 104 types) – you read/listen to the statement/sentence/paragraph/novel etc and should be able to work out what particular relationship the genitive conveys (unless the writer happens to write in such a fashion as to make it impossible to comprehend his/her meaning). Non-possessive meanings are not metaphoric/figurative – they are included in the possible literal meanings of the genitive.

If land changed hands ceremonies like the extant marriage ceremony used to take place (I don’t know how often or different varieties of wording etc)
(Example Translated from the Anglo Saxon in the 19th C)
“So I hold it as he held it, who held it as saleable, and as I will own it – and never resign it – neither plot nor plough land – nor turf nor toft – nor furrow nor foot length – nor land nor leasow – nor fresh nor marsh – nor rough ground nor room – nor wold nor fold – land nor strand – wold nor water .”
” Do as I rede thee” is the reply “Keep thee to thine own – leave me to mine own – I covet not thine – neither lathe nor land – noir sac nor soc – Nor covet thou mine – nought need I from thee – nought did I mean unto thee”
The Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth : Anglo Saxon Period, Volume 2 by Francis Palgrave p. cxxxv


Collin Street 07.30.14 at 2:43 am

> The Japanese possessive is even more flexible than the English one.

Useless japanese trivia!

The japanese possessive marker used to be an apposition marker [thus, susanoo-no-mikoto[1]]: the old possessive marker became the subject marker after a nominalised construction was reanalysed as verbal. Leaving a few relics behind; “waga kuni” from “ware ga kuni” and so forth.

[or something like that. I'm not an expert on classical japanese.]

[1] But amaterasu omikami because “terasu” is a verb and “ama terasu” a relative phrase.


ZM 07.30.14 at 3:53 am

After checking, the constitutional amendment in the US that is read to attribute personhood to corporations is the 14th amendment 1868 – which was originally made to protect freed slaves.
It was also cited in Roe v Wade and Bush v Gore
Personhood was attributed earlier through constitutional provisions privileging contracts as inviolable.

In some cases I would think the question would come down to which contract/obligation was primary – and this would need go to court to be decided. Judges might be disinclined to determining the primariness of obligations but hopefully courts of appeal would return the matter to the disinclined judges to determine e.g. Chernaik v. Kitzhaber 2014

“In reversing the Lane County trial court, the Oregon Court of Appeals remanded the case
ordering the trial court to make the judicial declaration it previously refused to make as to
whether the State, as trustee, has a fiduciary obligation to protect the youth from the impacts of climate change, and if so, what the State must do to protect the atmosphere and other public trust resources.”


Meredith 07.30.14 at 4:41 am

Skipping over what are probably really interesting comments (I’m preparing to go on a short vacation tomorrow, leaving 3rd century Rome behind me for awhile — please don’t blame the classicists for what others do with linguistics), but what ZM said@34 (while liking what I read of Scott M’s comments, though I gather the two got into it). Modern western ideas of property (if you want to play linguistic games, check out the Latin word there, proprius — much more suggestive than worrying about cases and such) derive from a notion of sovereignty. Just check out how Dutch and English India companies, east and west, justified their patents. How kings (and queens) granted new patents that cancelled old. Well, sort of. People felt uncomfortable, at least in the “New World,” just ignoring previous patents, so they’d go through gyrations to accommodate previous claims. (Sometimes sincere, sometimes merely a game: from Salem to Charlestown and the Walfords or Shawmut and Blackstone — very interesting stuff.) The very idea of “patent” — it’s just “lying there” — interesting. Which takes us to the Indians (e.g, the Neponsets, for whom I have developed a peculiar affection), already living in these places that were just “lying there.” Notions of what land is FOR come into play: for hunting and gathering and fishing and some agriculture, or for fences and swine and cattle and agriculture, and yeah, some hunting and fishing? All this tied up with notions of usufruct and possession, too. And the Indians had their ideas of usufruct, certainly. Just different ones. Still, the English (and the Dutch) had to “buy” the property from the Indians to seal the deal. (I find their felt need to buy so telling — telling of something I can’t articulate.)

In fact, where and when do we see the word “own” come into common use? Legal historians, help here! (Historical linguists of English: whence expressions like “my very own”? “Own” as some kind of intensifier, very interesting.) Sure, today people talk about ownership, but even when you buy a house today in, say, suburban NYC or London, does the word “own” appear in any of the documents you sign? Or are words like “title” flying around? Title, transfer of title, title searches…. And who confers “entitlement”? Ultimately, the state. And what gives the state that “right”? (And who is/are “the state”? There’s the rub.) And doesn’t title also entail obligations? From respecting previously existing rights-of-way (or whatever) to observing zoning laws about use and paying taxes (which limitations and levies the state can demand because you only have title to that house and land because of the state).

Lots of thoughts on Israel and Gaza re all this, as on circumcision. Who is going to decide? The parents in a community, of course. I mean, really. But who is the larger community going to decide about Israel and Gaza? Where or whence the sovereignty? Maybe the pope ain’t just posing here.


ZM 07.30.14 at 12:11 pm

“In fact, where and when do we see the word “own” come into common use? “
According to the OED own is from the Old English – it denotes relations including possession but also other relations including kinship, fondness, closeness, independence, aloneness, desert (as in just desert), acknowledgement etc depending on the context. It is hard to tell if it had a stricter earlier meaning but someone knowing Old English could probably tell. It is related to similar words in Old German etc and is related to owe and ought.

In England land is tenure rather than say a householder’s property outright and ultimately is under the Crown – “Thus the monarch is lord paramount, either mediate or immediate, of all land within the realm. The tenure of land is based upon the assumption that it was originally granted as a ‘feud’ by the monarch to his immediate tenant on condition of certain services, and, where there has been subinfeudation, that the immediate tenant in turn regranted it” (Halsbury’s Laws of England)* However ramblers’ rights seem to exist in England so there might be some idea of customary usage granting usage rights if not property rights (?)

When England cruelly colonised America the colonisers created both a new English commons (replacing the indigenous commons) and a realm of private tenure. New English commons in Maryland ‘functioned as a prime instrument of dispossession’ ‘Mattagund addressed authorities in these terms: “Your cattle and hogs injure us you come too near to us to live and drive us from place to place. We can fly no further let us know where to live and how to be secured for the future from the hogs and cattle.”

John Locke’s ideas were influential and he was a proponent of colonisation and enclosure and likely made up his ‘Natural Laws’ rhetoric to support such things (since it is not based on history or common sense I can’t see what else it could be) “The notion of a universal commons completely open to all—Locke’s “America”—existed mainly in the imperial imagination. …. Cleared, plowed, and enclosed farms were a part of that process of appropriation, but so were varieties of what we can call the “colonial commons.” ” “In the real world of colonial North America, the destruction of indigenous property forms and the establishment of new, colonial property regimes did not follow the pattern that John Locke and countless other theorists suggest. . . . . John Locke’s misdescription of colonial property formation as the enclosure of a great universal commons was anything but an innocent mistake. …. Placing the focus on the pioneer, with his log cabin, his ax, and his plow, rather than on the cattle, hogs, and sheep he sent roaming across native common lands, has the effect of obscuring the central business of colonising “new” lands, which is to say the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the imposition of new property regimes.”
From: Greer, A 2012, ‘Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America’, American Historical Review, 117, 2, p. 365,

The ideas of the English having authority over American land in some sort of New English land regime seems to have begun before colonisation, this article suggests with the two Richard Hakluyts (cousins) – the Elder authoring Notes on Colonisation (1578) and the Younger writing a ‘lengthier and more sophisticated Discourse [1584]… purport[ing] (on behalf of Raleigh, his patron) to establish that the Queen of England could assert title “more lawfull and righte then the Spaniardes or any other Christian Princes” to at least as much of America “as is from Florida to the Circle Articke”….” ” In discussing relations between the colonizers and indigenous inhabitants, meanwhile, the “Inducements” [offered] were more frankly oriented to achieving an ascendancy by any means necessary: plans for “traffic” [trade] were just and lawful, but in any case could easily be defended against interference “by reason that we are lords of navigation, and they not so.””

“the original charter of Virginia, granted in 1606 by James I …. licensed two schemes of “habitation and plantation” in “that part of America commonly called VIRGINIA,” territory “not now actually possessed by any Christian Prince or People.” …. Each was to comprise “all the Lands, Woods, Soil, Grounds, Havens, Ports, Rivers, Mines, Minerals, Marshes, Waters, Fishings, Commodities, and Hereditaments” lying within “the Space of fifty miles of English statute measure” inland and along the coast, and a hundred miles out to sea; neither was to be established within a hundred miles of the other. Each scheme’s patentees were granted “all the lands, Tenements, and Hereditaments” within its precincts, to be held of the Crown,….”
From: Tomlins, C 2001, ‘The Legal Cartography of Colonization, the Legal Polyphony of Settlement: English Intrusions on the American Mainland in the Seventeenth Century’, Law & Social Inquiry, 26, 2,

* I forgot to note in an earlier comment that in Australia after the Mabo case in the 1990s there was recognised to be an additional sort of land title in existence to that of tenure under the crown – this is Native Title – this is separate and precedes the Crown but must be established through the Crown’s courts in the contemporary period. So there are actually two sorts of co-existing land regimes in Australia – Indigenous and Crown. Indigenous people can find it hard to establish native title in the courts some cases – such as the Yorta Yorta people’s claim which was dismissed in the courts due to the ‘tide of history’ washing away their cultural continuity (although it was not so much the tide of history but actual people’s words and deeds and the governments’ assimilation policies etc but the judges didn’t seem to care about who was responsible) but then Labor Premier of Victoria Steve Bracks recognised their claim in part by signing a co-operative land management agreement (although the Minister for the Environment has the greater authority) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yorta_Yorta_v_Victoria)


Peter T 07.30.14 at 1:09 pm

Susan Reynolds makes a strong case that the legal theory of landownership in England (and much other supposedly feudal law) is basically a set of rationalisations dreamed up by lawyers centuries after the fact to bring order to a very messy reality. In England as elsewhere it was normal in feudal times for anyone significantly affected by a transfer of title to be at least consulted – and often thought prudent to record their consent. Even where they had no formal claim (as, for instance, being kin to the owner). This recognised that a title is never absolute, but is a bundle 0f rights and duties variously distributed. It also often openly acknowledged the role of power, not only in validating or enforcing the transfer, but in acquiescing in or maintaining the new situation (so, as Reynolds points out, one frequently finds a transfer re-affirmed for the same property when either the position of the parties changed or some new party with an interest took over).

Mabo kind of illustrates this. The judges looked to well-established common law, which said, in effect, that continuing use grants title unless specifically extinguished. So aboriginal Australians retained title where they could show continuing use and no extinguishment. It was in this sense a very conservative judgement, but it owed little to over-arching theories of property and a lot to an older sensitivity to custom.

Just an aside.


Dan 07.31.14 at 12:39 am


“Propertarian-libertarians do not believe that the Constitution creates rights, only that it recognizes them as something already existing somehow. Questions of ontology and epistemology are thereby raised, and I have raised them, but (among believers) to little avail.”

I think this line of objection trades on an ambiguity between de facto legal rights and normative rights. Of course the Constitution created a bunch of legal rights that previously did not exist. But there’s a perfectly good — and I’d argue, unmysterious — normative sense in which many of those rights were rights we held before the Constitution was ever written, and which we would have had even if it never had been.

In general I don’t see why people find natural rights so problematic (at least conceptually — I get why people might be substantively opposed to them): when I say we have a natural right to phi, I’m just saying that, normatively, we have a right to phi that doesn’t depend for its existence on any recognition by anyone, including governments. Maybe that’s ontologically and epistemologically mysterious (I don’t think so), but I don’t see how it’s any more so than other normative claims.


Billikin 07.31.14 at 1:55 am

That some people do not recognize natural rights does not particularly bother me. I am more concerned about people not recognizing natural responsibilities.


Anarcissie 07.31.14 at 3:49 am

Dan 07.31.14 at 12:39 am –
If you have normative anything you will be challenged to say where your norms come from when you run into someone with different norms. Hence the appeal to great vague entities like Nature and God.

Billikin 07.31.14 at 1:55 am –
Responsibility means having to answer to somebody, so the questions ‘To whom?’ and ‘For what?’ are likely to arise. As with norms, there may be differences of opinion which cannot be resolved by appeal to the aforesaid great vague entities.


Dan 07.31.14 at 6:43 pm

“If you have normative anything you will be challenged to say where your norms come from when you run into someone with different norms. Hence the appeal to great vague entities like Nature and God.”

I guess I’m not seeing why there’s any distinctive problem for natural rights here. Sure, you might think that normativity in general is problematic, and leads to unanswerable ontological and epistemic challenges. But your rhetoric suggested that there’s supposed to be an objection here specifically against natural rights libertarians — the force of the criticism is blunted somewhat if it applies to anyone who holds any normative view whatesoever.


Plume 07.31.14 at 7:02 pm

ZM @76,

You’re talking about the DOI, not the Constitution.


Allen Hazen 08.03.14 at 4:38 am

Back to the linguistic side (sorry, I just found this string)…
The genitive ending (or clitic– nice example of linguistic evolution in the way the ending “asserted its independence”!), the preposition “of” and the verb “to have” are very different syntactically, but seem to have about the same semantic content. (Well, at least some uses of the verb.) Asked to characterize this content, I’d say it is a “pro-relation”: to say that X is Y’s, or X is the something of Y, or that Y has X, is to characterize X as being related to Y by SOME relation or other, just what relation hopefully clear in context. Where Y is a person and X the sort of thing that can be possessed as a chattel, there is often a default interpretation: the relation unless otherwise specified is to be taken as that of legal ownership. But this is far from being invariable: playing chess I can say “that’s my pawn” even if we both know that we are playing with a chess set that board and pieces is your property. There are other defaults: if X is specified by a noun connoting some family relationship (mother, wife), the relation is typically taken to be that connoted by the noun, but this is defeasible: talking with a teaching assistant I found it natural to say “our mothers” to refer to the two obviously pregnant students in the class we were teaching, and examples can be constructed in which it is natural to say “my wife” to refer to a woman married to another (e.g.: suppose you are a member of the committee delegated to look after the wives of the dignitaries at an international summit, and you are reporting on what the woman you were acting as guide for spent the day doing). … Someone who knows surgeons can ask whether they ever, talking about the day’s operations, say “my duodenum” to refer to the one they have operated on!

Which said… Aren’t there “degrees” of ownership? Vis-à-vis his master, Uncle Tom didn’t own his cabin, but I would think that a well-run plantation might assign cabins to particular slaves, and that the over-seer would sustain Uncle Tom’s limited rights if another SLAVE tried to evict him from his cabin.

Comments on this entry are closed.