Monday, 27 June 2016


South Eastern dialect of Serbian has a peculiar grammatical construct. It uses "na" meaning "on" to express belonging, possession. This construct using the word "na" exists (as far as I know) also in neighboring Macedonian and some Bulgarian dialects, all centered around southern Carpathian or Balkan mountains.

South Serbian:

Q: Na koga je ovo kuče - on whom is this hound (whose hound is this)? 

A: To je kuče na Petar - this is the hound on Petar (of Peter)


A: Tova e kuče na Petar - this is the hound on Petar  (of Peter)


A: Toa e kuče na Petar - this is the hound on Petar  (of Peter)

This construct defines possession through physical contact which is the oldest known form of possession. What belongs to me is on me, within my boundary, within what i can grab, hold, wear, carry, protect...

Fernand Cormon, Cain, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
What is interesting is that the Irish language has the same construct. On the page about Hiberno-English (English dialect spoken in Ireland which is hugely influenced by the Irish grammar and vocabulary) we read:

There are some language forms in Hiberno-English that stem from the fact that there is no verb "to have" in Irish. Instead, possession is indicated in Irish by using the preposition at, (in Irish, ag.). To be more precise, Irish uses a prepositional pronoun that combines ag "at" and mé "me" to create agam which basically means "at me, on me". This is then reflected in Hiberno-English, where the verb "to have" is used, interchangeably with phrases "with me" or "on me" that derive from "tá … agam". This gives rise to the frequent:

"Do you have the book?" – "I have it with me."
"Have you change for the bus on you?"
"He will not shut up if he has drink taken."

My favorite Irish Gaelic expression using this construct is "Tá áthas orm" meaning "I am happy, I have happiness" but literally meaning "There is happiness on me" :)

So what language did this construct originate in: Irish or these south Slavic dialects? Remember that the Irish language only has this constrict to express possession. And that this part of the Balkans was once "Celtic central" and is the area where we still find "Celtic" village crosses, like this one from Crna Trava:

And how old is this construct? Is it possible that this is a true linguistic fossil, which comes to us from the time before settled communities and static property? 

And does a similar construct exists in any other language? 

Well it seems that it does. In Finnish of all languages. Finnish doesn't have a separate verb for "to have". Instead it uses a different sentence construction, centered around the verb "olla", "to be". It's interesting to note that the "minulla on" literally means"on me there is". 

Very interesting, because it shows the age of this construct. 


  1. This is exactly how "to have" is expressed in Finnish (and I guess a bunch of other Finno-Ugric languages too), see e.g.:

  2. Finnish is not an Indo-European language, which suggests the construct predates Proto-Indo-European. Someone knowledgeable should look into Estonian, another non-Indo-European language.

  3. In polish word "należy" is similar. It means laying on something, na - on, leży - to lie (down).
    Do kogo to należy? - Who owns that?
    Do mnie to należy. - It belongs to me.

  4. Thank you guys. This is very interesting.

  5. Bulgarian:Tova e kučeto na Petar. 'to' is a definite article,the way you've said it is grammatically incorrect and it doesn't sound good.I don't know whether Macedonians and Serbians use these but we do.
    I also think 'na' isn't just used in some Bulgarian dialects as it is used in general all around Bulgaria and in the official dialect.However,I can't say it's used in all of them because I'm not well-versed in them and I have very little knowledge on the matter.

    1. Thank you for this comment. From Bulgarian newspapers: "това е къщата на кристиано роналдо" this is the house of Cristiano Ronaldo

  6. Yes, it's really interesting. I want to sat in russian language there is construction "у меня есть" (there is about me) meaning "I have...". An another hand, in russian there is a verb "иметь" meaning "to have", but it has another signification - "to rape some one" or "to cruelly trick some one". To addition I want t saythat russians' ancestors came to Ladoga Lake circa 7th-8th centuries from Carpathian Mountain. But then, at 9th-11th cent. to Ancient Rus came irish missionaries and hence in Russia there are the Celtic crosses too.

  7. Hi, stumbled upon this by chance and couldn't but comment on it. In leonese (language of Leon, Spain where I'm originally from) 'na' means 'in' e.g. na tua casa (in your house), na tiesta (on the head). Slightly off topic, I also find even more interesting how the diminutive in Irish -ín as in 'gortín/small field' is also found in Leonese e.g. pueblín (little village). I think it is accepted at this stage that q-celtic came to Ireland probably from NW Iberia, where it was likely spoken, as toponyms suggest (the milesians?) which could explain things a bit. I can think of more examples but I'll leave it there. Great blog by the way.

  8. This is just a guess, but (English) "There is happiness on me", I suspect happy originated from or diverged from "upper-ness", along with others like hope and open.