Tuesday, 1 April 2008

I blame the apostrophe

James Kilpatrick, linguistic socialist, writes that The English language, as every pessimist will tell you, has been going to the bow-wows for 500 years.

Only 500? That places the beginning of the rot at 1508. What's so special about this year? Why not the late 1500s, which saw the first occurrence of that error of unsurpassable grossness, between you and I? What about 1200, when we borrowed the Viking they, which serves no useful purpose, to replace the clearer and more logical hie? Why not the most popular choice, the 1960s?

It should be obvious: the apostrophe was introduced into English in the early 1500s.

The apostrophe is a mess: it was first used for elided letters, then for noun plurals, then to mark the genitive of nouns. Today it's used for all of these - people still use it for noun plurals, the plurals of abbreviations (VIP's), and for decades (1980's), despite all our attempts to make them stop. Its former widespread use as a plural marker is an embarrassment we'd like to forget about.

It's used for the genitive of nouns (the boy's dog, the dog is the boy's) but not the genitive of pronouns (the dog is ours, the end of its usefulness)! Total chaos.

It causes confusion everywhere. Take panda's. Is the apostrophe standing in for the elided letters (panda is or panda has), or it is marking the genitive (of the panda)? Who knows? Needless to say, all this orthographical confusion can only lead to unclear thinking, causing confusion in our minds between things belonging to pandas and verb aspects relating to pandas.

While some people like to pretend that you can't manage without apostrophes, or that without punctuation we have nothing, we were better off without the apostrophe. (As the Oxford Companion to the English Language says: "it appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.")

6 comments :

Z. D. Smith said...

The funniest morsel of this sadly too-familiar story is that it almost scarcely demands mention that Kilpatrick's initial salvo in that tepid rant is, of course wrong—id est,

To burglarize! The bastard verb came out of nowhere about 1871. It served no useful purpose not already served by the derivative forms of "burglar," a fine old 16th-century noun. In those simpler days, a burglar was one who burgled, i.e., one who broke into another's dwelling at nighttime with the intent to commit a felony.

That's not true. A cursory look at the Oxford English or American tells us,

burgle, v. orig. colloq. or humorous.

[Etymology: A back-formation from burglar n., of very recent appearance, though English law-Latin (1354) had a verb burgulāre of same meaning.]


His stout yeoman Anglo-Saxon word, devoid of all that fancy French puffery, is a fanciful back-formation. Something tells me Mr. Kilpatrick, when he's not writing uninspired linguistic gripes for major newspapers, enjoys forwarding emails about cats and dogs living on roofs in the middle ages.

goofy said...

That's funny! I didn't even think to check his claim about "burglar" and "burgle". Thanks.

Stuart Douglas said...

"What about 1200, when we borrowed the Viking they, which serves no useful purpose, to replace the clearer and more logical hie?"

I'm confused (none too rare an occurence) - why does 'they' serve no purpose and why is 'hie' (meaning the same thing?) more logical?

goofy said...

It means I have to work on my parody skills...

Jon Boy said...

At least I got a kick out of it.

Also, I was quite surprised to learn that burgle and burglarize arose about the same time—the OED's earliest citations for each are a year apart. I assumed that burglarize was older and that burgle was newer.

Kalleh said...

Ah, goofy, after reading the apostrophe article by Kilpatrick, now I see your point about him. I still like Safire, though.