If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

BONUS VIDEO – History of the apostrophe

The apostrophe has a bizarre history, including being the name for something that's not really related to grammar at all. David, Paige, and special guest Jake explain.

Want to join the conversation?

  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Dj
    Can someone explain why so many of our words and punctuations come from Greek and Latin origins? Thanks.
    (17 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • mr pants pink style avatar for user subscribe to allboutthembass
      The English language that we use currently is not exactly an old language. For this reason we took a little from Latin a little from Greek a little from Arabic a little form Hebrew and many other languages but we changed it to fit our needs. one word that we took full on from Greek was democracy. first it was called demoskratos demos meaning people and kratos meaning free. this only one of the many words we have taken from other languages. hope i helped :)
      (18 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user UmaFaLeung
    Is it appropriate to use an apostrophe for the word "books" in this sentence: "The book's letters were blue"?
    (13 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • mr pink green style avatar for user Ayylien
    Are bonus videos important to watch? Or should i skip them?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      This depends on whether your purpose is to get more quickly to the end of the course or is to learn more. Of course you are free to skip the bonus videos, just like you're free to skip dessert so that you can get to the end of the meal faster. So, ask yourself, "What am I here for?" The answer to that question will help you decide whether or not to watch the bonus videos.
      (7 votes)
  • starky tree style avatar for user Kaya Little
    I got a question for ya,
    Since we are getting into origins, I couldn't help but wonder, why are things named the way they are? Like "tree", for example. Why was it decided for it to be called a "tree"? Was it just the product of all the languages meshing together? If so, why that word? Why not something closer to the German translation, "Baum"? Just been curious.
    have some food for thought.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Shiloh DeLoy
    Please let Jake do his very own video! I wanna see him alone but in action.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • stelly blue style avatar for user Astrellea
    I know my question is a little off topic but if you could answer it it'd be great.
    What is personification?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user cs05171
    what is aint?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • marcimus orange style avatar for user AnitaJoy
    What are Romance languages?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf blue style avatar for user RJV
    What is the difference between Latin and Germanic language structure?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • marcimus purple style avatar for user ghillie ꉕ
      Latin is part of the Indo-European family of languages which came from an unknown common root language; Proto Indo-European. Sanskrit, Latin, Celtic and Germanic languages are (among others)said to belong to the Indo-European family. Japanese however is not part of a large family of languages. Sadge, it doesn't really say the main differences though, hope this helped.
      (2 votes)
  • leaf blue style avatar for user RJV
    What are some similarities between Greek and Latin?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • hopper cool style avatar for user Iron Programming
      Greek and Latin were two of the most widespread languages in the world (besides others). While Latin is not exactly spoken as a language anywhere (some still do, but not commonly) I have heard that Greek is still spoken in Greece (among other languages like English & Italian).

      Most languages are created over time from other languages. For an example, the Roman languages are languages have been created from Latin. Probably the most popular Roman Language is Spanish.

      Anyway, English has both Latin & Greek Roots in it. I have studied the Latin & Greek (primarily Latin) roots of English, but I have not studied the languages themselves yet though I plan to study both once I finish my endeavors in Spanish.

      Here are a couple similarities / differences I just found:
      1) I have heard that the Greek vocabulary is much larger than Latins: this means that Latin has "weaker words", meaning one word could mean many different things (10+) which you would have to derive from context.
      2) Both have long & short vowels, meaning some vowels are unusually longer to pronounce. As far as I know no modern languages have many vowel difference (in terms of length).

      The best way to find out more differences is by studying/learning these languages, which I haven't really done yet (though I do plan too).

      Happy learning!
      - Convenient Colleague
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hello grammarians, historians, and linguists. David here with Paige. - [Voiceover] Hi. - [Voiceover] And Jake. - [Voiceover] Hey. - [Voiceover] And we're gonna talk about the history of the apostrophe. The apostrophe isn't just a punctuation mark. In fact, the word apostrophe comes to us from Greek, from two different compounds. "Apo," meaning "away," and "stroph," meaning "to turn." So it's a turning of strophe. We need to turn away. So it's a turning away. And in rhetoric, in classical rhetoric, when we talk about apostrophe, it's turning away from your actual audience to deliver a message to absent people or inanimate objects or just non-personified, you're trying to personify an inhuman concept. - [Voiceover] So before it was a punctuation mark, it was a literary technique. - [Voiceover] Yes, it was a turn, it was a figure of speech. You know, so if you think about examples from literature, this can be, the two things that my mind immediately leaps to, being me, are "O, happy dagger," the speech from the end of Romeo and Juliet in act five. Boom, sorry, y'all didn't see. I plunged the stylus into my breast. (giggles) "O, happy dagger, this is thy sheath." "There rust and let me die." Boom. So, like in that, like, you know, we're addressing the dagger. The dagger is not alive. It is a knife. It cannot respond. Or, on a lighter note perhaps, from H.M.S. Pinafore, there's a song, "Fair moon, to thee I sing, bright regent of the heavens." It's the moon. The moon can't talk back. It's the moon. And from this figure of speech, this is where we get the idea that an apostrophe represents something that is missing. That's how we come to get its main use, to represent that something, that it's standing in for absent letters, just like an apostrophe in rhetoric would be delivered to absent friends. Follow me over to the next screen. Let's do a little bit of history. So the apostrophe was introduced to the French language by an engraver and humanist named Geoffroy Tory, I think, is how you would say his name. That's a guess. And around the late 16th century, I think it's around the 1580s, Tory is the man who also introduced a lot of diacritic or accent marks into French. So, you know, instead of like, "aime" meaning "loved," it would be "aime" like that. And he's the person that used it originally in French to start representing eliminated letters. So if you have an expression like "la heure," meaning "the hour," Tory would have it "l'heure," like that. You know, and this apostrophe in there, boom, represents this missing vowel sound. So, okay, so it's around this time that this apostrophe starts making its way into English, because remember, England has been under French rule for centuries at this point. The French invaded in the 11th century. We're talking about the Norman Conquest of 1066. And since then, French culture has had a very profound impact on the island of Great Britain. You know, so everyone in a position of power speaks French or understands and reads French. So the nobility speaks and reads French. Anyone that's literate speaks and reads French. And so you're gonna be, you know, this intelligentsia is going to be coming into contact with a lot of French, see the apostrophe being used this way and say, "Oh, that's awfully convenient." And so it's around this time, around the early 17th century, late 16th century that we're starting to see this apostrophe usage in English. This is around the time when you first see the contraction of "I am," "I'm," show up, is around this period. Jake, does this square with how apostrophes are used in other languages too? - [Voiceover] Yeah, it's the same in pretty much all the Romance languages. So anything derived from Latin, you have in Latin these long definite articles like "ille," i l l e, or "illa," i l l a. And all the definite articles that come out of this in all the Romance languages take some fraction of the original from Latin and omit some part with an apostrophe. So "amico" in Italian, to add a definite article to make it "the friend," you can add just l apostrophe. "L'amico." - [Voiceover] Cool. So yeah, so during this time of apostrophe expansion across the continent, people are just going nuts, right? There's no standardization of usage for apostrophes. People are using it every which way, but loose, you know. So they're using it like this. They're using it for contractions. They're using it for multiples of stuff, like stuff that we would consider incorrect today. Like "book's," like that. Wah, that looks terrible to me. And crucially, they're using it for the possessive. So like, "Jake's." And the history of that usage is another story entirely. But this, for now, is the history of the introduction of the apostrophe into English. You can learn anything. David and company out.