Genitive Constructions

Genitival modifiers in Numbami, an Austronesian language of Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, may either precede or follow their head nouns. This word order difference has consistent semantic correlates. For convenience, I will refer to the Modifier + Head genitive order as the “possessive” genitive. This contrasts with the “attributive” genitive, which has Head + Modifier order.


There are two types of genitives with Modifier + Head order. One is simply a noun-noun compound without any intervening markers of a genitive relationship. Such compounds express whole-part relationships. The modifier indicates the type of larger entity of which the principal entity (that denoted by the head noun) is a part. This modifier is descriptive rather than referential. There are no restrictions on the referentiality of the compound as a whole. It can be nonspecific—that is, it can denote some not-yet-uniquely-identifiable member(s) or quantity of the set it describes. It can be generic—that is, it can refer to any and all members (or the entire quantity) of the set it describes. Or it can be specific—that is, it can refer to some individually identifiable subset of the set it names. Because the term “generic” is sometimes used in both the nonspecific and the generic sense (as just defined), it will be convenient to use different terminology in the discussion that follows. The term “attributive” (or “nonreferential”) will substitute for “nonspecific” and the term “referential” will take the place of both “generic” and “specific”. Examples of whole-part genitives in Numbami follow.

Whole-part Genitives

    wuwu lau ‘betel pepper leaf’
    wuwu ano ‘betel pepper fruit (catkin)’
    nima kuku ‘finger’ (lit. ‘hand digit’)
    nima daba ‘thumb’ (lit. ‘hand head’)
    nima duga ‘elbow’ (lit. ‘arm joint’)
    nima gidu ‘wrist’ (lit. ‘arm nape’)
    tina daba ‘headwater’
    tina gidu ‘river mouth’
    kapala lalo ‘inside of house, indoors’
    kapala zamoka ‘veranda of house’
    Awayagi dume ‘back (windward) side of Awayagi Island’
    Buzina bubusu ‘Buzina (Salamaua) point’

In contrast to the modifiers in whole-part genitives, those in possessive genitives must be referential. The reference of the head noun is also restricted. It must be referential.

Possessive Genitives

    wuwu na lau ‘the leaves of the betel pepper plant; particular betel pepper plant’s leaf’
    kapala na lalo ‘the insides of house: particular house’s inside’
    kakawa na kapala ‘the houses made for chickens; particular chicken’s house’
    kaila ndi kapala ‘the houses built by inlanders; house(s) belonging to a specific group of inlanders’
    Siasi ndi gutu ‘the Siassi Islands; islands belonging to a particular group of Siassi people’
    bumewe ndi nomba ‘the things or concerns peculiar to whites; thing(s) belonging to a particular group of whites’
    bumewe ndi bani ‘the food typically eaten by whites; food belonging to a particular group of whites’

The possessive genitive is the only type in which the modifiers may be pronominal. The internal structure of the majority of genitive pronouns parallels that of the genitive nominals. The independent pronoun appears in the same position as other nominals.

Pronouns Pronominal genitives
woya na-ŋgi kapala ‘my house’
aiya a-na-mi kapala ‘your (sg) house’
e e-na kapala ‘his/her/its house’
i i-na-mi kapala ‘our (excl) house’
aita aita-ndi kapala ‘our (incl) house’
amu amu-ndi kapala ‘your (pl) house’
ai ai-ndi kapala ‘their house’

The preposed genitive is also the only way to express a possessive relationship between personal possessors and inalienable possessions. Remnants of former suffixed possessives show up in the middle of a few body-part and kin-term compounds, however. Only the kin-term infixes show agreement with the preposed pronouns, and then only with the singular pronouns.

Inalienable Possession

    ena taŋa-n-owa (lau) ‘his/her/its (outer) ear’
    anami nisi-n-owa (awa) ‘your nose (nostril)’
    naŋgi tai-n-owa (bibi) ‘my buttocks (rectum)’
    ena gode(-n-ewe) ‘his/her (female) cross-cousin’
    anami gode(-m-ewe) ‘your (female) cross-cousin’
    naŋgi gode(-ŋg-ewe) ‘my (female) cross-cousin’

Noun-noun possessive constructions are distinguished from noun-noun (whole-part) compounds by morphology as well as by semantics. Singular possessors are indicated by na and plural possessors by ndi. One of these two morphemes intervenes between the preposed referential genitive modifier and the head noun.


There are two types of simple attributive constructions with Head + Modifier order. Noun-adjective constructions are one type. In Numbami they contain no markers of a genitive relationship. The adjectives themselves are attributive rather than referential, and the construction as a whole may be either attributive or referential.

Noun-Adjective Attributives

    wuwu wiya ‘good betel pepper’
    wuwu maya ‘bad betel pepper’
    tina wawana ‘hot water; tea’
    tina luluwila ‘cold water, ice water’
    niwila masoso ‘dry coconut, copra’
    niwila teliŋa ‘liquid coconut, drinking coconut’
    kole goiya ‘big man, prominent man’
    kole bodama ‘ordinary man, worthless man’
    usana pisipisi ‘drizzling rain’
    usana wami ‘downpour’
    kapala kae ‘little house; toilet’
    kapala kaikaila ‘poor quality house’ (kaila ‘inlander’)

While adjectives carry no morphological indication of an attributive or genitive relationship, attributive nominals are marked as genitive. They are followed by either na or ndi. Singular na is far more frequent. Plural ndi is only used when the attributive nominal denotes a type of people with whom the referent of the head noun is characteristically associated. Attributive nominals never refer to a particular subset within the set they name. Instead, they only restrict reference to a subset of the prototype set denoted by the head noun. The construction as a whole may be referential or attributive, but the modifying nominal is nonreferential.

Attributive Genitives

    wuwu weni na ‘forest (wild) betel pepper’
    wuwu dadaŋa na ‘outside (domesticated) betel pepper’
    wuwu Buzina ndi ‘type of betel pepper associated with the Buzina people at Salamaua’
    wuwu Zena ndi ‘type of betel pepper associated with the Zena people at the mouth of the Waria river’
    kulakula kundu na ‘sago work’
    kulakula uma na ‘garden work’
    lawa teteu na ‘village people’
    lawa da na ‘people of the spear (= police)’
    walabeŋa tamtamoŋa na ‘fish poison, native means of stunning fish’
    walabeŋa bumewe na ‘dynamite, explosives, European means of stunning fish’

The attributive genitive seems very close in meaning to the possessive genitive when the reference of the construction as a whole is generic (as earlier defined). Both bani bumewe ndi ‘European food’ and bumewe ndi bani ‘the Europeans’ food (the food of Europeans as a “genus”), can refer to the same set of food. But the difference is this: The attributive nominal helps identify the referent by subtyping the head noun according to its association with another type of entity. The possessive nominal helps identify the referent by associating the head noun with another referent. Possessive genitives, in fact, are as much a means of referring to possessors as they are of referring to possessions. The following example illustrates.

Kundu, ena lau wa kapole, ena wambala tiyamama
sago its leaf and leafstalk its cargo all
nomba sesemi. Sese ena bolo luwa.
thing one&same but its skin two
‘Sago, its leaf and stalk, all its content is the same. But its husk is of two kinds.’

The semantics of the attributive genitive, on the other hand, make it suitable for other functions. Since it identifies entities by subclassifying them, it is useful in distinguishing homophonous or polysemous words and in creating new classes of entities.

    awila buwa na ‘betel lime (betel awila)’
    awila iya na ‘fishhook (fish awila)’
    waŋga aidudu na ‘airplane (treetop canoe)’
    waŋga tailalo na ‘submarine (undersea canoe)

Neologisms and periphrastic translations of foreign terms are frequently attributive genitives. The head noun denotes a familiar general prototype and the genitive identifies some familiar domain with which the new entity is associated. The attributive genitive construction thus characterizes the novel entity by creating a novel association between familiar entities. This is the point at which genitive constructions shade into relative constructions.

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