The Possessive Contraction

June 2, 2008 | By | 10 Replies More

I just found out why we English speakers use apostrophe-ess ( ‘s ) to indicate the Saxon Genitive Case. “Huh?” I can hear you gasp. I’ve been using it for 40 years to indicate the possessions of an object by a subject. It just always was this way, like mountains or the alt-tab keyboard convention. But never did it occur to me to wonder why we write it this particular way.

Until today. I was reading some essays by a mollusk biologist, and he threw this tidbit in as an aside (with the supporting evidence): Up until well into the 17th century, an Englishman would have to say (for example), “Yoda, his force is strong.” By the 18th century, they were saying, “Yoda’s force is strong.”


We acknowledge the inherent sexism of the language whenever we say, “Sally’s cookies” rather than “Sally’r cookies”. But that’s beside the point: The point is “his”.


Category: Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Whimsy, Writing

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A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (10)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I had never before considered the origin of apostrophes. They serve as yet another illustration of the power of path dependence and a reminder of vast treasure buried in human languages.

    Two other types of the treasure buried in language: metaphors and etymologies.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    I (almost) hate to pick on you again, Dan, but this etymology sounds very fishy to me. In fact in the wikipedia article you linked to the construction "St. James his park" is given as an example of a "folk etymology" – a linguistic just-so story.

    II haven't researched it, but t's hard to believe that apostrophe-s evolved as a contraction of "his" in the "St. James his park" type of construction. For one thing, the S is right there in the "saxon" genitive: you can say "Jodas Macht ist stark" sans apostrophe in Modern German or Old Saxon. An example from old Englsh would be "sanctes Ēadmundes mæssedæġ" (St. Edmund's Day)

    I suspect the 's evolved when the Englsh articles (a, the ) lost their case endings and ambiguity arose as to whether a noun was plural or possessive.

    It's interesting that in souther dialects of German the genitive is almost never used, and you do get constructions like: "Dem Joda seine Macht" (dative+ possessive pronoun). I don't how it is related to the "St. James his park" tyoe of thing in archaic English though since Southern varieties of German apparently had little influence on English.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    I expected Vicki to jump in here; she's the one person whom I thought most likely to have looked into this before.

    If you read the wiki on the genitive case and on the possessive case you'll note that the etymology and etiology of this contraction are uncertain.

    But the fairly common use of the "his" construction earlier followed by its apparent universal replacement by the 's was enough to convince Gould, whose regularly published peeve is common knowledge that just ain't so.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    In which essay does Gould write about this? I find it hard to believe that the "his genitive" was ever the only way to express possession in any form of English.

    If 's is a contraction, more likely the apostrophe replaces the e in the genitive case noun ending -es.

    It seems unlikely that the /z/ sound in German "Mirandas Auto" and English "Miranda's Auto" would have completely different derivations,

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    Gould writes a one line aside in the essay "Thomas Burnet's Battleground of Time" using "as in Moses his Hexameron" as the example.

    Gould didn't imply that this was the only form of possession's expression. Just that it predated a fixed standard of genitive expression.

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    OK, so none of your sources make any claim that apostrophe 's is some kind of contraction for the archaic English "his genitive" and they all support my contention that the apostrophe represents the elided vowel in the "Saxon" genitive case of masculine and neuter gender nouns.

    So you have the archaic German construction:

    des Mannes Haus

    and as the stress in the phrase gets redistributed you get something like:

    [the] manniz house

    and finally the vowel is elided altogether.

    In the transition period before English orthography was regularized, you get the so-called "his genitive."

    In varieties of English where initial "h" is dropped "The mann his house" would have seemed a perfectly good way to represent the sound of "the manniz house". Or it might be an example of a hypercorrection, of the writer thinking that "manniz house" was a sloppy way of saying "mann his house."

    In any case the his-genitive was almost never used for feminine nouns, and most often used for nouns ending in "s", of which the possessive form has been something of a vexed question for English speakers. In speaking we don't add a second /z/ sound to possessive forms of plural nouns (farmers' market, the kids' toys) but we do to proper nouns ending in "s" (Jesus' robe)

    It's a good bet that Burnet pronounced "Moses his hexameron" almost the same way we do: "Mozessuzz hexameron"

    The idea that we say "Sally's cheese" instead of "Sally'r cheese" because of some kind of "inherent sexism in the language" is silly, since "Salleez cheese" has always been good English and good Friese. You could just as well (and just as sillily) claim that the orthographic convention of applying "'s" as the possessive for all nouns, regardless of their current or previous condition of gendertude, is a blow for gender-neutrality in English.

  7. Vicki Baker says:

    My first paragraph above should read:

    OK, so none of your sources make any claim that apostrophe ’s is some kind of contraction for a universal archaic English “his genitive.”

    The point being that the "his genitive' in early modern English was never anything more than a kind of eggcorn or else a hypercorrection.

  8. Dan Klarmann says:

    But why would English add an apostrophe, if not to indicate a contraction? The Germanic genitive is not contracted.

    Perhaps the "his" construct was creative spelling, as advocated by Ben Franklin and his lot, rather than an earlier convention, as I had cast it.

    You may notice that this post is categorized as whimsy.

    btw: I wondered why my cookies became your cheese ❓ till I heard you Friese 💡 Makes me think of Dutch ice cream.

  9. Vicki Baker says:

    The apostrophe is/was often used to indicate an elided vowel. You see this in Shakespearean era poetry a lot for the "e" in the past tense of regular verbs. You would write "open'd" to make sure no one would try to pronounce that second "e" and trip up the feet of your line. So mannes house or mannys house could become man's house to indicate the dropped vowel in the masculine/neuter genitive case. Then the apostrophe gets applied to proper nouns, which always had the s. I'm not sure how the loss of grammatical gender coincides with adding the " 's " from the masculine form of the genitive case to formerly feminine nouns. But it probably has more to do with phonology (losing the final vowel that characterized Indo-european feminine forms) than with any kind of linguistic sexism.

    So being "whimsical" means "I get to make stuff up" now? 🙂

    Personally, I think trying to uncover the truth about how language weirds is a lot more fun.

    It was the great philosophers Calvin & Hobbes who astutely noted that "verbing weirds language." But this is true, linguistics professor John Lawler adds, "only if you're expecting it to work in a simple way." The larger truth is that "Language Weirds."

  10. Gabriel says:

    I think no one know for sure where the 's comes from…for us, English speakers its natural cuz we been saying this our whole lives..but if we come to think its kinda weird, isnt it? when for example in latin languages like Portuguese (I know cuz my father is barzilian and I speak it) we use this construction: O nome do meu pai é Roberto, which, translated into English would be : The name of my father is Roberto. So I dont know..but I was redaing something bout old English and in the past they used to use O' to indicate that someone belonged to a certain family, for example O'Conner, which meant from the Connor's…but its clear for me that in this case the O' is the abbreviation of Of.

    But for sure theres an explanition for the 's..lets try to find it out.

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