Constraints in contact: Animacy in English and Afrikaans genitive variation – a cross-linguistic perspective


This paper builds on the observation that the animacy effects we find in English genitive variation are part of a larger cross-linguistic pattern as reflected in possession splits based on animacy (Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2001, 2002; Stolz et al. 2008), which are an expression of harmonic alignment in the domain of possession (Aissen & Bresnan 2002; Rosenbach 2008). Focussing on English and Afrikaans, a contrastive corpus analysis of genitive variation reveals similar forms of animacy splits in these two languages, though they differ in the strength of the animacy constraint, with the Afrikaans prenominal possessive (the se-genitive) occurring more freely with inanimate possessors than the English s-genitive. In a follow-up experimental study it is then shown that the weaker animacy constraint in Afrikaans carries over to the L2 English of Afrikaans speakers in South Africa. This study emphasizes the importance of a cross-linguistic perspective when looking at genitive variation in English and its varieties (1) to recognize that Englishes form part of a typological continuum of possession splits, and (2) to enable us to identify the possible transfer of constraint strengths from one language to another one in a situation where these languages are in contact, as in the case of English and Afrikaans in South Africa.

This article is part of the Special Collection: Probabilistic grammars: Syntactic variation in a comparative perspective


genitive variation in English and Afrikaans, animacy, probabilistic grammar, language contact, typological perspective

How to Cite

Rosenbach, A., (2017) “Constraints in contact: Animacy in English and Afrikaans genitive variation – a cross-linguistic perspective”, Glossa: a journal of general linguistics 2(1): 72. doi:









Anette Rosenbach (Tanagra Farm, 6708 McGregor/Western Cape)



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