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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.

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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.