The Role of Variation and Change in the Evolution of the Apostrophe as a Genitive Case Marker

Term Paper, 2014
19 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Development of English Orthography and Punctuation: Origins of the Apostrophe.

3. Determining the Status of the Apostrophe and its Transition Period

4. Factors Influencing the Evolution of the Apostrophe in the Genitive
4.1. The Role of Proper nouns ending in -a or -o
4.2. The Role of the his-genitive.
4.3. The Development into a Phrase Marker

5. The Apostrophe as a Genitive Marker in the Plural

6. Conclusion: The future of the genitive apostrophe?

7. References

1. Introduction

The use of the apostrophe, a diacritic sign, as a case marker is one of the peculiarities of present-day written English. To this day there hasn't been much research on the development of English's unique genitive marker. Previous work on the subject hasn't taken into account how the many parallel developments concerning the genitive contributed to the evolution of the apostrophe as a case marker1. Therefore aim of this paper is to show how variation and change in regard to the genitive, especially in the early modern English period, contributed to present-day genitive case marking.

Early modern English is the domain of focus firstly, because it constitutes an important transitional period in which much of the syntactic and morphological structures familiar to us today were being established (Baugh & Cable 2013: 152). Secondly, it is the period in which grammarians first took orthography under consideration and first attempts were made at a written standard. Orthographical developments are of importance to the apostrophe as it is only an element of writing and not of speech2. Therefore Chapter 2 will take a look at factors of consideration in the development of English orthography.

The greatest part of this paper will focus on the evolution of the apostrophe as a genitive marker in the singular, because it was first established in the singular and only later extended to the plural (Altenberg 1982: 53). Most of the factors contributing to the apostrophe’s evolution only apply to the singular. Chapter 5 is devoted to the extension of the apostrophe into the plural.

This paper will begin with a description of the apostrophe's origin and early functions in order to understand how it could acquire new functions. Then, the role of different factors influencing genitive marking will be examined.

2. The Development of English Orthography and Punctuation: Origins of the Apostrophe

For a better understanding of how the apostrophe could come into use and gain ground in the in the English language it is helpful to take a look at the development of the functions of English orthography and punctuation. This chapter will discuss the considerations of printers, writers and grammarians that resulted in the use of the apostrophe and attempt to classify the apostrophe within orthography/ punctuation will be made.

As mentioned earlier, not much consideration was paid to orthography or punctuation until the introduction of the printing press in 1476 (Salomon 1999: 23). The following three centuries then became the most important in the development of a standard form of orthography and punctuation (Salomon 1999: 53). In the 16th and 17th centuries the issue of whether spelling should be logographic (“signifying meaning without necessarily representing sound” (Salomon 1999: 16)) or phonetic occupied printers. The former can be seen as a function of the apostrophe today as it enables the reader to distinguish genitive singular, genitive plural and the common case plural, which became phonetically identical. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the rise of the apostrophe should fall in the time period when logographic spelling was discussed and applied.

The matter of punctuation first aroused theoretical interest in the latter half of the 16th century (Salomon 1999: 21). Fittingly, the apostrophe came into the English language with the use of roman type, which became current in England in the mid-16th century (Brosnahan 1961: 367). The apostrophe stems from Italian writers. It first appeared in post-medieval Latin writing (Sklar 1976: 176), possibly, it was first used in an edition of Petrarch’s Italian verse in 1501 (Cavella & Kernodle 2003: 1). It then came into English via French in the 1530s (Cavella & Kernodle 2003: 1; Salomon 1976: 40).

But can the apostrophe really be seen as an element of punctuation? Grammarians of the 16th century did. For example, John Hart, the first to discuss the use of the apostrophe in English in his 1551 manuscript “the opening of the unreasonable writing of our Inglish toung” addresses the apostrophe in his chapter on “pointing”, where he attributes it the functions of indicating omission (Salomon 1999: 22). This was the most likely the sole purpose of the apostrophe at his time, but today additional functions complicate the matter.

Sklar (1976: 175), on the other hand, defines punctuation as: refer[ing] to only those marks which represent pauses or changes in the intonation or pitch; that is, conventional symbols reflecting the prosodic features of spoken English.

In respect to this definition, the apostrophe cannot be regarded as a punctuation mark, because it usually doesn't symbolize any phonological representation and when it does, it does not lie in the domain of prosody, but stands for a phoneme, such as in <boss's> /bossiz/. This is not possible for a punctuation mark (Sklar 1976: 175).

However, Sklar's (1976: 175) definition only considers phonology, not other functions of orthography and punctuation. During the period from 1582- 1660 punctuation (if not by Sklar's (1976: 176) definition) was increasingly being used not for signifying prosody, but for the convenience of the reader:

Punctuation ceases to be regarded primarily as a guide to the spoken language, and becomes an aid to clarity in the printed word (Salomon 1999: 40).

The apostrophe is certainly not a typical punctuation mark, but to a considerable extent in time it has been classified as one. I have chosen to call it a diacritic case marker as Altenberg (1982: 42) does because Sklar’s (1976: 177) term “orthographic symbol” seems to general. The apostrophe is a good example of the eModE development to logographic orthography and reader-friendly punctuation.

3. Determining the Status of the Apostrophe and its Transition Period

As mentioned above, the apostrophe originally entered the English language as a sign of a letter suppressed in writing. But by at the end of the 17th century, it can, in many cases, be regarded as a genitive marker (Altenberg 1982: 53). It is quite difficult to put a date on this transition because it was a gradual process, and the use of the apostrophe varied greatly, even at the end of the 17th century and well into the 18th century, depending on the individual preference of the author or printer. Sklar (1976: 176) fittingly describes its usage as “anarchic” even in the 18th century.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that “it is very difficult to say when it is consciously applied as a case marker and when it is merely an indication of vowel elision” (Altenberg 1982: 53).

Contemporary grammars offer some insight to this problem, but they can’t be relied on because the information in grammars generally tends to lag behind actual language use (Salomon 1999: 48; Sklar 1976: 176). However, they help roughly date the development, as we can assume the apostrophe can be regarded as a genitive marker sometime before grammarians generally agreed to this.

The first to connect the apostrophe with the genitive morpheme was the Scottish grammarian Hume as early as 1617 which is exceptional for his time (Altenberg 1982: 55). Most grammarians, even at the end of the 17th century didn’t see the apostrophe for anything but a sign of elision (Sklar 1976: 176). John Ash held this view as late as 1763 when other grammarians generally accepted the apostrophe as genitive marker in the singular (Sklar 1976: 78f.). Joseph Priestly in 1761 was the first to state the function of the apostrophe as a genitive marker in the singular and plural in the form we know today: with an apostrophe and s in the singular and an apostrophe following the word in the plural (Sklar 1976: 179). But the apostrophe in the plural remained highly controversial until the mid-19th century (Sklar 1976: 179). We can conclude that by the early 17th century the apostrophe showed some signs of a genitive marker and that the process ended in the mid-19th century at the latest.


1 Brosnahan (1961) barely mentions the his-genitive and focuses on vowel-final nouns, Sklar (1976) and Cavella & Kernodle (2003) discuss the influence of the his-genitive, but their focus lies on present-day developments

2 Except in cases where it today indicated syllabic pronunciation as in fox’s

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The Role of Variation and Change in the Evolution of the Apostrophe as a Genitive Case Marker
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich 05: Department of English and Linguistics)
Grammatical Variation
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Case marking, apostrophe, genitive, his genitive, group genitive, phrasal genitive, s genitive
Quote paper
Sarah König (Author), 2014, The Role of Variation and Change in the Evolution of the Apostrophe as a Genitive Case Marker, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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