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What Does "Saxon Genitive" Mean?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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Saxon genitive focuses on the English language symbol of the apostrophe and its origination. Since the apostrophe and an "s" generally represents ownership in English, researchers have long speculated about the particular linguistic conditions that led to the pair's widespread combined use. The Saxon genitive explanation holds that the 's form derives from Old English structure, which commonly used an "es" on the end of certain words. According to this explanation, printers eventually replaced the "e" with an apostrophe.

The grammar term genitive case indicates a relationship of modification between two nouns. These relationships may consist of descriptions or additional pieces of information like possession. In modern English, the apostrophe-"s" is used to indicate one object’s ownership over another object. For example, writing the phrase "the man’s car" tells the reader that the car belongs to the man. Apostrophes generally precede or follow the "s" letter.

Old English, however, used the apostrophe in a different manner. In the earliest written forms of English, words were divided into gender categories. The letters "es" were a common ending in masculine or gender-neutral words. Over time, the "e" was not sounded out in many of these words. In order to avoid confusion, printers began to substitute the "e" with an apostrophe symbol. They seemingly adopted this method from early French practices.

In order to transform a phrase to the Saxon genitive, an individual would therefore mark the possessive relationship between two nouns with an apostrophe and an "s." For example, in the phrase "day of sunlight," the latter portion of the phrase enhances and describes the first portion of the phrase, and thus can be considered a genitive. If the phrase is changed to "day's sunlight," then it could be considered a Saxon genitive because it uses the traditional Saxon genitive possessive form.

Other theories have also been proposed as an origin for modern English possessive forms. Some contend that an apostrophe actually was used to replace possessive pronouns such as "his" or "her." As such, instead of "the woman and her umbrella," the shortened phrase "the woman's umbrella' would have eventually come into popular use. Other languages also have different possessive rules, which can provide other alternatives to the Saxon genitive explanation.

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