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2.2.2. Relational nouns

This section deals with so-called relational nouns, that is, nouns that require the presence of an argumentin order to become complete referential constituents. Subsection I starts by showing that this argument can be realized either by a postnominal van-PP or a prenominal genitive noun phrase/possessive pronoun. Subsection II distinguishes a number of different types of relational nouns. The difference between relational and non-relational nouns is briefly discussed in Subsection III. Finally, Subsection IV will apply the complement/adjunct tests from Section 2.2.1 and show that the postnominal van-PP and prenominal genitive noun phrase/possessive pronoun should indeed be considered an argument of the relational noun, and not an adjunct.

[+]  I.  Form and position of the argument

The distinction between relational and non-relational nouns is generally assumed to apply to the class of basic (non-derived) nouns. Relational nouns seem to require or, at least, imply a complement, inasmuch as they can only be meaningfully interpreted in relation to some other entity. Thus, ordinarily speaking, one cannot meaningfully refer to a father without including a reference to one or more children; nor can one refer to a body part like a head 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 “inherent”: the nouns vader'father' and hoofd'head' denote inalienably possessed entities (Fillmore 1968). The entity related to the head noun will be called the related argument. Like verbs, relational nouns will be represented in the lexicon with an argument frame, with an empty slot for the related argument. The syntactic frame for the noun vader'father' is given in (129). As can be seen from this representation, related arguments occur either in postnominal position in the form of a van-PP, as in (129a), or in prenominal position if they are realized as a genitive noun phrase or a possessive pronoun, as in (129b).

Example 129
vader N ( Ref, Rel)
a. ___ [PP van ...]Rel: de vader van Jan
  the father of Jan
b. pronoun/NP- sRel ____: zijn/Jans vader
  his/Janʼs father

      From the above it can be inferred that relational nouns can have only one internal argument, which, on the whole, seems indeed to be the case. Thus, as illustrated in example (130a), one and the same relational noun cannot be complemented by both a prenominal possessive pronoun/genitive noun phrase and a postnominal van-PP, even if the head noun is semantically related to both entities. To express such a relation a van-PP with two coordinated noun phrases must be used, or a possessive pronoun (or, marginally, a genitive noun phrase) referring to both entities, as in (130b&c).

Example 130
a. *Jans/*zijn vader van Marie
  Janʼs/his  father  of Marie
b. de vader [van Jan en Marie]
  the father  of Jan and Marie
c. hun/??[Jan en Marie]ʼs vader
  their/Jan and Marieʼs  father

      Potential counterexamples to the claim that relational nouns take at most one argument are nouns that denote a time interval or a path, which can be followed by two PPs denoting the starting and the endpoint of the interval/path, respectively. However, neither of these PPs is obligatory, as long as one of them is expressed, which may suggest that we are actually dealing with a single argument position defining a time interval or a path. This time interval or path may be fully specified (giving both the starting and the endpoint), or partially unspecified (giving only the starting or the endpoint). For a discussion of the PPs in (131), see Section P1., sub II.

Example 131
a. de periode van Kerst tot Nieuwjaar
  the period  from Christmas  to New Yearʼs day
a'. de periode *(van Kerst/tot Nieuwjaar)
b. de route van Amsterdam naar Tilburg
  the route  from Amsterdam  to Tilburg
b'. de route *(van Amsterdam/naar Tilburg)
[+]  II.  Types of relational nouns

Relational nouns can be subdivided in at least two ways. The first way is to look at the referential properties of the noun phrase they head: in some cases the referent of the relational noun is uniquely identified by virtue of its relation to its related argument, whereas in other cases it is not. The second way is to consider the type of denotation of the noun itself. We will discuss these in the next two subsections.

[+]  A.  Referential properties of the noun phrase

The referents of relational nouns can often be uniquely identified by virtue of their relation to their related argument. This is especially true if the related argument stands in a one-to-one relationship with the relational noun, as in the examples in (132): normally speaking, a person has only a single father, an object has only a single form, and a house has just a single roof. The result of this is that in many cases noun phrases headed by a relational noun cannot take the form of an indefinite noun phrase.

Example 132
a. de vader van Jan
  the father  of Jan
  'Janʼs father'
a'. # een vader van Jan
  a father of Jan
b. de vorm van de berg
  the shape  of the mountain
b'. # een vorm van de berg
  a shape of the mountain
c. het dak van het huis
  the roof  of the house
c'. # een dak van het huis
  a roof of the house

This does not hold, however, if the related argument stands in a one-to-many relationship with the relational noun: (133a) can be used when the speaker knows that Jan has more than one brother; in all other cases, the speaker will use (133b). Note that the fact that the related argument is not sufficient to uniquely identify the referent of the noun phrase in (133a) does not mean that the PP is an adjunct, as is clear from the fact that it cannot be dropped.

Example 133
a. Hij is een broer *(van Jan).
  he  is a brother     of Jan
b. Hij is de broer *(van Jan).
  he  is the brother     of Jan
[+]  B.  Semantic subclasses

There are various types of relational nouns. Here we will give examples of various nominal types that exhibit the property that they normally take a related argument. The list is not intended as exhaustive, and only aims at giving an impression of the type or relationships that may be involved.

[+]  1.  Kinship nouns

Kinship nouns are typical examples of relational nouns: example (134a) is odd because there is no mention of a relational argument. Addition of such an entity in the form of a genitive noun phrase or a PP-complement, as in (134b), renders the sentences acceptable; see Section 2.2.2, sub IV for further discussion.

Example 134
a. ?? Ik zag een/de vader (in het park).
  saw  a/the father   in the park
b. Ik zag Jans vader/de vader van Jan.
  saw  Janʼs father/the father of Jan
[+]  2.  Body parts

Body part nouns like hoofd'head' and neus'nose' also typically take a related argument: the primed examples in (135) are odd because the inalienable possessor is not mentioned. Of course, example (135b') is possible but not under the intended inalienable possession reading: the noun neus'nose' no longer functions as a relational noun, but as an ordinary noun, with the result that the noun phrase refers to someone elseʼs nose.

Example 135
a. Jan heeft pijn in zijn hoofd
  Jan  has  pain  in his head
  'Jan has a headache.'
a'. * Jan heeft pijn in een hoofd.
  Jan  has  pain  in a head
b. Peter brak zijn neus.
  Peter broke  his nose
b'. # Peter brak een neus
  Peter broke  a nose

The impossibility of the indefinite article in the primed examples in (135) is due to the unique relation between the relational noun and inalienable possessor, in the sense that the possessor has only one head/nose, so that the referent of the noun phrase can be inferred from the identity of the possessor. For the same reason the indefinite article is excluded in the examples in (136).

Example 136
a. het/*een hoofd van Jan
  the/a  head  of Jan
b. de/*een neus van Peter
  the/a  nose  of Peter

In cases in which the relation is non-unique, as in the pair arm'arm' and Jan in (137), the indefinite article can be used. Note, however, that despite the non-uniqueness of the relation, the possessive pronoun or definite article can also be used when it is not known, or when it is immaterial, whether we are dealing with Janʼs left or right arm.

Example 137
a. Jan heeft zijn/een arm gebroken.
  Jan has  his/an arm  broken
b. De/een arm van Jan is gebroken.
  the/an arm  of Jan  is broken

      For completeness’ sake, we want to show that in constructions such as (135a), the relational argument can also co-occur with the definite article; the construction in (138a) is fully acceptable under the same inalienable possession reading as (135a). This reading only arises, however, if the inalienably possessed noun phrase is the complement of a locational PP, which is clear from the fact that, in most varieties of Dutch, (138b) is only possible with the non-inalienable possession reading. The use of the number sign means to indicate that in certain eastern and southern dialects of Dutch and in Frisian an inalienable possession reading of (138b) is possible, but then the example is construed as a semi-copular construction with the meaning "Janʼs nose is broken". In this section more information can be found on the inalienable possession reading in Frisian.

Example 138
a. Ik heb pijn in het hoofd.
  have  pain  in the head
  'I have a headache.'
b. # Jan heeft de neus gebroken.
  Jan  has  the nose  broken
[+]  3.  Nouns denoting physical properties

There are more relations that can be characterized as “inherent” than the two discussed above. For instance, all concrete objects have shape, size, weight, sides, and so forth. Although it can neither be said that concrete objects “possess” these properties nor that these properties are “part of” these objects, the relationship between them is certainly “inherent”. Not surprisingly, then, these nouns exhibit the same behavior as the nouns above: like the relational noun vader'father' in (134) or the inalienable possessed noun hoofd'head' in (135), the noun vorm'shape' in (139a) cannot be used in isolation from some related argument. As soon as a suitable related argument is added, as in (139b), the sentence becomes acceptable. Note that the noun phrase in (139b) is introduced by the definite article; again, this is possible thanks to the unique relation between relational nouns and their related arguments, which enables us to infer the referents of the former from the referents of the latter.

Example 139
a. ?? Ik zag een/de vorm.
  saw  a/the shape
b. Ik zag de vorm van de berg.
  saw  the shape of the mountain
[+]  4.  Nouns denoting entities that stand in a part-whole relation with other entities

Another relation that counts as “inherent” is the part-whole relation between the denotations of the nouns kaft'cover' and boek'book', or dak'roof' and gebouw'building': example (140) shows that these nouns behave just like the inalienable possessed noun hoofd'head' in (135).

Example 140
a. ?? Ik zag een/de kaft.
  saw  a/the cover
b. De kaft van het boek was knalgeel.
  the cover of the book  was canary yellow
[+]  III.  Differences between relational and non-relational nouns

Non-relational nouns can be distinguished from relational nouns by the fact that they always allow a non-related interpretation, so that they need not be combined with a van-PP or a genitive noun phrase/possessive pronoun.

Example 141
a. Ik ontmoette de vader/broer *(van Jan).
  met  the father/brother     of Jan
b. Ik zag de fiets (van Jan).
  saw the bike   of Jan

Furthermore, non-relational nouns differ from the relational nouns that are uniquely identified by their related argument in that an indefinite interpretation is easily possible; in fact, it is the default interpretation when the noun is unmodified. Compare, in this respect, the primeless examples in (142), headed by the non-relational nouns fiets'bicycle', horloge'watch', and appel'apple', to the examples in (132) and (133). One way of accounting for this difference is by analyzing the van-PPs of the relational nouns as complements and those of the non-relational nouns in the primed examples in (142) as optional adjuncts of the head noun; the discussion in Subsection IV will show that the complement/adjunct tests support this distinction.

Example 142
a. Ik zag een fiets.
  saw  a bike
  'I saw a bike.'
a'. de fiets van mijn broer
  the bicycle  of my brother
  'my brotherʼs bicycle'
b. Hij kocht een horloge.
  he  bought  a watch
  'He bought a watch.'
b'. het horloge van goud
  the watch  of gold
  'the golden watch'
c. Ik eet een appel.
  eat  an apple
  'Iʼm eating an apple.'
c'. de appel aan de boom
  the apple  on the tree
  'the apple in the tree'
[+]  IV.  Application of the complement/adjunct tests

If the assumption put forward in Section 2.2.2, sub III, that the van-PPs of relational nouns are complements is correct, they may also be expected to behave syntactically as complements. The four tests given in Section 2.2.1 provide the means to establish the correctness of such an analysis.

[+]  A.  Obligatoriness of PP

The semantics of relational nouns normally requires the presence of an argument; cf. see also Section 1.2.3. Consider in this respect the sentences in example (143). Generally speaking, the primeless examples are not felicitous, as the nouns vader'father' and kaft'cover' require a related argument. It is through the relation with this complement that its meaning can be established. This is illustrated in the primed examples.

Example 143
a. *? Els heeft een vader ontmoet.
  Els  has  a father  met
  'Els has met a father.'
a'. Els heeft de vader #(van Jan) ontmoet.
  Els  has  the father    of Jan  met
b. *? Jan heeft een kaft gescheurd.
  Jan  has  a cover  torn
  'Jan has torn a cover.'
b'. Jan heeft de kaft #(van dit boek) gescheurd.
  Jan  has  the cover    of this book  torn

There are however circumstances in which relational nouns can be felicitously used without a related argument, which we will discuss in the following subsections.

[+]  1.  Recoverability from the context

Examples like (143a'&b') are acceptable if the intended related argument can be inferred from the (linguistic or extra-linguistic) context. This means that the related entity of a relational noun need not take the form of a complement. Example (134a), repeated here as (144a), is rendered acceptable by the addition of the adjunct PP met zijn zoontje'with his little son' in (144b). This shows that the complement ( van-PP or genitive noun phrase) can be left implicit if the related argument is recoverable from the context.

Example 144
a. ?? Ik zag een/de vader (in het park).
  saw  a/the father   in the park
b. Ik zag een vader met zijn zoontje.
  saw  a father  with his sondim
  'I saw a father with his little son.'

The same thing is shown in (145). The complement of the nouns vorm or kaft expressing the related argument need not be present, since the related entity can be recovered from the preceding sentence.

Example 145
a. Ik zag een berg. De vorm was opvallend.
  I saw a mountain  the form  was remarkable
b. Ik kocht een boek. De kaft was knalgeel.
  I bought a book  The cover  was canary.yellow

The examples in (145) also show that the existence of a generally accepted (and expected) close association between two entities makes it possible for a definite article to precede a relational noun, even if the referent of the noun phrase has not been previously introduced into the discourse. Reference to the related entity of the relational noun will be sufficient to ensure identification of the noun phrase. More examples illustrating the same point are given in (146).

Example 146
a. Ik zag een raar huis. Het dak had de vorm van een puntmuts.
  I saw a strange house.  the roof had the shape of a pointed.hat
  'I saw a strange house. The roof had the shape of a pointed hat.'
b. Ik zag een auto. De voorkant was zwaar beschadigd.
  I saw a car  the front  was badly  damaged

In the case of kinship relations and body parts, however, the use of a possessive determiner is often preferred in such cases, as shown by example (147). Note that in (147a) the definite article is less acceptable when we know the girl (and her father), which explains why in (147a') the definite article is not acceptable. With body parts, like neus'nose' in examples (147b&b'), the use of the definite article is odd in either context. See Section 5.1 for a more detailed discussion of the role of the definite and indefinite article in determining reference.

Example 147
a. Ik zag een meisje spelen. Haar/De vader stond naast haar.
  I saw a girl play  her/the father  stood  next to her
  'I saw a girl play. Her/the father was standing by her side.'
a'. Ik zag Marie gisteren. Haar/*De vader was bij haar.
  I saw Marie yesterday  her/the father  was with her
b. Ik zag een meisje spelen. Haar/*De neus was gebroken.
  saw  a girl  play  her/the nose  was broken
b'. Ik zag Marie gisteren. Haar/*De neus was gebroken.
  saw  Marie yesterday  her nose/the nose  was broken
[+]  2.  Establishing or denying the existence of a relationship

Related to the case discussed in the previous subsection is the fact that the related argument can be omitted in clauses in which the relationship between a relational noun and a related argument is established or explicitly denied.

Example 148
a. Jan heeft een broer
  Jan has  a brother
b. Jan heeft geen broer
  Jan has  no brother

Examples such as (148) are less common if the related argument stands in a one-to-one relationship with the relational noun: examples such as (149a) are impossible, and examples like (149b&b') carry an additional implication, namely that Janʼs father still lives/has died.

Example 149
a. *? Jan heeft een vader
  Jan has a father
b. Jan heeft nog steeds een vader.
  Jan has  still  a father
  'Janʼs father is still alive.'
b'. Jan heeft geen vader (meer).
  Jan has  no father  anymore
  'Janʼs father died.'

In generic contexts like (150), on the other hand, relational nouns like vader'father' are fully acceptable without the related argument, due to the fact that examples like these express that the implied related argument stands in this unique relationship with the relational noun.

Example 150
a. Iedereen heeft een vader.
  everyone  has  a father
b. Honden hebben staarten.
  dogs  have  tails
[+]  3.  Restrictive modifiers and exclamation

Examples such as (149a) can be made acceptable by adding information to the relational noun phrase, which is not implied by the noun. Restrictive modification, for example, renders these non-prototypical uses meaningful by adding meaning that does not form an inherent part of the basic meaning of the noun. This is illustrated in the examples in (151).

Example 151
a. Jan heeft een aardige vader.
  Jan has  a nice father
b. Jan heeft een vader om trots op te zijn.
  Jan has  a father  comp  proud  of  to be
  'Jan has a father to be proud of.'
c. Ik heb een zeer hoofd/een hoofd als een biet.
  have  a sore head/a head like a beet
  'My head hurts./'My head is as red as a beet.'

Using an exclamative intonation contour has a similar effect, even if the noun is not modified. This is due to the fact that the exclamative contour has a similar modifying function as the restrictive modifiers in (151): examples like (152a&b) express that the object has some remarkable characteristic; example (152c) seems to be fully lexicalized.

Example 152
a. Jan heeft een vader!
  Jan has  a father
  'Jan has an awfully nice father/a father who is a rogue/...'
b. Jan heeft een neus!
  Jan has  a nose
  'Jan has a very large/beautiful/... nose.'
c. Ik heb een hoofd!
  have  a head
  'Iʼve got a terrifying headache.'

      Slightly different cases are given in (153), in which the modifier seems to indicate that the referents of the noun phrases headed by vorm'shape' and kaft'cover' are not identified by virtue of their relation with some uniquely related argument, but are taken from the sets of remarkable shapes and canary-yellow covers, respectively. In these examples, the relational aspect of the noun seems to have disappeared, and the nouns behave in the same way as non-relational nouns; the use of the indefinite article signals the fact that the speaker is introducing a “new” entity into the domain of discourse, the reference of which cannot be inferred from the mention of a related argument in the preceding discourse.

Example 153
a. Ik zag een vorm die uiterst opvallend was.
  saw  a form that extremely remarkable was
  'I saw a shape that was extremely remarkable.'
a'. Ik zag een opvallende vorm.
  saw  a remarkable shape
b. Ik zag een kaft die knalgeel was.
  saw  a cover that canary.yellow was
  'I saw a cover that was canary yellow.'
b'. Ik zag een knalgele kaft.
  saw  a canary.yellow cover
[+]  4.  Predicatively used relational nouns

Example (154), finally, shows that relational nouns can also occur without complement if used in predicative position.

Example 154
a. Dat is een neus.
  that is a nose
b. Jans vader is (een) directeur.
  Janʼs father  is a director
[+]  B.  Occurrence of the PP in postcopular predicative position

According to the second test, only adjunct van-PPs can occur in postcopular predicative position; complement van-PPs or PPs with other prepositions lead to unacceptable results in this position. The examples in (155) seem to support this claim. In (155a&b), for instance, the PPs van Jan'of Jan' and van het gebouw'of the building' are related arguments of the relational nouns vader'father' and dak'roof', respectively. As predicted, the PPs in these examples cannot occur in postcopular position (De Wit 1997).

Example 155
a. de vader van Jan
  the father  of Jan
a'. * De vader is van Jan.
  the father  is of Jan
b. het dak van het gebouw
  the roof  of  the building
b'. * Het dak is van het gebouw
  the roof  is of the building
c. de hoogte van het gebouw
  the height of the building
c'. * De hoogte is van het gebouw
  the height is of the building
[+]  C.  R-pronominalization

The R-pronominalization test also suggests that the van-PPs following relational nouns behave like complements; in (156) the noun phrases functioning as direct objects contain a relational head, and R-pronominalization of the van-PPs is possible. Note that (156) only contains constructions with the unsplit form er ... P; for a discussion of the split form, see Section 2.2.1, sub IV.

Example 156
a. Ik heb het dak van het gebouw/ervan gerepareerd.
  have  the roof  of the building/of.it  repaired
  'Iʼve repaired the roof of the building.'
b. Ik heb de voorkant van de auto/ervan gewassen.
  have  the front  of the car/of.it  washed
  'Iʼve washed the front of the car.'
c. Ik herkende de vorm van de berg/ervan.
  recognized  the shape  of the mountain/of.it
[+]  D.  Extraction of PP

It appears that certain forms of PP-extraction are indeed possible with relational nouns, but not with non-relational nouns, regardless of the preposition heading the adjunct PP (De Haan 1979). The examples in (157) show that, where the head noun is relational, topicalization of the PP is possible.

Example 157
Test 4A: Topicalization
a. Ik heb de vader van Jan gezien (en de moeder van Peter).
  have  the father  of Jan  seen  and the mother of Peter
  'Iʼve seen Janʼs father (and Peterʼs mother).'
a'. Van Jan heb ik de vader gezien.
  of Jan  have  the father  seen
b. Ik heb de kaft van het boek gescheurd.
  have  the cover  of the book  torn
  'Iʼve torn the cover of the book.'
b'. Van dat boek heb ik de kaft gescheurd.
  of that book  have  the cover  torn

The same thing holds for relativization and questioning as is shown in, respectively, the primeless and primed examples in (158).

Example 158
Test 4B: Relativization and questioning
a. de man van wie ik de vader heb gezien
  the man  of who  the father  have  seen
a'. Van wie heb jij de vader gezien?
  of who  have  you  the father  seen
b. het boek waarvan ik de kaft heb gescheurd
  the book  of.which  the cover  have  torn
b'. Van welk boek heb jij de kaft gescheurd?
  of which book  have  you  the cover  torn

As illustrated in examples (159) and (160), the van-PPs of relational nouns also allow PP-over-V and scrambling.

Example 159
Test 4C: PP-over-V
a. Ik heb de vader gezien van Jan (en de moeder van Peter).
  have  the father  seen  of Jan  and the mother of Peter
  'Iʼve seen Janʼs father (and Peterʼs mother).'
b. Marie heeft de kaft ontworpen van dat boek.
  Marie has  the cover  designed  of that book
  'Marie designed the cover of that book.'
Example 160
Test 4D: Scrambling
a. Ik heb van Jan gisteren de vader gezien (en van Peter de moeder).
  have  of Jan  yesterday  the father  seen  and of Peter the mother
  'I saw Janʼs father yesterday (and Peterʼs mother).'
b. Marie heeft van dat boek vorige week de kaft ontworpen.
  Marie has  of that book  last week  the cover  designed
  'Marie designed the cover of that book last week.'
[+]  E.  Conclusion

Table 3 summarizes the results of the four tests for the arguments of relational nouns. The third column indicates whether the results provide evidence for or against the assumption that we are dealing with complements of the relational noun. The positive results suggest that we may safely conclude that the arguments of relational nouns do indeed behave as complements to the noun. Naturally, the discussion here is restricted to the most general cases. For exceptions to the tests, see the discussion in Section 2.2.1.

Table 3: Complements of relational nouns: outcome of Tests 1-4
Test 1: PP obligatory + positive
Test 2: Post-copular position positive
Test 3: R-pronominalization + positive
Test 4A: Topicalization + positive
Test 4B: Relativization/questioning +  
Test 4C: PP-over-V +  
Test 4D: Scrambling +  

  • Fillmore, Charles1968The case for caseBach, Emmon & Harms, R.T. (eds.)Universals in linguistic theoryNew YorkHolt, Rinehart, and Winston1-88
  • Haan, Ger de1979Onafhankelijke PP-komplementen van nominaSpektator8330-339
  • Wit, Petra de1997Genitive case and genitive constructionsUtrechtUniversity of UtrechtThesis
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