If apostrophe + s is the acceptable way of denoting a genitive in English, is it possible that possessive pronouns, such as hers, ours and yours, started life as possessive adjectives with apostrophe + s?

E.g. her's, our's, your's, their's? Perhaps, even his' ? Its and my obviously stick out from this tempting pattern.

Is there any evidence that this might be the case, or is the 's completely unrelated?

  • Sorry, about the 's — was slightly confused by that. Will comment before editing next time :) – Jimi Oke Jan 21 '11 at 12:44
  • @jimi - no problem. Thanks for neatening it up - much easier to read now, and I see how the formatting works :) – gpr Jan 21 '11 at 12:49

The possessive 's comes from the masculine genitive case ending on -es in Old English. This means that you could say "of [the] man" by simply sticking -es after "man". The genitive case was often used to indicate the possessor of something. In German, the genitive case is still used, and it ends on -(e)s for masculine and neuter singular words: the man = der Mann; the man's house = des Mannes Haus. As you see, the genitive is also used with articles.

The s in which most possessive pronouns end comes from the same genitive ending, either directly or indirectly by analogy. The genitives his, whos and yours (plural) already existed in Middle English.1 It is conceivable that modern hers, for example, which was something like her in Middle English, was formed by analogy with the possessive pronoun his, or by simply attaching the possessive s to it, if that already functioned as a productive suffix. Note that the apostrophe is of later date than the possessive s: the possessive of summer was simply summers in the time of Shakespeare.2

  • very interesting - so is the apostrophe there for the lost e from -es? – gpr Jan 21 '11 at 12:42
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    @gpr: Sort of. But in fact the -e- was not always there; indeed the -s. wasn't always there either: different classes of words had different sets of endings in Old English, just as in other languages like Latin and German. The "-s"/"-es" spread by analogy in Middle English to all nouns, singular and plural. The apostrophe may have been used to represent the '-e-' (which, remember, we still pronounce in some cases, eg "Max's"), but I think it is more likely that it was introduced as an arbitrary graphical device to distinguish possessives. Certainly the rule for plurals is arbitrary. – Colin Fine Jan 21 '11 at 12:57
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    (Ran out of characters in the previous comment) I mean that the s' as opposed to 's has no basis in history or phonetics, and seems to have been adopted quite arbitrarily. – Colin Fine Jan 21 '11 at 12:57

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