Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Daily Hump: Genitive Herpes

I know, I know...I said I'd do a post yesterday and I didn't. AdSense has made me a total of $1.07 since I launched this site so let's just say there are some other more lucrative priorities.

Now that that's out of the way, today I thought we'd do something a bit different and not hump a word but rather the morpheme 's. Have you ever sat around and wondered why we use a 's to denote possession? You probably haven't, but that's where you and I differ. I've studied a few other languages including Latin, Old Norse and French and none of these use a 's. As far as my admittedly limited knowledge demonstrates, the 's is a purely English phenomenon and I'm determined to figure out why (or at least where it came from).

If you've studied Latin, or most other languages where meaning is not dependent on word order, you've probably studied cases, and more specifically the genitive case. In simplistic terms the genitive case is the series of manipulations you make to a word to show that it possesses something. For instance, puella in Latin means "the girl", yet puellae servus would mean "the girl's slave". This -ae ending is the genitive suffix (feminine singular in this instance). As you see in this example the genitive -ae directly translates to our modern English 's. Thus, one could argue that the 's is the English genitive ending. One could argue this, but one would be considered wrong.

Sure, once upon a time you'd be considered correct. Back then linguists called the 's a saxon genitive. This name harkens back to English's Germanic roots; however, the more savvy modern linguist has come to realize that the 's is not representative of a genitive case at all, but rather it has become a (prepare to giggle) clitic. Think of a clitic as the remora of linguistics, a functional parasitic word that cannot live on its own and must be combined with a host. A good example would be the l' in the French l'eau (the water). Anyway, here's a classic example of why the 's is considered clitic and not representative of a genitive case: "The king of Sparta's wife was called Helen." If 's was a genetive ending then Helen would be the wife of Sparta, however, obviously Helen is the wife of the king, thus the 's is not showing possession directly, but is instead functioning a bit more abstractly.

Regardless of our modern constructions of possession, the 's started off as a genitive ending. In Old English the genitive ending was -es, so the apostrophe in our 's once upon a time substituted for the missing e, much like how apostrophes signify missing letters in everyday contractions such as didn't and we'll (but not gn'fn'r because I can't figure our what letters the apostrophes are substituting).

Why the apostrophe came into use when showing possession is up for debate. In Christina Cavella and Robin A. Kernodle's paper How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe, they point out that some experts believe the apostrophe
is "a mere printer’s gimmick, doubtless born of the mistaken notion that the genitive ending was a contraction of his". An invention of mortals, the apostrophe has indeed been subject to human error. The –es genitive ending,
often spelled and pronounced –ies or –ys in early Middle English, was confused as early as the thirteenth century with his, the possessive of he, so that Shakespeare could later write ‘the count his gally’, and even expressions like ‘my sister her watch’ appeared (qtd. in Hook, 1999, pp. 44-45).
The unstressed pronunciation of the genitive –es seemed to have caused many speakers to believe they were saying his. This usage presumably caused pronunciation problems and gender confusion with a noun such as woman or girl, or a plural noun like winners, but nevertheless was quite common (Hook, 1975, p.160). The apostrophe became a sort of "compromise" to indicate either the missing –e in the genitive ending –es, or the hi of the mistaken possessive indicator his (Hook, 1999, p. 45).
Despite all this, in Modern English remnants of the genitive case live on in some of our pronouns: whose, my/mine, his/hers/its, our/ours, their/theirs.

Genitive Case [Wikipedia]

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:: posted by David, 8:15 AM


That was a very interesting post tho' clitic is a naughty, naughty word.
Blogger Loocite, at 9:57 AM  

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