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BONUS VIDEO – History of the possessive apostrophe

David, Paige, and Jake cover the fascinating history of the possessive apostrophe. Stay tuned for this bonus video!

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Hello grammarians and historians and linguists and friends. David here along with Jake. - [Jake] Hey. - [David] And Paige. - [Paige] Hello. - [David] And I want to continue our discussion of the history of the apostrophe, in English, and what I'm having Jake draw for me right now is an old English King because what's... The story of the possessive apostrophe, in English, is really the story of old English. Like, how did we get this like Paige's and Jake's? How did we get that ending up as our possessive form, in English, with that apostrophe s. Because it didn't always used to be that way. It didn't always used to be apostrophe s. Oh, that's very nice, Jake. - [Jake] Well, I try. - [David] So, that's King Ethelred. So, okay, when we're talking about, you know, the possessive in English is very strange because it's this relic from history of these forms left over from old English. So, here's this table, this vastly simplified table. English used to have these things called case endings. And this is not a very, this is like a super-simplified version. These are all, what are called, the strong case endings. They were strong and weak case endings for each gender, and, in English, we have masculine, feminine, and neuter. But the important thing to remember, is that the singular form of the neuter and the masculine was es, and that just sounds like gobbledyook right now, I get it. So, let's take our king, which in old English would have been cyning, right, and so if we're gonna look this crown. Well, in old English, they would have just used the Latin, corona, so we're just gonna refer to this as a hat. So, if we want to talk about the king's hat, in old English, we would use the special possessive ending, the masculine possessive ending, right, because English had a million of these endings. There was one where if you were the subject of a sentence, you would use that ending. If you were the object of a sentence, you would use that ending. The Norman Invasion lopped all those off along with a bunch English heads, and now we have a much more simplified language for better or worse. If we're talking about the king, here, we can refer to this guy's hat as secyninges haet which might not be the most accurate, but, you know, Beowulf isn't around to correct me. So, if we're looking at this cyning, here, right, the possessive ending is this es. If, for example, we had, and I'm gonna draw a queen that's not gonna be as nice, Queen Pun Hilda. So the difference between... So, okay, so the old English word for queen was, perhaps unsurprisingly, cwen, and if we're gonna talk about the queen's hat, we would use this singular, strong, feminine genitive ending which is cwene, right, with an e. So, secwene haet, and that's where all of this started. Okay, so we have this really ludicrously complicated system. Even this table is simplified, right? Like I've left out half of it, but, ultimately, what it boils down to is secyninges haet, secwene haet. And as we move through history, what happens is the French invade, and they say, "Uh, this system is very complicated. "Let us get rid of it," and they do, and it basically leaves us with, by the time we get to middle English, the following. So, by the time we get to middle English, we have the kinges hatte, and we have the quenes hatte. And what's happened is this old English masculine and neuter genitive, this possessive form, has just become the norm for everything. Everything is now masculine-ized. For better or worse, that's like, everything has been simplified in that direction. That's part one. Okay, so hold that in your head. Okay. Then, so (laughs) that's middle English, And then, the printing press gets invented. Now, all of the sudden, people are writing texts in English all over the place, but nobody knows how to spell yet, right? So, we've got that possessive form, and then we have, what's called, the his possessive. So, at this point, we're in modern English, right, and so some bit of middle English and old English have fallen away. But so, for example, we're still looking at something like, "The kinges hat," but what we're starting to see in this one weird little period between like the late-16th and early-17th centuries. This brief fad for this thing, where people went, "the king "his hat." And, if you can imagine, like, post-Elizabethan era Londoner saying this, it kind of sounds the same, to my mind, "The kinges hat," "the king his hat," right, like you're losing... This 'h' is kind of swallowed. - [Jake] So, nobody knew how to spell because there was no way to spell. - [David] Right, like, Samuel Johnson had not yet written the first dictionary, and that's like 1720. - [Jake] Uh-huh. [David] I'm pretty sure. There were no standards, not because people were dumb or anything, certainly not. It's just that these standards didn't exist. Like, in the great scheme of history, there's stuff that we do now, you know, that 400 years from now people are gonna look back at us and be like, "Phh, you used words to communicate?" You know, like we have no idea. So, what starts to happen is this thing, the king his hat, becomes more and more common to the point where people just sort of understand it as a given, and it starts to get collapsed to save space. So, the king his hat becomes the king's hat, like so. And just this one weird, fad usage, which you could even argue is like a folk entomology, or something made up. It doesn't matter. It happened. It's attested in print, and this is how it was collapsed, and, what happened as a result of this usage, is the same thing happened to this. So, the kinges hat became the king's hat, and it was just well, frankly, because if you were talking about the queen's hat, in this his possessive context, it just... You'd either have to do the Queen her hat, which is fine, I suppose, or the Queen his hat, which doesn't make a ton of sense. - [Jake] And if you're wondering how there can be just this random change in sound in a language without anybody orchestrating it, think of a time where say something like, "I'm gonna go to the store." "I'm gonna..." What are you really saying there? It's a contraction of, I am going to. Nobody actually says, "I am going to go right now." They say, "I'm gonna go." So, words are always kind of mashing into each other. - [David] If you remember from an earlier video when Paige and I were discussing the principle of least effort, that's what Jake is getting at. Is, "the tongue is lazy." Don't feel bad, but "the tongue is lazy." Yeah, so what happened was, you know, this thing became... And pretty soon, everything became this way. So, because of this one strange little fad, what we call the Saxon possessive, this thing, the kinges, the cwenes, eventually just became king's and queen's, like so. - [Jake] How elegant. - [David] Thank you. Jake, Paige, does this square with how... I mean, this is how apostrophes are used in English, but Jake and Paige, you all were telling me about all the many ways that apostrophes are used in other languages around the world. - [Jake] Right, well I think, you know, punctuation marks are tools just like any other tools that human beings use. - [David] Uh-huh. - [Jake] And they can be used different ways in different languages. So, in Dutch, apostrophes are used to make plurals. - [David] What?!?! - [Jake] For words that end in a vowel. - [Jake] So. - [David] Okay. - [Jake] Photo in Dutch, is f-o-t-o, and if you want to have multiple photos, well, you have to throw in an apostrophe. You have to throw in an apostrophe before the s. No good reason why that's the case. That's just how they do it. Conversely, Dutch does not put an apostrophe for possession. So, if you wanted to say, Jan's book, you would just say J-a-n-s. - [David] Oh, so it kind of retains this genitive. It retains this possessive form. - [Jake] Right. Same thing with German. - [David] So how do we say, "Jan's book?" Jans book, like that? - [Jake] Uh-hum. - [David] Okay. - [Jake] Same thing with German. German is a little bit more conservative, and that it retains the es. So, "Das Buch" might mean the book, in German, and if you want to say, "Of the book," or if you want to say, "The book's," you'd say "Des Buches" with that es ending tagged onto "Buch". - [David] Oh, the same one as in old English. - [Jake] Right, so since English is kind of a cousin language to German. - [David] Uh-huh. - [Jake] You can see which way the ball fell on these two languages. - [David] Wow! That's super cool. Paige, any insights from Danish? - [Paige] Yeah, so from my limited, you know, expertise in Danish, people who speak Danish tend to abbreviate like all their words. Like, everything gets shortened all the time. - [David] Sure. - [Paige] So, the apostrophe is sometimes used in a similar way to how it is here to sort of show what's being shortened. - [David] Okay. - [Paige] So in Danish, to say something like, "Take me with you." - [David] Uh-huh. - [Paige] You would say, "tag mig med" - [David] Tag mig med - [Paige] So then, you can shorten that first word, in writing, by getting rid of the g and adding an apostrophe. - [David] Okay. - [Paige] This actually doesn't happen much. It kind of has limited use, but it's similar to how we use it for contractions in English. - [David] Sure. - [Paige] And like, how this possessive was formed. It's interesting that the possessive, the modern possessive in English, is just a form of contraction. - [David] Yeah. - [Paige] It's bizarre. - [David] Well, folks, thank you so much for joining me on this journey through the wacky history of the apostrophe, in English. - [Jake] Thanks for taking us. - [Paige] Yeah, it was fun. - [David] Anytime. And remember, folks, you can learn anything. David out. - [Paige] Paige out. - [Jake] Jake out.