Thursday, December 03, 2009

More About Apostrophes

We have discussed apostrophes before. Then the other day, Antagonist-Andrew (long-lost Starbucks friend recently rediscovered on Facebook) pointed out to me this link. I find it delightful and I think I kinda want that t-shirt.

It did start me off on one of my etymological musings, though. I started wondering who decided apostrophes would be used for possessives and not for plurals, when normally they're used for contractions. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm really sorry. You can just skip this post. This is, perhaps regrettably, how I think sometimes.)

Then I wondered if originally possessives were contractions--like, maybe people used to say stuff like, "David, his book," and the "his" got smushed into the preceding word and ended up as "David's book." This, of course, doesn't immediately explain why we don't say, "Anna'r book" for women ("Anna, her book"), but there might still be some reasons:

1. When possessives started coming into the English language, it was a more patriarchal society so they didn't care about gender-inclusive language.

2. If you must say it, "Jesus's" is easier to say than "Jennifer'r."

3. No one except people from central Massachusetts wanted to sound like people from central Massachusetts by adding "r"s to the ends of words that ended in vowels.

So. Now we actually have a reason for possessives to have apostrophes and plurals not to have them. Listen up, apostrophe abusers! Just stop it, okay?

1 comment:

Andy said...

We talked a bit about possessives and plurals in English my linguistics class.

My professor isn't specifically an etymologist, nor is she a specialist in the history of English, but she had a few general remarks:

English originally had several different plural markers. The -en suffix is prevalent in German today and remains in such words as children and brethren. (Interestingly enough, brethren was originally the plural for brother, but the -s suffix became generalized and brethren moved into a new semantic position.) There were other plural markers in Old English but I can't remember any off the top of my head.

There are two basic formats for possession in English, either "my father's car" or "the car of my father". The former is of Germanic influence and the latter is of Romance.

You may find these links elucidating: