School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics & Department of Linguistics

Prominent Possessors


The AHRC-funded research project ’Prominent Possessors’ is housed in the Linguistics Department at SOAS under the direction of Professor Irina Nikolaeva as Principal Investigator. The project will run from October 2015 to September 2018 and include a post-doctoral research fellow András Bárány and co-investigators at the University of Surrey, Professor Greville Corbett and Dr Oliver Bond.

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that in some languages the possessor which remains internal to the possessive construction has a greater deal of syntactic 'prominence' than typically encountered. Contrary to what is usually expected, when both possessor and possessed are part of the same syntactic phrase, the grammatical properties of the possessor (and not the possessed item) are relevant for syntactic processes such as agreement with the verb. Another relevant syntactic process is switch-reference: a special type of marking indicating that the subjects of the two clauses refer to the same entity. It typically targets the head of the possessive phrase, but in some languages switch-reference marking indicates that the possessor within the subject phrase of one clause is interpreted as referring to the same entity as the subject of the second clause.

This type of data presents linguistic theorists with a challenge because, despite attested variability across languages in this respect, models of syntax have little to say about it. They have hitherto assumed that agreement and switch-reference are mechanisms that target the head of the possessive phrase, but not a dependent element.


Our collaborative project will:

  1. Investigate the phenomenon of ‘prominent internal possessors’ from a theoretical and cross-linguistic perspective
  2. Collect new data from little studied related and unrelated languages
  3. Compile a database and make it fully available for public online use
  4. Publish papers on the significance of our findings for current theories of grammar