Possessions, possessions!

I currently have the unenviable task of working my way through my mother’s possessions. Working out what I or my niece may want to keep, what my mother may need in the care home and what I can store here “just in case”. And the rest will be cleared by a charity. Possessions, some of which were cherished, some purely functional, some of which my mother and father were once proud of, many of which they simply “possessed”.

And I look around at my own house full of possessions. I grant, I am a hoarder. You never know when a six-inch piece of string and a rusty paperclip may come in useful. Probably many thousands of books that I will never read again. Vinyl albums I will never listen to again. Towels in every drawer in every bedroom…

And indeed the house I own. And the money in the bank that I call my own. And it all gives me grief. Where to put it? Where to keep it safe? Who will want it when I am gone?

Possessions and ownership. There is one thing in this house I can never own, and it gives me more joy than anything else. As I type, I hear her snoring gently on the landing, but always alert to scare the willies out of any potential intruder. But I can never “own” her in any meaningful sense. Sheba is not that kind of dog. None of them are really.

And yet I still talk of “my dog”. Or “my friends”.

All the grief I have been having with possessions over the past months has made me think about the whole notion of possession and ownership. What does it really mean to “own” something? No, do not expect any answers here. I am merely, as the title of this blog suggests, musing.

Look up the word “own” in a dictionary, and they struggle to define it in terms that do not presuppose an understanding of “possess” or “property”. If I own something, I suppose I have paid for or been given the right to do with it what I damned well choose. (So I cannot “own” Sheba.)

But this entire concept of ownership is pervasive, not only in English, but also in all other languages, as far as I can judge. In English, apart from a whole raft of words denoting possession, we indicate possession by possessive adjectives (my book), possessive pronouns (that’s mine) and the possessive “s” or Saxon genitive (Sandra’s car). Other languages do it differently, but I have been unable to track down a language that does not have some kind of possessive determiner.

But imagine a world without possessive determiners! No “my”, “his”, “her”, “their”; no “hers” or “ours”; no possessive “s”; no “whose”; no genitive case or other possessive inflection. And preferably, no generic terms for “own” or “belong to”. You may say I’m a dreamer, and I could be the only one, but how incredibly difficult it would be to construct and maintain a society in which possession is meaningful if we simply did not have the language to express it.

Try it one day when you are out walking the dog who lives with you (or when you are doing whatever people do who are lamentably lacking in a dog in the lives they live): Just try to construct even the simplest of conversations without resorting to possessive constructions. I did this afternoon. It was a massive challenge, but hugely rewarding. It made me really think hard about what I mean when I say “my mother”, “my country”, “my house”, “my job”.

Ah well, back to my tasks, my toil and my drudgery!

6 thoughts on “Possessions, possessions!

  1. It seems to me that there is another side to own. Besides possession, which seems to be the primary inference there is also responsibility or guardianship.

    In “owning” a dog they not only live with you but you are responsible for their welfare.

    • The more I thought about the whole complex around “own”, “possess” and “belong to”, the less clear it became to me. As far as Sheba is concerned, I really am not at all sure who is responsible for whose welfare…

  2. Beyond describing ownership, an obvious use for possessive speech constructions that is merely hinted at in the previous postings is for expressing the notion of being associated with something, or even belonging to it rather than it belonging to something or someone: “My home town”, “my neck of the woods”, “John’s stamping-ground”, “my local [pub]”, “your company [i.e. presence]”, “your fate”.

    Though we choose to term it a possessive adjective / pronoun etc, that seems to me to be merely a shorthand label of convenience for describing an assortment of discrete (though arguably somewhat related) purposes.

  3. Precisely. But the use of a construction that is so closely related to possession colours our perception of the relationship. It suggests one of hierarchy rather than mere association.

  4. Maybe the weird part is that things start as ownership. But the owned, insidiously and over time, starts to possess the owner until they become one and the same thing. And if so, it begs the question : can you own something that does not rely on you?

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