Surprised by genitive -s in Swedish

Swedish uses a morpheme -s to form genitive noun phrases and, surprisingly, uses it in much the same as English. This post looks at how this works. Much of the discussion here comes from Börjars (1998).

Genitive form of unmodified nouns

Like English, Swedish creates a genitive form of nouns by adding -s to the end, as in (1).

(1) grisen-s grymtande
pig.def-gen grunting
the pig’s grunting

The form grisen consists of the noun gris and the suffixed definite article -en.

Swedish examples in this post are from Börjars (1998)
For clarity, the Swedish examples include a hyphen before the -s and [square brackets] around the noun phrase that the -s attaches too. Swedish spelling does not use this hyphen.
In the examples below, def stands for definite, gen stands for genitive, acc stands for accusative.

What does this -s attach to?

Looking at simple examples like (1), it is natural to think that -s is a suffix attaching to the noun. But in fact, -s is a separate element attaching to the right edge of the entire noun phrase containing the head noun. That happens in both Swedish and English, though apparently not in many other languages.

Some writers—including Harbert (2007) and Holmes and Hinchliffe (1994) and Haberland (1994)—use the label group genitive for noun phrases having the genitive morpheme attached in this way at their right-hand edge.

As Harbert (2007) puts it, English –“s ‘is no longer an inflectional affix at all, but rather a clitic element which does not attach to individual nouns, but to the right periphery of entire NPS [noun phrases], without regard to the category of the particular word to which it attaches”.

A clitic is a word that is morphologically separate, but phonologically dependent on another word—in this case, the last word in the attached noun phrase. For a brief discussion of whether this ‘Saxon genitive’ in English is a case form or a clitic, please see Does English really have case? – Language Miscellany

Here are some more examples from Börjars (1998), where the -s attaches to the right-hand edge of a noun phrase containing a noun modified by a following:

  • demonstrative and adjectives (2)
  • prepositional phrase (3)
  • prepositional phrase and relative clause (4)

(2) a noun modified by a demonstrative and adjectives
[den här gamla smutsiga grisen]-s grymtande
this dirty old pig.def-gen grunting
this dirty old pig’s grunting

(3) a noun modified by a prepositional phrase
[grisen med knort på svansen]-s grymtande
[pig.def with curly tail]-gen grunting
the grunting of the pig with a curly tail

(4) noun modified by a prepositional phrase and a relative clause
[grisen med knort på svansen som tycker om gröt]-s grymtande
[pig.def with curly tail who likes porridge]-gen grunting
the grunting of the pig with a curly tail who likes porridge

Attaching -s to other types of word

In each of examples (2)-(4), it so happens that the last word in the noun phrase is itself a noun (though not the noun which is the head of the phrase: grisen in each of those examples). But the -s morpheme can attach to the last word of a noun phrases even if that last word is not a noun but a different type of word, such as:

  • a preposition (5)
  • a verb (6)
  • a verb particle (7)
  • a personal pronoun (8, but see also (8a))

(5) [pojken framför]-s papa
[boy.def in front]-gen
the boy in front’s father

Börjars analyses framför here as (an intransitive) preposition, but other people might analyse it as an adverb.

(6) [pojken jag träffade]-s papa
[boy.def I met]-gen
the boy I met’s father

(7) [pojken som kom bort]-s papa
[boy.def who come away]-gen father
the boy who got lost’s father

(8) [pojken som slag mig]-s Papa
[boy-def who hit me-acc]-gen father
the boy who hit me’s father

Börjars contrasts examples (8) and (8a). In (8), the genitive morpheme -s attaches to the last word in the 1st noun phrase. That word is the accusative form of the personal pronoun mig (‘me’). In (8a), which isn’t a group genitive at all, there is no separate genitive morpheme -s. The personal pronoun appears in the genitive as the possessive pronoun min (‘my’).

(8a) pojken som slag min Papa
[boy-def who hit] [my-gen father]
the boy who hit my father

Conjoined noun phrases

The -s morpheme can also attach to the right edge of a co-ordinated noun phrase in which 2 (or more) noun phrases are conjoined (9).

(9) [Gustav och Karin]-s nasor hade blivit röda
[Gustav and Karin]-gen noses had become red
Gustav and Karin’s noses had become red

Noun phrases not present overtly

In addition, the -s morpheme can attach to the right edge of a noun phrase in which the head noun is only understand and does not appear overtly.

  • (10) is the first clause of a long sentence and includes a group genitive.
  • (10a) shows one possible continuation in which the head noun of the genitive structure (flaskan, ‘the bottle’) is present overtly.
  • (10b) is an alternative continuation, with the same meaning and the same underlying structure. It it, the head noun flaskan is present underlyingly but is not present overtly: here the -s morpheme attaches to the right of the adjective förra (‘last’).

(10) [Den här flaskan]-s kork sitter fest, men…
This here bottle-gen cork sits tight, but …
This bottle’s cork is stuck, but…

(10a) … [den förra flaskan]-s kork fick vi lätt ur.
… the last bottle.def-gen cork got we easily out.
… we got the last bottle’s cork out easily.

(10b) … [den förra]-s kork fick vi lätt ur.
… the last-gen cork got we easily out.
… we got the last one’s cork out easily.

As 10(b) shows, when the head noun is not present overtly, English inserts a proform one and attaches the -s morpheme to that proform rather than attaching it to the adjective last.  

Another Swedish example

Holmes and Hinchliffe (1994) give another Swedish example (11) where the last word in the noun phrase is an adjective.

(11) [Karl den Store]-s rike
Charles the Great-gen kingdom
Charlemagne’s kingdom

Other mainland Scandinavian languages

This use of the genitive morpheme -s also occurs in Danish’s close relatives, Norwegian and Swedish. Here are examples from Askedal (1994) and Haberland (1994). Those sources contain just brief comments with much less detail than in Börjars, so I can’t tell whether there are any significant differences between the 3 languages in this area.

Norwegian

(12) tusener av drepte menneskers blod
[thousands of killed men]-gen blood
the blood of thousands of killed people

(13) ungene i gatas eget hus
[children.def in street]-gen own house
the children in the street’s own house

Danish

(14) Kongen af Danemarks bolsjefabrik
[king.def of Denmark]-gen candy factory
the King of Denmark’s candy factory

Haberland says that *fuglen på tagets vinger (‘the bird on the roof’s wings’) is impossible in Danish, but doesn’t explain way.

He says that an acceptable form is vingene på fuglen (‘the wings on the bird’). Haberland doesn’t say how that would be combined into the full phrase: perhaps vingene på fuglen på taget, but I don’t know whether the repetition of would impede that form.

Insular Scandinavian languages

As far as I can tell, the genitive morpheme -s doesn’t exist in more distant relatives of Swedish: the insular Scandinavian languages Icelandic and Faroese. Barnes with Weyhe (1994) say that Faroese does not normally have a construction like the mainland Scandinavian group genitive, though they mention an example in a street name in Tórshavn.

They state that this absence is because in Faroese:

  • most genitives have been replaced by circumlocutions using prepositions; and
  • it is difficult to attach the genitive -s to other case endings. Faroese (like Icelandic) has retained a full set of inflectional suffixes for grammatical cases—unlike Swedish, Norwegian and Danish (and, indeed, English) which have largely lost grammatical case, except that some vestiges remain in pronouns Does English really have case? – Language Miscellany  

In both Icelandic and Faroese, the -s form marks the genitive case in the singular for some masculine nouns and for some neuter nouns. For all other singular nouns, and all plural nouns, other forms exist. In Faroese, genitive forms of many nouns occur only in the written language.

In contrast, -s is the only morpheme available in the 3 continental Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian and Danish) and in English. Maybe that difference helps explain why the group genitive construction (with -s at the right edge of the entire noun phrase) arose in those languages, but hasn’t arisen in Icelandic and Faroese.

Conclusion

I was surprised when I first saw that Swedish (like Norwegian and Danish) has a group genitive construction used in a way very similar to its English counterpart. I don’t think I have seen anything similar in other languages.  

In almost all the examples given above, the English -s genitive can be used in a way very parallel to the Swedish group genitive. The only exceptions are:

  • examples (3) and (4), where the noun phrase is convoluted and the English -s genitive cannot attach to it comfortably; and
  • example 10(b), in which English inserts a proform one.  

Sources

Feature Distribution in Swedish Noun Phrases, Kersti Börjars (1998)

Swedish: a Comprehensive Grammar, Philip Holmes and Ian Hinchliffe (1994)

Danish (Hartmut Haberland), Norwegian (John Ole Askedal), Faroese (Michael P Barnes with Eivind Weyhe) in The Germanic Languages (1994), edited by Ekkehard König and Johan van der Auwera

The Germanic Languages, Wayne Harbert (2007)

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