Posted by David J. Peterson
So it was revealed in the comments on my last post that I have apparently never gone over alienable vs. inalienable possession in Dothraki—or at least not directly. Let me take a moment to do so now.
First, a couple of definitions. Grammatical possession is probably something everyone is familiar with (e.g. in a phrase like “the man’s hat”, “the man” is the possessor and “hat” is the possessee, with the “‘s” there to indicate that “the man” is the possessor of what follows). Some languages make a finer grain distinction when it comes to possession than English does. For example, consider the actual relationships specified in the English examples below:
- my pencil
- my arm
- my aunt
- my bank account
- my opinion
- my country
All of these are expressed with the same construction, but is having a pencil in one’s hand really the same thing as having an aunt? One is an inanimate object that can be owned and wholly contained, while the other is a living individual with which one simply has a unique familial relationship. And what about a pencil vs. an opinion? Does one have an opinion in precisely the same way that one has a pencil? And while a bank account is more concrete than an opinion, in some ways, one can’t pick it up the same way one can a pencil.
A language like English treats these relationships the same, presuming that the words themselves will give one enough information about what the relationship is. Other languages, though, will focus on different aspects of these possessive relationships and encode them differently. Dothraki is one such language.
In Dothraki, the morphological expression of possession is dependent upon its alienability. Put simply, alienability is the ability for a possession to be separated from its possessor. For example, consider one’s nose. Unless one has met with a rather unfortunate set of circumstances (or, perhaps, found oneself in a story by Gogol), one’s nose is not easily removed from one’s face. This is a canonical example of inalienable possession (that is, one possesses one’s nose inalienably). A pencil, though, is easily removed from one’s possession, and is one of many examples of alienable possession.
In Dothraki, the genitive case is the default expression of alienable possession. It’s used for most types of garden variety possession, including interpersonal relationships, as shown below (with the possessor in the genitive following the possessee):
- sajo anni “my mount”
- okeo yeri “your friend”
- arakh mae “his/her arakh”
- okre khali “the khal’s tent”
Inalienable possession is expressed with the ablative, rather than the genitive, and the possessor is optional: it can be stated for emphasis or if the possessor isn’t obvious, but if it is, it’s typically left out. Some examples are given below:
- qora (anhoon) “(my) arm/hand”
- tihi (yeroon) “(your) eyes”
- noreth (moon) “(his/her) hair”
- jahak (khaloon) “(the khal’s) braid”
In English, you actually do see a bit of this alienability sometimes. Consider, for example, a sentence like, “I looked him in the eyes”. Whose eyes? Well, his eyes. It’s obvious from the context. You could actually say, “I looked him in his eyes”, but it’s not necessary. The same thing occurs with Dothraki, but in a wider context. For example, consider this sentence below:
- Qora zisa.
That means simply “the arm hurts”. If one walks in holding one’s arm and utters that, though, it’s obvious from context that it’s the speaker’s arm that hurts, meaning that the “missing” possessor is anhoon. If one’s companion said that, it’d be obvious that the “missing” possessor is moon.
Moving beyond body parts, though, the inalienable possession construction is used with inherent parts of things. Here are some examples:
- az arakhoon “the blade of the arakh”
- lenta halahoon “the stem of the flower”
- rayan krazaajoon “the summit of the mountain”
- riv zhanoon “the tip of the spear”
Mastering the two types of expressions will also allow one to make subtle distinctions that may or may not prove useful, e.g.:
- Qora anhoon mesa.
- Qora anni mesa.
Both sentences above mean “My arm is swollen”. The second sentence, though, refers specifically to an alienably possessed arm. Thus the most obvious interpretation is that the speaker is wielding a severed arm as a weapon, and, having bludgeoned someone or something with it, the arm has now swollen, and perhaps doesn’t swing as well as it once did.
While the rules above will work for 99% of cases, some expressions are unpredictable. For example, chiva krazaaji, “the tip of the mountain”, has krazaaj in the genitive rather than the ablative, even though one would expect the ablative. In addition, bodily conditions (injuries, illness, etc.) are often expressed with the ablative, rather than the genitive. In general, though, it’s more common to see the genitive where one would expect the ablative, rather than vice versa.
Okay, now I can be absolutely sure that I discussed possession on the blog (unlike before, when I was absolutely certain and mostly wrong). Athdavrazar!
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