So it was revealed in the comments on my last post that I have apparently never gone over alienable vs. inalienable possession in Dothraki—or at least not directly. Let me take a moment to do so now.

First, a couple of definitions. Grammatical possession is probably something everyone is familiar with (e.g. in a phrase like “the man’s hat”, “the man” is the possessor and “hat” is the possessee, with the “‘s” there to indicate that “the man” is the possessor of what follows). Some languages make a finer grain distinction when it comes to possession than English does. For example, consider the actual relationships specified in the English examples below:

  • my pencil
  • my arm
  • my aunt
  • my bank account
  • my opinion
  • my country

All of these are expressed with the same construction, but is having a pencil in one’s hand really the same thing as having an aunt? One is an inanimate object that can be owned and wholly contained, while the other is a living individual with which one simply has a unique familial relationship. And what about a pencil vs. an opinion? Does one have an opinion in precisely the same way that one has a pencil? And while a bank account is more concrete than an opinion, in some ways, one can’t pick it up the same way one can a pencil.

A language like English treats these relationships the same, presuming that the words themselves will give one enough information about what the relationship is. Other languages, though, will focus on different aspects of these possessive relationships and encode them differently. Dothraki is one such language.

In Dothraki, the morphological expression of possession is dependent upon its alienability. Put simply, alienability is the ability for a possession to be separated from its possessor. For example, consider one’s nose. Unless one has met with a rather unfortunate set of circumstances (or, perhaps, found oneself in a story by Gogol), one’s nose is not easily removed from one’s face. This is a canonical example of inalienable possession (that is, one possesses one’s nose inalienably). A pencil, though, is easily removed from one’s possession, and is one of many examples of alienable possession.

In Dothraki, the genitive case is the default expression of alienable possession. It’s used for most types of garden variety possession, including interpersonal relationships, as shown below (with the possessor in the genitive following the possessee):

  • sajo anni “my mount”
  • okeo yeri “your friend”
  • arakh mae “his/her arakh”
  • okre khali “the khal’s tent”

Inalienable possession is expressed with the ablative, rather than the genitive, and the possessor is optional: it can be stated for emphasis or if the possessor isn’t obvious, but if it is, it’s typically left out. Some examples are given below:

  • qora (anhoon) “(my) arm/hand”
  • tihi (yeroon) “(your) eyes”
  • noreth (moon) “(his/her) hair”
  • jahak (khaloon) “(the khal’s) braid”

In English, you actually do see a bit of this alienability sometimes. Consider, for example, a sentence like, “I looked him in the eyes”. Whose eyes? Well, his eyes. It’s obvious from the context. You could actually say, “I looked him in his eyes”, but it’s not necessary. The same thing occurs with Dothraki, but in a wider context. For example, consider this sentence below:

  • Qora zisa.

That means simply “the arm hurts”. If one walks in holding one’s arm and utters that, though, it’s obvious from context that it’s the speaker’s arm that hurts, meaning that the “missing” possessor is anhoon. If one’s companion said that, it’d be obvious that the “missing” possessor is moon.

Moving beyond body parts, though, the inalienable possession construction is used with inherent parts of things. Here are some examples:

  • az arakhoon “the blade of the arakh”
  • lenta halahoon “the stem of the flower”
  • rayan krazaajoon “the summit of the mountain”
  • riv zhanoon “the tip of the spear”

Mastering the two types of expressions will also allow one to make subtle distinctions that may or may not prove useful, e.g.:

  • Qora anhoon mesa.
  • Qora anni mesa.

Both sentences above mean “My arm is swollen”. The second sentence, though, refers specifically to an alienably possessed arm. Thus the most obvious interpretation is that the speaker is wielding a severed arm as a weapon, and, having bludgeoned someone or something with it, the arm has now swollen, and perhaps doesn’t swing as well as it once did.

While the rules above will work for 99% of cases, some expressions are unpredictable. For example, chiva krazaaji, “the tip of the mountain”, has krazaaj in the genitive rather than the ablative, even though one would expect the ablative. In addition, bodily conditions (injuries, illness, etc.) are often expressed with the ablative, rather than the genitive. In general, though, it’s more common to see the genitive where one would expect the ablative, rather than vice versa.

Okay, now I can be absolutely sure that I discussed possession on the blog (unlike before, when I was absolutely certain and mostly wrong). Athdavrazar!

Oh, and here, for no real reason, is a link to my article entitled “Linguistics Manifesto” which appeared in Speculative Grammarian.


  1. Great post, zhey David! You promised a complete explanation on the alienable/inalienable and you definitely delivered, thanks.

    Would you say an opinion or a country would use in Dothraki the inalienable possession as well? As you can never be separated from the fact that you were born in your country?

    About the Linguistic Manifesto, I am glad to check that your article comes now first in the google search, cheers!

    1. Would you say an opinion or a country would use in Dothraki the inalienable possession as well? As you can never be separated from the fact that you were born in your country?

      Yes, but actually not for that reason. If you’re “from” a place, that’s, literally, where you came from. This is, in fact, the canonical use of the ablative. If you think of the Dothraki, the idea of attaching inalienability to the place of one’s birth doesn’t make much sense. The Dothraki are nomadic and don’t seem to attach much importance to place (unless it’s places to avoid). Even Vaes Dothrak, it would seem strange to me to have a Dothrak say he’s from Vaes Dothrak. That’s a place that they go to every so often and it’s very important, but it’s not where they live.

      1. I meant a sentence like “This is my country” or “this is my land” what kind of alienability would it take?

        Quite interesting about nomadic ways of the dothraki and the language, I quite like it.

  2. Nosy post. So the top of the mountain is called either chiva or rayan, but presumably not riv? And can be either alienable or inalienable depending on which near-synonym you choose?

    some uneducated, non-Wikipediaed ruminations:

    An idea very close to inalienability is the idea of fundamentally defining attribute. A table can be sold, given and even stolen, and the different possessors don’t contribute much to what the table is. An arm is arm of that special someone it has been cut off, and stays that someone’s arm what ever you do to it.

    Just the other day I was thinking about expressions like king of the hill or children of England – mandates, origins, that kind of stuff. Hill does not own the king, rather the king is a part of the abstract institution of the hill. You can kidnap the king and throw him in the jail; you’ll have king of the hill in your jail. Origin is truly inalienable, mandate more or less inalienable from the tittle.
    It seems, though, that this kind of possession is dealt with genitive in Dothraki, as I seem to remember Dothaki called Sir Mormont Jorah Andahli. Is this the general pattern? Does this stuff even get haldled as possessions?

    What about quantities; glass of water, meter of liquorice? These too are quite extented use of concept of possession, and closer to idea of being part of the whole. I think we have seen this kind of sentences dealt with genitive.

  3. I wouldn’t describe “glass of water” as possession — it’s not like you can say “water’s glass”, although the genitive is supposedly the catch-all possession marker in English. If anything, I’d expect the glass to “own” the water…

    My impression is that “of” has several functions in English, one of which describes possession while another describes quality (a glass of water, a man of many talents, a +1 shield of smiting).

    Among Dothraki’s resources, I’d intuitively use the ablative for materials (“a glass [taken] from water”), the allative for purposes (“a shield [contributing] towards smiting”), and perhaps the ki preposition for descriptive qualities (“a man with many talents”).

    1. Aye, well. That was what I was kinda trying to say. English “of” extends far beyond what counts as possession, and it would be interesting to hear, how Dothraki handles the rest of the field.

      Quantities of materials, descriptive qualities, purposes… I like this analysis. A good place to start.
      Three meters of rope; rope of three meters; three ropes of metering :)

    2. Zhey Zhalio, your intuitions are spot on here. And, zhey Qvaak, this is also right about “possession” in English. “Of” is really more of an associative particle that also encodes possession. English is kind of odd since it has two different ways of doing possession (“of” and “‘s”). As a result, differences have sprung up. I think most Germanic languages actually do the, e.g., “glass of water” without any marking (am I remembering this right? E.g. “Ich würde ein Glas Bier”?). English likes to have everything tagged with one preposition or another (except in fixed expressions).

      Anyway, back to Dothraki, you’re right on with the ablative used for materials, but if you were to say heffe evethoon, it’d actually mean “a jug made out of water”. (Aside from some lexemes [like “wooden” or “metallic”], this is what you’d use to say, e.g., ador nigwinoon, “a stone chair” or “a chair made out of stone”.) To say something like “a jug of water”, you’d use the instrumental ma, i.e. heffe m’evethoon. You’d use the same for “a man of many talents”, but I’m sure there are situations where you’d use ki for expressions like this.

      And, yes, you can use the allative for purposes as you describe here.

      1. On German usage: Yes, «ein Glas Bier» is correct. However, you need a different verb; the current wording literally means “I would become a glass of beer”. ;) You could say «ich möchte», «ich hätte gerne», or the presumptuous-sounding (at least from a Swiss perspective) «ich krieg’».

  4. As usual, plenty of words that are known to us, but not too well. Okre, noreth, az, lenta, riv… plus zhan(-V?), which hasn’t been met before – or if it has, it has gone under our radar. I hazard a wild guess: these are all inanimate?

    1. The word is zhani and is “spear”. Not sure what the native Dothraki spear would look like precisely, but it seems like a likely enough weapon, so whatever it looks like, it is zhani (inanimate, class A).

  5. Quick comment: I was kind of surprised this post had no comments on it, so I went over to check and it had five. I usually get an e-mail for every comment that’s added. I’m a bit perplexed why these flew under the radar… Anyway, I’ll go through and respond now, but I just wanted to let you know why I hadn’t already.

  6. Your Linguistics Manifesto does not have enough exclamation points in it! Every manifesto should be full of exclamation points!!

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