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Pentimento: the Saxon Genitive

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spent part of spring break serendipitously immersed in language. We were on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (the “Rich Coast,” as Puerto Rico is the “Rich Port,” neither of which description seems apt these days), among a group of international visitors. I resuscitated my flagging Spanish, interpreted for language-challenged French and German tourists, and tried out my toddler-level Italian with several restaurant proprietors who had relocated from Sicily. I’m not gifted at languages, but I enjoyed the challenge of switching among pollo (po-yo), pollo (poll-oh), poulet, and hähnchen. In such situations, conversation naturally turns to language differences, and here I was stumped by questions over the genitive.

Why, my fellow tourists wanted to know, does English use an apostrophe and s to show possession? It’s not simpler than other options, and plenty of cases sow confusion. Is it John and Mary’s children? Or John’s and Mary’s children? If the former is preferred, as I insisted it was, what of the sentence I went there with John and Mary’s children? How were they to tell whether John was the father or simply part of the group?

In that case, I averred, you could always say the children of John and Mary. Well, then, why not do that all the time? Why not avoid the nagging question of how to form the possessive of a singular word ending in s, or the fingernails-on-chalkboard dissonance of the friend I helped’s problem? If the plural of attorney general is attorneys general, how does one form the possessive?

English, we all agreed, had more than its fair share of madness in its constructions, and they — its learners — had my deepest sympathy.

Then I came home and looked up the formation of the possessive in English. As I had suspected, though I didn’t share my hunch with my new friends, the ’s, or Saxon genitive, is not just a peculiar use of punctuation, but a contraction of sorts. Once upon a time, around the time we still had gender for ordinary nouns, we marked the genitive case for masculine and neuter nouns with –es, much as German today  simply tacks on –s. We’ve lost both gender and the case system, for the most part. What we call the possessive is not really a genitive because, rather than inflecting the noun, it pertains to the whole phrase, e.g., the King of Prussia’s niece. Still, the genitive lingers in the elided –es indicated by ’s.

I suspect — though others reading this may know better — that this process is one reason we’re not completely clear as to whether John is a friend of Susie or John is a friend of Susie’s. Both ’s and the preposition of mark what used to be genitive case. If it’s true that our language inclines us to use the so-called Saxon genitive, we might feel uncomfortable leaving it off, even when we insert the preposition.

Does this development account for the ubiquity of apostrophe errors, especially when it comes to distinguishing among plural, possessive and s-ending singular forms? I’m not the only one who grits my teeth every time I pass the home of Judy and Bill Masters, who hang a shingle by their walk proclaiming The Master’s. I’d like to untangle the strands of language history that lead to such gaffes. I have no doubt that the transition between a true genitive and what we now call the possessive, with its altered position in the sentence and so on, is responsible for the rampant insertion of the apostrophe in your’s, our’s, and their’s.

Clearly, I’m no expert. But discovering this tidbit of language history feels to me like pentimento, the discovery of the picture underlying the picture that we ordinarily see. Once you glimpse the shadowy outlines that remain, the picture on the surface looks different to you thereafter, changed in ways that some might call misleading, but that enriches your view—a whale rising from the sea, a face behind the old guitarist, a genitive behind the possessive.

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