The concept of the genitive

This was a comment on the Intermediate Readings page.  OK, it was my comment.  The genitive is a puzzling monster, so its presence on the Home page is warranted.

The genitive qualifies and limits the noun to which it is attached.  What exactly does this mean?  I actually would like to hear from you first, but because no one has said anything yet, let me start in a roundabout fashion.

“Come to the house.”  This is a very general invitation which is bound to provoke questions from your invitee, unless you and s/he have already discussed the house in question.  “What house do you have in mind?” 

To answer those questions, you have to provide a more specific idea of “house.”  You may say that the house is the red-bricked one, or that it is your house, or Jeff’s.  By linking the concept of “house” to red bricks or owner, you make it more specific.  The specifying linkage can happen in a variety of other ways, too: it is the house on the left, or the house where we last met.  Or, it is *not* the house I built with my own bare hands.  In all cases, you will be relating the very general concept of “house” to something else.  And in many cases, your invitee’s lack of understanding will force you into piling up more linkages, because they describe in more concrete terms the otherwise general concept.

Let’s talk now specifically of linkages through genitive.  In English, where there are no cases, there is a remnant of genitive which grammars describe as “possessive”: an example would be “Jeff’s house.”  When you first begin to study Latin, this is usually the first use of the Latin genitive you learn.  But what does it mean to possess?  Jeff may only be renting the house in question, so the use of the apostrophe must serve some other purpose.  And what about “Jeff’s parents”? One surely doesn’t “possess” his or her parents! 
Or “Jeff’s name” – in what sense does Jeff has ownership over his name?

Here are some examples of possessive genitive listed in E.C. Woodcock’s (possessive!) very thoughtful analysis of Latin syntax (“A New Latin Syntax,” Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, ISBN 0-86516-126-7).  All can be found on p.52 of the book; the translations are his.

domus Ciceronis (Cicero’s house)
Hasdrubal Gisgonis (Hasdrubal [son] of Gisgo)
coniuratio Catilinae (Catiline’s conspiracy)
belli pericula (the dangers of war)
hominis periculum (the man’s danger)

Woodcock’s explanations (same paragraph): “It should be noted that the relation between the possessor and the possessed may be very varied.  On the one hand, the author or source of a thing may be regarded as its possessor, on the other, the person affected by a thing (e.g. ‘the danger to the man’) may be regarded as having a proprietary interest in it.”

I really like Woodcock, but the above explanations sound evasive to me.

What do you think about the meaning of the English word “possession”?


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