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1.2.3. Relational versus non-relational nouns

Non-derived nouns normally do not have an argument structure. This section discusses a class of nouns that is exceptional in this respect, the so-called relational nouns. The distinction between relational and non-relational nouns is generally assumed to be relevant for the subclass of concrete nouns. Relational nouns require, or at least imply, an argument; the entities they denote can only be identified on the basis of a relation to some other entity. Thus, ordinarily speaking, one cannot refer to a father without including a reference to one or more children; nor can one refer to a body part without relating the object to its possessor. In the former case, the relation is one of kinship, and in the latter we are dealing with a “part-of” relationship. In either case, the relationship is in a sense inherent: the nouns vader'father' and hoofd'head' denote inalienably possessed entities (Fillmore 1968).
      Example (94a) is odd because there is no mention of a related entity; the addition of the genitive noun phrase/ van-PP in (94b) renders the sentence acceptable.

Example 94
a. ?? Ik zag de/een vader in het park.
  saw  the/a father  in the park
b. Ik zag Jans vader/de vader van Jan in het park.
  saw  Janʼs father/the father of Jan  in the park

Similarly, the examples in (95) are odd if the possessive pronoun is replaced by an indefinite article: a noun denoting a body part like hoofd'head' or neus'nose' is only possible if a “possessor” is available. Note that using the indefinite article in (95b) leads to an interpretation in which Jan broke an arbitrary (that is, someone elseʼs) nose.

Example 95
a. Ik heb pijn in mijn/*een hoofd.
  have  pain  in my/a head
  'I have a headache.'
b. Jan brak zijn/#een neus.
  Jan broke  his/a nose

Generally speaking, the examples in (94) and (95) show that relational nouns obligatorily take an argument that refers to a related entity. However, if a restrictive modifier is present, the argument need not be present. Here, we illustrate this with the relational noun kaft'cover', which is in an inherent relation with the noun boek'book'. As is shown by (96a), dropping the PP-complement van het boek gives rise to a marginal result. However, the addition of a restrictive relative clause or an attributive adjective, as in (96b&c), makes the construction completely acceptable again.

Example 96
a. Ik zag een kaft ??(van een boek).
  saw  a cover     of a book
b. Ik zag een kaft die knalgeel was.
  saw  a cover  that  canary.yellow  was
c. Ik zag een knalgele kaft.
  saw  a canary.yellow cover

Occasionally, nouns are ambiguous between a relational and a non-relational reading. The clearest examples involve the nouns man and vrouw: if no argument is present the noun phrase only allows a non-relational reading, that is, the noun phrase simply refers to some male/female person; if a genitive noun phrase or a van-PP is present, on the other hand, these nouns are interpreted as relational nouns meaning “husband” and “wife”, respectively.

Example 97
a. de man
  the man
a'. Maries man
  Marieʼs husband
b. de vrouw
  the woman
b'. de vrouw van Jan
  the wife of Jan

      The examples in (98) suggest that relational nouns differ syntactically from non-relational nouns in that extraction of the van-PP is possible with the former, whereas with the latter this is normally excluded (regardless of whether the PP in question is introduced by van or some other preposition). See Section 2.2.1, sub V, for a more detailed discussion of PP-extraction (as well as De Haan 1979, Guéron 1980 and Kaan 1992). For further discussion of complementation of the relational nouns, see Section 2.2.2.

Example 98
a. Van Jan heb ik de vader gezien (en van Peter de moeder).
  of Jan  have  the father  seen   and  of Peter  the mother
  'It was Janʼs father I saw (and Peterʼs mother).'
b. Ik heb een taalkundige van hoog aanzien ontmoet.
  have  a linguist  of great standing  met
  'Iʼve met a linguist of great standing.'
b'. * Van groot aanzien heb ik een taalkundige ontmoet.
  of great standing  have  a linguist met

      Closely related to the class of relational nouns are deverbal person nouns that require a complement. Thus, person nouns like maker'maker' or schrijver'writer' in (99a&b) also require the presence in the discourse situation of some other entity, in this case the object of the input verb. As shown by the primed examples, noun phrases headed by nouns of this kind also allow PP extraction.

Example 99
a. Jan is de maker ??(van dit kunstwerk).
  Jan is the maker     of this work.of.art
a'. Van dit kunstwerk is Jan de maker.
b. Marie is de schrijver ??(van deze scriptie).
  Marie is the writer      of this essay
b'. Van deze scriptie is Marie de schrijver.

If a deverbal relational noun of this sort is preceded by an indefinite article, there is a relation between the interpretation of the noun phrase as a whole and that of the complement of the van-PP. Example (100a) shows that the noun phrase as a whole can only be interpreted as nonspecific indefinite if the complement of the van-PP is nonspecific indefinite as well. If the complement of the van-PP is definite, as in (100b), the noun phrase as a whole will receive a specific indefinite interpretation.

Example 100
a. Ik heb een schrijver van kinderboeken ontmoet.
  have  a writer  of  childrenʼs books  met
  'Iʼve met a writer of childrenʼs books.'
b. Ik heb een schrijver van die kinderboeken ontmoet.
  have  a writer  of those childrenʼs books  met
  'Iʼve met one of the writers of those childrenʼs books.'

Note further that substituting a definite article for the indefinite article of the complete noun phrase triggers a contrastive reading in the (a)- but not in the (b)-example. Thus, (101a) can only be used if there is a pre-established set of writers, one of whom writes childrenʼs book; in other cases, the use of this example gives rise to an infelicitous result. Example (101b), on the other hand, is not restricted in this way.

Example 101
a. # Ik heb de schrijver van kinderboeken ontmoet.
  have  the writer  of  childrenʼs books  met
  'Iʼve met the writer of childrenʼs books.'
b. Ik heb de schrijver van die kinderboeken ontmoet.
  have  the writer  of those childrenʼs books  met
  'Iʼve met the writer of those childrenʼs books.'

The other deverbal nouns also seem to require an object complement: the state-of-affairs noun vernietiging'destruction', for example, is unacceptable if the theme is not expressed: de vernietiging *(van de stad)'the destruction of the city', and normally cannot be used with an indefinite article: *een vernietiging van de stad'a destruction of the city'. For a detailed discussion of such deverbal nouns, see Sections 1.3.1 and 2.2.3.

  • Fillmore, Charles1968The case for caseBach, Emmon & Harms, R.T. (eds.)Universals in linguistic theoryNew YorkHolt, Rinehart, and Winston1-88
  • Guéron, Jacqueline1980On the syntax and semantics of PP extrapositionLinguistic Inquiry11637-678
  • Haan, Ger de1979Onafhankelijke PP-komplementen van nominaSpektator8330-339
  • Kaan, Edith1992A minimal approach to extrapositionGroningenUniversity of GroningenThesis
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