How to need and how to have

The way languages express needing something is linked in a surprising way to how they express having something. In their paper Having “need” and needing “have” Stephanie Harves and Richard Kayne (Linguistic Inquiry, 2012) summarise the facts and suggest an explanation.

How to have: H-languages

English and some other languages use a transitive verb like have to express possession of something. The possessor is typically the subject of the verb and the item possessed is the verb’s object. Harves and Kayne dub these languages H-languages. They list the following examples of such languages:

  • some of the Slavonic languages: Czech, Slovak, Polish, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian dialects, Belarusian;
  • some Germanic languages: English, German, Yiddish, Lëtzebuergesch, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic;
  • some Romance languages: Spanish, Catalan; and
  • some other languages: Basque, Paraguayan Guaraní, Purépacha (Tarascan), Mapudungen

Examples 1 and 2 are two of the example sentences they give.

Example 1. ‘They have a new car’. Czech.
Cristina tieneun nuovoauto
Cristina have.3SGa newcar
Example 2. ‘Cristina has a new car’. Spanish.

How to have: B-languages

Harves and Kayne identify a second group of languages, which they call B-languages. To express possession, these languages use a verb like be. The item possessed is typically the subject of the sentence and the possessor is governed by a preposition (as in Russian example 3) or is in an oblique case (as in Hungarian example 4).

As examples of B languages, Harves and Kayne list:  

  • some Slavonic or Baltic languages: Russian, Latvian;
  • some Celtic languages: Irish, Welsh, Scots Gaelic;
  • some Indo-Aryan languages: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Bhojpuri; and
  • some other languages: Hungarian, Turkish, Sakha, Korean, Peruvian Quechua and Bolivian Quechua, Yucatec Maya, Tamil, Mohawk, Amharic.

Here are examples they give from 2 B languages. In both examples, the verb agrees in person and number with the grammatical subject (the item possessed).

U menjabudetnovajakniga
Example 3. ‘I will have a new book’. Russian

In example 3, the copula verb budet (‘will be’) is present because it is in the future tense. In the present tense, that verb would not be present because Russian has largely lost the present tense of the verb byt, as I discussed in Why is the past tense in Russian so odd? – Language Miscellany

As Harves and Kayne note, Russian does also have a transitive verb imet’, meaning ‘have’, but uses it mainly with abstract nouns and does not use it productively to express possession.

Example 4. ‘Mari has hats’. Hungarian

Possessives around the world

Chapter 117 Predicative Possession of The World Atlas of Language Structures Online (WALS) gives data on the number of languages with various types of possessive construction. The chapter deals only with predicative possession of an indefinite item (eg John has a motorcycle). It does not deal with:

  • adnominal possession (eg John’s motorcycle);
  • possession of a definite item (eg This motorcycle is John’s).

Types of possessive construction

Covering predicative possession in 240 languages, WALS identifies 5 types of construction:

  • have-possessives. 63 languages, mainly in western and central Europe, also in Africa and the Americas. The possessor noun phrase (NP) is the subject of a transitive ‘have’-verb and the possessed NP is that verb’s direct object. In many cases, this verb derives from some verb indicating physical control or handling, such as ‘take’, ‘grasp’, ‘hold’, or ‘carry’.
    This is the only construction that uses a transitive verb. The other 4 constructions all use an intransitive existential construction.   
  • locational possessives (48 languages). The possessed NP is the grammatical subject of a verb meaning ‘be’ or ‘exist’, and the possessor NP is in some oblique form. That oblique form might mark either location (‘at’, ‘on’ or ‘in’ the possessor NP) or a dative relation (‘to’ or ‘for’ the possessor NP).
  • genitive possessives (22 languages). The possessed NP is the subject of an existential predicate. The possessor NP: (a) is marked by an item which typically has no locational interpretation; and (b) often (though not necessarily) serves as an adnominal modifier to the possessed NP.
  • conjunctional possessives. 59 languages, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and New Guinea, but also all over the Americas. The possessor NP is the grammatical subject. Accompanying the possessed NP is a marker originating from an item (such as ‘also’, ‘too’, ‘when/while’, ‘and’) which marks (or used to mark) clauses as simultaneous, or which co-ordinates noun phrases (such as ‘with’).
  • topic possessives. 48 languages, mainly in East/Southeast Asia (including Indonesia, the Philippines and parts of New Guinea), and also in the Americas and western and northeastern Africa. The possessed NP is the subject of an existential predicate. The possessor NP is construed as the topic of the sentence. 

Eurasia (except western Europe) and North Africa is almost exclusively the domain of the locational and genitive possessives. They are also found in Polynesia and the northern part of South America.

Harves and Kaynes’s category of H-languages corresponds to the WALS category of have-possessives. Their examples of B-Possessives are all locational possessives. They do not mention genitive-possessives, conjunctional possessive or topic possessives.

How to need

Harves and Kayne identify two ways languages express a need for something. English and some other languages use a transitive verb like need. The item needed is the object of this verb and the person or thing needing that item is the verb’s subject. Here are a couple of examples from 2 B-languages: Czech (example 5) and Spanish (example 6).

Tvoje dětipotřebují
Your childrenYou.ACCneed
Example 5. ‘Your children need you’. Czech
Cristinanecesitaun autonueva
Christinaneedsa carnew
Example 6. ‘Cristina needs a new car. Spanish

In examples 5 and 6, the transitive verb meaning ‘need’ functions in the same way as the transitive verb meaning ‘have’ in examples 1 and 2. (One minor difference between Czech examples 1 and 5 is unrelated to the difference between ‘have’ and ‘need’: Example 5 contains an explicit subject, but in example 1 the subject is not explicit—it is, arguably, a silent pronoun.)

But other languages express the meaning ‘need’ without using a transitive verb. Instead, they typically use one of the following constructions (or both, as for example Russian and Hungarian do):

  • in one construction, the item needed is the subject of a verb or copula and the person (or thing) needing that item is in the dative case (or another oblique case). Please see examples 7 (Russian) and 9 (Hungarian).
  • in the other construction the item needed is governed by a preposition (or is an oblique case). The person (or thing) needing that item is the subject of a verb (example 8, Russian). On the other hand, the grammatical subject might be an abstract noun meaning ‘need’ that is marked as possessed by the person doing the needing (example 10, Hungarian).
Mnenužnaeta kniga
me.DATnecessary.FEMthat book.FEM
Example 7. ‘I need that book’. Russian.

In example 7, the meaning ‘need’ is expressed by the adjective nužna. The copula verb ‘be’ is not expressed because it is in the present tense. The adjective agrees in gender with the grammatical subject kniga. The pronoun mne (‘me’) is in the dative case.

Rebënoknuždaetsav vašej pomošči
child.NOMneedsin your help.PREP
Example 8. ‘The child needs your help.’ Russian.

In example 8, the preposition v (‘in’) governs the noun phrase referring to the item needed (vašej pomošči, ‘your help’), which is, therefore, in the prepositional case.  The person needing that help (rebënok) is the subject of the intransitive verb nuždaetsa (‘need’).

Example 9. ‘Mari needs hats’. Hungarian.

In example 9, the meaning ‘need’ is expressed by the verb kell, which agrees in number (plural) with the grammatical subject kalopok. The noun Marinak (‘to Mari’) is in the dative case.

Example 10. ‘Mari needs hats’. Hungarian

In example 10, the noun szükseg (‘need’) is the grammatical subject and agrees in number with the copula verb van (‘be’). The suffix -e on szükseg indicates that ‘need’ is possessed, and the possessor of the ‘need’ (Mari) is in the dative case. The item possessed (kalopok, ‘hats’) is in the sublative case (meaning ‘onto’). How many cases are there in Hungarian and Finnish? (2) – Language Miscellany

Analysis by Harves and Kayne

Harves and Kayne identify an interesting pattern. Only H-languages (they claim) use a transitive verb like need. In their view, this pattern is too striking to be coincidental. They argue that the verb that appears to be a simple verb need is, in a reality, a compound verb [have need], which takes a direct object (the thing needed). The 2 components are:

  • a ‘light’ (ie almost meaningless) verb meaning ‘have’, that remains unpronounced (silent): [have ] need; and
  • a noun meaning ‘need’.

Thus, the reason why no B-language has a transitive verb meaning ‘need’ is that these languages have no transitive verb meaning ‘have’ (not even a silent verb).

A B-Language with transitive ‘need’?

Harves and Kayne identify one language that may not quite fit their analysis: Finnish. As a B-language, Finnish expresses possession with the copula (‘be’), putting the possessor in the adessive case, as in example 11. Harves and Kayne give that example in 2 versions. One version has the possessed person in the nominative case (hän, ‘he’) and the other version has the possessed person in the accusative case (hänet, ‘him’).

Minullaonhän / hän-et
Example 11. ‘I have him’. Finnish.

Example 12 shows an apparently transitive verb tarvitsen (‘I need’), which seems to govern a pronoun in the accusative case. This example is inconsistent with Harves and Kaynes’s analysis, because it appears to show the B-language Finnish as having a transitive verb meaning ‘need’.

Example 12. ‘I need you’. Finnish.

Harves and Kaynes discuss why the verb tarvitsen apparently governs nouns and pronouns in the accusative case. They speculate that this is because the possessive construction in example 11 also requires (or at least sometimes permits) a direct object in the accusative case. They suggest that their analysis could be expressed more accurately as:

  • All languages that have a transitive verb corresponding to need are languages that have an accusative-case-assigning verb of possession.

I can’t tell whether the analysis of Finnish by Harves and Kaynes is accurate and complete:

  • In example 11, Harves and Kayne don’t explain what determines when the nominative is used and when the accusative is used.
  • In examples 11 and 12, the person possessed or needed is expressed by a personal pronoun. Harves and Kayne do not explain whether the examples are valid only for personal pronouns.
  • Although it seems to be generally agreed that Finnish has an accusative case for personal pronouns, it is controversial whether the accusative case exists at all for Finnish nouns.  On the other hand, Vainikka (2003) argues that post-verbal nouns (and not only pronouns in such positions) occurring in possessive constructions such as example 11 are indeed in the accusative case. 
  • In some instances, nouns in these constructions might need to be in the partitive, genitive or even nominative cases.

H-languages without transitive ‘need’

Some H-languages have a transitive verb meaning ‘need’, but not all H-languages do have such a transitive verb, including the following listed by Harves and Kayne:

  • some Slavonic or Baltic languages: Bulgarian, Serbian (standard), Lithuanian;
  • some Romance languages: French, Italian, Bellinzonese [Italian dialect], Portuguese, Romanian, Latin; and
  • some other Indo-European languages: Ancient Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Farsi.

Examples of a ‘have’ construction (example 13) and a ‘need’ construction (example 14) are from French.

J’aiune voiture
I have.SGa car
Example 13. ‘I have a car’. French.
J’aibesoin d’une voiture
I have.SGneed ofa car
Example 14 ‘I need a car’. French.

The French construction in example 14 does not contain a transitive verb meaning ‘need’. Instead:

  • French uses the transitive verb expressing possession (avoir, ‘have’);
  • the direct object of that verb avoir is a noun (besoin, ‘need’), linked by the preposition de (‘of’) to the item needed (une voiture, ‘a car’). That needed item voiture is governed by that preposition de, not by a transitive verb.

A language with a construction clearly similar to the French avoir besoin de mentioned above is Italian, which has a construction avere bisogno di (‘need’, ‘have need of’).
Italian also has a related impersonal verb bisognare (‘to be necessary’), used only in the 3rd person, and rarely used in compound tenses.


Harves and Kayne argue that children must learn that their first language is an H-language before they can learn that the language has a transitive verb meaning ‘mean’. They refer to a study and say its results were consistent with that argument.  


Having “need” and needing “have” Stephanie Harves and Richard Kayne (Linguistic Inquiry, 2012). Reprinted in Questions of Syntax, Richard S Kayne (2019)

Postverbal Case Realization in Finnish, by Anna Vainikka (2003), in Generative Approaches to Finnic and Saami Linguistics, edited by Diane Nelson and Satu Manninen (2003)

Predicative Possession, by Leon Stassen (2013), chapter 117 in WALS Online (v2020.3), edited by Matthew S Dryer and Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) [Data set]. Zenodo.
(Available online at, accessed 14 March 2024)

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