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The zoom-on-possessee construction in Kam (Dong): the anatomy of a new construction type


Kam, a Kadai language spoken in Guizhou province (People's Republic of China), has a family of intransitive possessive constructions with the word order ‘Possessor–Verb–Possessee’. (The basic word order in Kam is SV and AVO.) While two recent papers have featured this unique construction type for an array of other Southeast Asian languages, they fail to acknowledge its distinct semantic value in contrast to the related construction type ‘Possessee–Possessor–Verb’. The former construction type displays a so-called ‘zoom-effect’: the possessor is predicated IN, AT or THROUGH his/her/its possessee; the predication zooms from the possessor on his/her/its possessee. The latter construction, in contrast, views the possessee as an entity separated from its possessor, and the predicate as applying solely to the possessee. After illustrating the ‘zoom-effect’ for a representative sample of Kam constructions, I demonstrate that ‘zoom-effects’ do not merely exist when the possessee–possessor compound has the zero-role (=intransitive subject) as above, but also when it assumes other semantic roles (e.g. patient, force, etc.). A general definition of this construction type, called ‘zoom-on-possessee construction’, is proposed; it enables us to unify and account for an array of hitherto disparate construction types that run in the literature under labels such as ‘proprioceptive state expressions’, ‘body part locative constructions’, ‘dative of affect’, etc. Furthermore, I discuss in some detail whether zoom-on-possessee constructions are better accounted for within a multi-stratal or a mono-stratal framework and, finally, whether the concept of noun-incorporation has any relevance.

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Institut für Allgemeine & Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft FB 14.2, Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz Jakob Welder-Weg 18, D-55099 Mainz, Germany. E-mail:
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I wish to warmly thank Wu Shihua, a native Kam from Sanjiang county, who spent considerable time with me in Kunming (P. R. of China) in 2002–2003 to discuss the empirical basis of this and other works. Special gratitude also goes to Noel Johnston for comments on an earlier version of this paper. I am also grateful to two anonymous JL referees for their constructive criticism leading to a greatly improved version of the paper.List of abbreviations used in the article: 3P PL=Third person plural pronoun; 3P SG=Third person singular pronoun; 3P SG POSS=Third person singular possessive pronoun; CL=Classifier; COP=Copula; DAT=Dative; DOUH=The string t[ecy ]u33 in Kam orthography; DOUH[ratio ]touch=DOUH with its verbal meaningDP=Dynamic perfect particle; NUM=Numeral; NUM[ratio ]3=Numeral with its value; Npee=Possessee noun; NPor=Possessor noun; V=Verb; ZoP=Zoom-on-possessee;See also footnotes 5 and 6 below.
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Journal of Linguistics
  • ISSN: 0022-2267
  • EISSN: 1469-7742
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-linguistics
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