His genitive

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Purchas his Pilgrimes, London, 1625

The his genitive is a means of forming a genitive construction by linking two nouns with a possessive pronoun such as "his" (e.g. "my friend his car" instead of "my friend's car"). This construction enjoyed only a brief heyday in English in the late 16th century and the 17th century, but is common in some of the dialects of a number of Germanic languages, and standard in Afrikaans.

In English[edit]

In Early Modern English, the orthographic practice developed of marking the genitive case by inserting the word "his" between the possessor noun, especially where it ended in -s, and the following possessed noun. The heyday of this construction, employed by John Lyly, Euphues His England (1580), the poem Willobie His Avisa (1594), in the travel accounts under the title Purchas His Pilgrimes (1602), Ben Jonson's Sejanus His Fall (1603) or John Donne's Ignatius His Conclave (1611), was the late 16th and early 17th century.[1] For example, in 1622, the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador in London "ran at tilt in the Prince his company with Lord Montjoy".[2] The term "his genitive" may refer either to marking genitives with "his" as a reflexive or intensifying marker or, much more precisely, the practice of using "his" instead of an -s. Therefore, use of the "his" genitive in writing occurred throughout later Middle English and early Modern English as an intensifier, but as a replacement marker only for a brief time.

Origins and history[edit]

In Old English, the genitive case was marked most often by an "-es" ending for masculine and neuter nouns. Around 1680, the "his" genitive began to disappear, in contrast to the "-s" genitive.[3] Prior to that period, authors mixed "his" genitives with -s genitives, but employing the "his" genitive as a replacement occurred in the 17th century. Essentially, this meant writing, or saying, "Ned his house" instead of "Neds house." As Curme puts it, "The s-genitive was doubtless felt by many as a contraction of the his-genitive, which strengthened the tendency to place an apostrophe before the genitive endings" (as an indication of an elided "his"[3]). However, the "his" genitive was expressly masculine and could not extend to nouns of neuter or feminine gender. Prior examples using "her" as a reflexive or intensifying genitive (for example, "Pallas her Glasse" from Sir Arthur Gorges's English translation of Francis Bacon's The Wisedome of the Ancients from the original Latin[4]) were likely analogous or persistence of an alternate genitive. Furthermore, impersonal and lifeless, though linguistically masculine, nouns were rarely expressed with the "his" genitive.

An Anglo-Saxon "his" genitive occurs occasionally, along with a "her" genitive and "their" genitive, but not as a widespread feature of syntax.[3] This "his" genitive is also present in other Germanic languages, while it died out quickly in Old English. Therefore, although there are analogous "his" genitives in Low German and other languages, the Old English "his" genitive is not the source of the early Modern English form. It is possible that the "his" genitive derived instead from unstressed forms of the Middle English "-es" genitive, as, according to Baugh, "the -es of the genitive, being unaccented, was frequently written and pronounced -is, -ys".[5] In other words, it was pronounced as "his" already, and "his" often lost its /h/ when unstressed in speech. Therefore, it is likely that people were already saying "his" after a masculine noun in later Middle English by hypercorrection, and the "his" genitive may therefore have been an orthographic anomaly. Samuel Johnson, among others, recognized that the apostrophe possessive was not due to the contraction of "his".[5]

The "his" genitive as a hypercorrection had a brief literary existence, whatever its prevalence in spoken English. Having only appeared around 1580, it was exceptionally rare by 1700. As printing became more widespread, and printed grammars informally standardized written English, the "-s" genitive (also known as the Saxon genitive) with an apostrophe (as if a "his" had been contracted) had gone to all nominal genders, including nouns that previously had an unmarked genitive (such as "Lady" in "Lady Day").[3] This remains the general form for creating possessives in English.

Parallels in other Germanic languages[edit]

Constructions parallel to the "his" genitive are found in other Germanic languages.

  • In dialects of German, equivalent constructions like dem Mann sein Haus ("the man-dative his house" instead of genitive case: das Haus des Mannes, or des Mannes Haus, which is archaic) are found. The construction is deliberately used as a pun in the title of Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod (lit. Dative is the genitive his death instead of Dative is genitive's death), a very popular[6] series of five books[7][8][9][10][11] of prescriptivist German language advice, critically acclaimed for their humour,[12] by German journalist and author Bastian Sick.
  • The modern Saxon language, commonly known as Low German, developed this form of Genitive as early as in the Middle Ages. Early stages included mixture forms of Genitive and his-construction: Des fischers sin hus (the fisherman's his house). Later development brought forth two kinds of Dative constructions existing alongside the proper Genitive: Deme fischer sin hus (the fisherman his house) and dat hus van deme fischer (the house of the fisherman) next to des fischers hus (the fisherman's house). Not every class and dialect used both forms with equal part. Some of the German speakers making the aforementioned mistakes might trace this back to the time when Low German (or, in some regions, Dutch) was the language of the lower classes, before High German was established as first language in all regions and classes.
  • In Dutch the construction is common in the spoken language, and dependent on the gender of the possessor (and in most Belgian Dutch dialects on the gender of the object as well). In the Netherlands, the possessive pronouns are represented as they are spoken, in their informal, unstressed form: Jan z'n fiets, "Jan his bicycle" meaning Jan's bicycle; Anja d'r tas, "Anja her bag". In Belgian Dutch, the full form is common: Jan zijn fiets, Anja haar tas, and the standard form Jans fiets is not commonly used in spoken language. Although discouraged in written Dutch, the construction has found its way into literature as early as the mid-19th century poetry of Piet Paaltjens[13] and in proverbs such as De een z'n dood is de ander z'n brood (lit. "One man's death is another man's bread", i.e. "One man's breath, another's death"/"One person's loss is another person's gain").[14]
  • In Afrikaans the construction die man se kinders ("the man's children") is standard. The possessive element se appears to derive from sy "his", but contrary to Dutch it is used with all genders and numbers: e.g. die vrouens se kinders "the women's children".[15]
  • Norwegian, especially colloquial such, uses reflexive possessive pronouns extensively. These are declined according to gender and number of the object (rather than that of the possessor), e.g. "Ola sin hund" ("Ola his dog"); "Per si(n) klokke" ("Per his clock"); "Hilde sitt hus" ("Hilde her house"); "Tina sine bøker" ("Tina her books"). In nynorsk one may also use "hans" and "hennar", e.g. "Klokka hans Per" ("The clock his Per"); "Huset hennar Hilde" ("The house her Hilde"); "Grauten hennar mor" ("The porridge her Mom").


  1. ^ Elizabeth S. Sklar, "The Possessive Apostrophe: The Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark" College English 38.2 (October 1976, pp. 175-183) p 176. Sklar notes, for a survey of genitive formation in the 16th century, Bastiaan den Breejen, The Genitive and its Of-Equivalent in the Latter Half of the Sixteenth Century (Amsterdam N.V. Paris) 1937.
  2. ^ Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. "Mountjoy Blount".
  3. ^ a b c d Curme, George O. (1931). Syntax. D.C. Heath. 
  4. ^ Allen, Cynthia L. (2002). "The Early English 'his Genitives' from a Germanic Perspective" (PDF). Proceedings of the 2002 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-02-21. Retrieved 2006-11-09. 
  5. ^ a b Baugh, Albert C. (1959). A History of the English Language. Routledge and Kegan Paul. 
  6. ^ More than 1.5 million copies of the first of the books were sold within two years after its first publication in 2004.[1] Four sequels were published afterwards.[2]
  7. ^ Sick, Bastian (2004). Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod. Ein Wegweiser durch den Irrgarten der deutschen Sprache (in German). Kiepenheuer und Witsch. ISBN 3-462-03448-0. 
  8. ^ Sick, Bastian (2005). Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod, Folge 2. Neues aus dem Irrgarten der deutschen Sprache (in German). Kiepenheuer und Witsch. ISBN 3-462-03606-8. 
  9. ^ Sick, Bastian (2006). Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod, Folge 3. Noch mehr aus dem Irrgarten der deutschen Sprache (in German). Kiepenheuer und Witsch. ISBN 3-462-03742-0. 
  10. ^ Sick, Bastian (2009). Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod, Folge 4. Das Allerneueste aus dem Irrgarten der deutschen Sprache (in German). Kiepenheuer und Witsch. ISBN 3-462-04164-9. 
  11. ^ Sick, Bastian (2013). Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod, Folge 5. (in German). Kiepenheuer und Witsch. ISBN 978-3-462-04495-9. 
  12. ^ Reviews of Sick's book, the title of which translates as "The Dative is the Genitive its Death", include "Sick's secret is his hilariousness" (Sicks Geheimnis ist seine Heiterkeit. Review of the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 20 November 2004 [3]) and "We do not mind being corrected by Bastian Sick since he has a sense of humour" (Von Herrn Sick lassen wir uns gern eines Besseren belehren, denn er hat Humor. Review of the German newspaper Stuttgarter Nachrichten on 17 November 2004).[4]
  13. ^ Paaltjens, Piet (1867). Snikken en grimlachjes: poëzie uit den studententijd (in Dutch). Querido. ISBN 90-214-9765-4. 
  14. ^ Stoett, F.A. (1953). Nederlandse spreekwoorden en gezegden (in Dutch). Thieme. 
  15. ^ Allant, Jaco (2004). Parlons afrikaans (in French). L'Harmattan. ISBN 2-7475-7636-1.