genitive

There are many ungenerous souls who are convinced that the English language is degenerating, that it bears less and less of the marks of its original genius, and they indignantly point out all the aberrations and illogicalities and assorted other illiteracies they discern, and generally behave like obnoxious [genitals]. About them all one thing is dead certain: they have not studied the history of the English language. They have no real idea how the words they use now got to be the way they are.

Exhibit A in this case is one of the most bedeviling things in the historical development of English: the genitive. Old English, like modern German and a number of other languages, had four cases, which are typically called (after their Latin general equivalents) nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. All nouns changed form according to these (and according to number – singular or plural). In modern English, pronouns change according to nominative (subject) and accusative (object), but other nouns do not, and dative (indirect object) is indicated by position or with the preposition to. But the genitive has survived… in a spuriously altered way, and with the dreadfully misleading name possessive.

The Old English genitive singular inflection, for most but not all nouns, ended in s or es: for instance, hund “dog” had hundes and cild “child” had cildes. Some nouns had other endings – oxa “ox” had oxan, and lufu “love” had lufes. For the genitive plural, it was an a version pretty much across the board: hunda, cildra, oxena, lufa.

Now tell me what you don’t see in those words.

An apostrophe.

Over time, the full set of inflections in English got simplified considerably, thanks in large part to contact with other languages and their speakers. The genitive came to be s everywhere, ultimately even on plurals. And somewhere in the Renaissance, some guys got the idea that the s on genitives was short for his: they figured that Johns feet was really John his feet contracted. (That kind of his-genitive was an occasional usage in Old English but was not the source of the suffix.)

Never mind that that doesn’t make sense for anything other than his; since then, all genitives in English (except the pronouns) have that apostrophe, which serves two purposes: a) to distinguish genitives from non-genitive plurals on paper (but not in speech, as it’s inaudible); b) to get a certain set of people riled up because another set of people can’t always manage to get the placement of those apostrophes straight – because they’re inaudible and a frankly inorganic imposition.

And this idea that it comes from a mark of possession also played into the habit of calling all genitives (and not just those indicating actual possession) possessives. Now, that’s a nice English word, so why not use it in place of that fussy Latin genitive, eh? (Aside from the fact that possessive comes from Latin too, of course.) I mean, what does genitive mean anyway? It does sound uncomfortably close to genitals. But there’s a reason for that.

The reason is that they have the same root, of course, as do generation and a number of other words (including genius, and even cognate has a common source – co-gn-ate – and is unrelated to cognition). The genitive case was named for the tendency of words in it to be the source or possessor of those they modify. But this is a tendency, and the name was applied post facto.

Cases are like prepositions: they can indicate quite a wide variety of things. The genitive case in English, even now, indicates not only possession but also, according to instance, agency (your editing of the book), source (dog’s breath), intended recipient (women’s shoes), honouree (Veterans’ Day), duration (a day’s work), thing or person affected (wolf’s bane), personal relationship (my enemy), and assorted similar others.

These are not possession: you do not possess your editing work once you have done it and sent it to a client, the dog does not possess its breath once it has breathed it, women’s shoes are women’s shoes even if they sit unsold in a store owned by a man, veterans do not possess the day that honours them, nor does a day possess the work done in it, wolves do not possess the herb that is purportedly their bane, and I do not have any title of ownership or other personal retention of my enemy.

Most of these forms can be rephrased with of phrases, and many of phrases can be rephrased with genitives. That tends to add to the confusion, especially when the of phrase goes the other way: two weeks’ notice (a notice quantified by two weeks) is also said as two weeks of notice. And the ending has become, in Modern English, not a suffix, really, but an enclitic – a particle that attaches to a word or even a whole phrase. Consider the Queen of England’s preference for tea and that guy you met at the café’s phone number. (The ambiguity this creates naturally increases the fun potential of English, the depth of the furrows in the brows of picklepusses, and the incomes of editors.)

Where it really gets interesting is cases where the genitive form has survived in old words. The genitive used to be used in even more ways than it is now; for one thing, back when it was apostrophe-free, it could be used without a following noun to indicate “of” or “by” or “at” the thing in the genitive. It could be used as a family name to indicate where a person lived – those who lived by the river might be called Rivers, and those who lived by the field might be called Fields. It could be used adverbially, too. If you worked at nighttime, you worked – and still work – nights. (Yes, that’s not a plural s, it’s a genitive s.) If you do something one time, you do it once (also an old genitive form, like twice and thrice). Some genitive forms even survive that don’t have the s on: in ten-foot pole, the foot is originally a genitive specifying ten (which, like numbers generally in English, is a kind of noun, not – as many mistakenly think – an adjective).

And if you’re adding something beside something else, you said – and say – besides, and if you did something by a side way, it was – and is – sideways, and something done of or by any way was – and is – anyways.

And there’s your proof that so many of those grammar gripers haven’t studied the history of the English language. How many people have you heard complain that anyways is an idiocy, an illogicality, an illiteratism, et cetera, because obviously it’s any way like it’s any thing? Well, it’s not. Obviously. And if someone starts in on you on something like that, you can sock it to them in the genitive.

6 responses to “genitive

  1. A coworker of mine pointed out a great stranded genitive (I don’t know if that’s a real term, but I’m using it anyway) from Arrested Development: “Sounds like someone who you think’s name is Tio is about to get his ass kicked.” Not only does it contain some beautiful syntax, but I love that whose gets split into who and enclitic ‘s.

  2. Nice article, I like that!

  3. Enclitic, huh?
    Talk aboutcher genitals…

  4. Dang it; pressed Enter before I clicked the “Notify” box.

  5. One thing I forgot to add earlier: It’s my understanding that the apostrophe came first (to show syncope of the vowel in the original -es ending), followed by the faulty reanalysis of the genitive s as a contraction of his.

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