Expressing Possession

To take / to receive / to give / to have / to own…. when we look back in time these ideas seem to have all been jumbled up.

To see how, let’s take the roots of ‘receive’ – from re + cipere, and of ‘give’, allegedly from *kap- and *ghabh-, respectively, according to Pokorny. Besides the above, what words can we find that use these roots?

– capture/prince/capable etc. from Latin – according to P. all from *kap (meaning: take/receive)
have/haben/haven etc. in the Germanic languagesaccording to P. also from *kap
avoir/avere/habere/habit in Latin and its descendant languagesaccording to P. from*ghabh (originally meaning something more akin to possess in the sense of holding)
– 给 (gěi) – ‘to give’ in Chinese (as well as modern Swiss German), read ‘kap’ in ancient Chinese and modern Cantonese – from the Indo-European root *ghabh according to Zhang Congdong, or perhaps from *kap?

Given that plenty of other examples point to a widespread confusion between the meanings of these two very similar sounding roots, as well as between the concepts of taking, receiving, giving and having, can we perhaps guess that these two supposedly different roots might be merely two variations on the same one?

It is interesting to note that most ancient languages did not even have an abstract term for possession. To cite the example of Classical Latin, when an abstract sense was required Romans apparently tended to make due using the dative case, as in: liber mihi est. Was this perhaps because this abstract sense was not particularly meaningful or common in the societies which used Latin? While this construction seems to have been the norm in ancient discourse, it is much rarer today, with (to my knowledge) only the Eastern Slavic languages and Hungarian preserving this structure in Europe. In fact some have speculated that the Slavic root imieti (иметь in Russian, mít in Czech, leading to “have” in Western Slavic languages) actually comes from je(st) mi, ‘it is to me’.

Ancient Greek and Chinese, by contrast, seemed to express “to have” in the way which is now common to most languages, using one abstract term without any connotation of either taking or receiving – εχειν and 有 (yǒu). εχειν seems to be related to the Germanic root for own/eigen; 有 does not seem to have a clear European root.

What does this tell us? Well for one thing, other than perhaps the Greek term, few concepts for ‘having’ seem to have come from the act of making. Rather, they are all connected to property obtained from someone or something else, if not from another than perhaps from the Gods or from the Earth. Maybe this should not surprise us for an age in which private property was scarce and hard to maintain. The fact that both Ancient Chinese and Greek seemed to have a different take on the matter may provide a strong hint about the relative sanctity of property in the world which they described. 

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