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Historical forms of the possessive

Q From Kim Thornton: I was reading a novel the other day (The Great Roxhythe, by Georgette Heyer), set in the 17th century and written apparently in the style of that time. I was struck by the lack of contractions in the dialogue. For instance, a character might say ‘I am the King his servant’ instead of ‘I am the King’s servant’ or ‘It is the Queen her diary’ and so on. Was this strictly formal court use or common speech for the time, and if common, when did contractions begin to be used?

A That work was an early one, published in 1922; unlike her Regency novels, where her vocabulary is spot on, Georgette Heyer’s attempts to portray the language of this earlier period were less than successful. Certainly, in her attempt to set a period flavour, her use of his and her for the possessive is rather overdone. But that needs some explanation, because the story of the possessive in English is more than a little complicated.

Back before the Norman Conquest, most English nouns marked the possessive form by changing the ending (modern German, to take just one example among many, does exactly the same thing). We’ve lost nearly all of these endings in modern English, the only survivor being s for the plural. The standard singular possessive ending in Old English was also usually s or es (hundes, of the hound).

But there was sometimes a problem with adding the ending to nouns that weren’t of English origin, or to names, or to words that had a final s on them already. In such cases, writers occasionally used possessive pronouns instead: “The Nile her source”, “Enac his kindred”. The earliest examples are from King Alfred’s translation of Orosius’s history of the world, dated to the late ninth century.

Centuries later the possessive using his and its relatives came to be used more and more even when a perfectly good possessive ending was available. The his form became especially popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so much so that people began to think that the final s in the old possessive ending was actually an abbreviation of his, and so started to spell it with an apostrophe, as we still do. For example, the OED has this example from 1555: “Before I should make the king’s majesty privy unto it”. This was a much smaller step than you might think, since the unstressed pronunciations of the two forms are not that different — “Tom his book” said quickly is close to “Tom’s book”, especially as the initial h of his was often missing in normal speech anyway.

One characteristic of the his/her/their form of the possessive was that it appeared when people were being especially formal, so you found phrases like “for Jesus Christ his sake”. Sometimes you got mixed usages, like “in the Queen her Majesty’s name”, which is from 1574. What was especially odd was that people occasionally used his even when her would have been right, because the influence of the final s on his was just too strong to resist. There’s an example from 1607 in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Mrs. Sands his maid”, meaning “Mrs Sands’ maid”.

So, to finally get back to your point, the possessive form with a final s was common right from Old English times onwards. The only substantial change was that in later centuries the apostrophe crept in. The form using the possessive pronouns mainly appeared when people were being formal or when nouns resisted having a final s attached. So Ms Heyer was over-simplifying if she only ever used the possessive form with his or her.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Jun. 2001

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Last modified: 2 June 2001.