The Ghosts of Cases Past – Part II


The Genitive Cases loses all but ownership

The genitive case for the most part simply shows a relationship of ownership or possession between one noun and another. But even that concept of ownership is not universally definable denotatively without some reservation or question. The three (3) forms of genitive in Latin were simple and easily classified. They were the genitive of possession, the partitive genitive, and the genitive of description. The forms were the same as far as inflections (endings) were concerned. If the situation warranted it, the genitive form was applied.

Then English tried to explain the atypical relationship of the nouns to each other in cases where ownership was not clearly defined nor logically applicable. The prepositional phrase including the preposition of and the noun it was relating to another noun in the sentence took on a character of its own. Bill’s money could be rewritten as the money of Bill and Bill could logically be separated from his money by any number of means. But, Bill’s height could not be easily separated from Bill without surgically removing an integral part of his existence. The genitive or possessive form with the apostrophe or the prepositional phrase form with of is technically the same, but the deeper, philosophical implication is not so clear. Does Bill own his height in the same way he owns his money? He does not, logically.

English in all its resourcefulness reasoned that there must be an inalienability inherent in some ownership and alienability in others. A new label emerged. Inalienable possession is that which cannot be separated from the possessing noun without great difficulty or illogical results. Likewise, an implied ownership depicted by relationship is not real ownership. My wife is not a real ownership that is alienable or inalienable no matter what marriage vows or divorce decrees stipulate. Just as the apostrophe or the preposition of in a phrase implies an ownership, so also does the apostrophe or the prepositional phrase with of indicate a genitive of relationship simplified with prejudice as being that of some form of a case of possession.

The partitive genitive classified anything that represented a part of the whole as a partitive recognizable by the genitive form. In English, it is still the same recognizable apostrophe plus the letter s or the phrase with the preposition of in the lead as in… a part of me wants to believe all this.

But purists had to have the last word and theorize exceptions that would refute the rule. They created a genitive of composition. Thus, the genitive of substance described a relationship where the parts of the whole were composites without which the whole would not exist, as in a piece of cheese.

When the argument ensued that parts were not always exactly a simple substance but sometimes they were mere elements gave rise to the idea of a composition of elements, as in a pod of whales. Still, the apostrophe or prepositional phrase was the acceptable form to indicate that each whale belonged to or was possessed by the pod, so to speak.

Further apologists put forth the argument that a part of the whole was neither a substance nor an element but an extraction from a source, as in a portion of the potatoes was uncooked. Since the prepositional phrase was still evident, the possessive case was still its label and the portion became an extracted part from a whole source of which each forkful was a simple part.

It seems the attempt to call any phrase with the form of plus a noun as a possessive was doomed to fail. But, those with perseverance prevailed and further rationalizations emerged.

The subjective genitive was conceived from a father’s love for a child with the child being the recipient as in She had the promise of her father’s unrequited love. There is no possession, but the prepositional phrase of… love implies the possessive quality and begs for a label to make it legitimate. After all, in the sentence The father loves her is implied in the possessive phrase father’s love wherein father is the subject of the sentence. Hence comes the label of subjective genitive. This is more of a description of the circumstances to explain the use of the prepositional phrase.

When the possessive quality is in the objective form, as in His actions reinforce his obvious love of music, the meaning is simplified in that music is really the object of the sentence He loves music. There is no real possession, but the use of the prepositional phrase has to be explained or rationalized somehow. Giving it a technical name like the objective genitive satisfies the hunger of the purists to label that which is in no real need of labeling. It exists because it does.

The genitive of description also implies ownership of a specific quality as in He is a man of integrity. The word integrity can be classified as a descriptor that in Latin would be expressed in the genitive case with a specific genitive ending. Since endings for the most part are gone because prepositions have taken their place, the label must also be gone. But its ghost remains inherent in the explanation of why the genitive case ending is gone but the meaning remains. That is why English is a living language and Latin is classified by most as being dead though quite alive as its ghosts pervade the eerie atmosphere of illogical rationalization.

There are more instances that reflect variations of the possession theme.The genitive of origin implies ownership when referring to a country’s inhabitants when in reality it is not ownership but circumstantial origination. I am a resident of New York, but New York does not own me. But my origin is still there. Because there is a prepositional phrase implying ownership, it will be in the possessive case, a general category for any group of words taking on the semblance of ownership through the prepositional phrase characteristic of the Latin genitive.

All of the general categories of subsets of the Latin genitive are now simply in the Possessive case in English. The idea of ownership is set aside and its replacement, any form of a genitive relationship, coming from the same genus or kind, is simply known now as the Possessive Case. The precursors still linger looking on as spirits often are wont to do.


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