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Summary Details

Query:   Apostrophe Rules in Langs
Author:  Daniel Buncic
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Applied Linguistics
Language Documentation
Text/Corpus Linguistics

Summary:   On 5 April (sorry for the long delay!) I posted a question on the use of the apostrophe in various languages (cf. http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-935.html#2).

I received 30 answers from Miikka-Markus Alhonen (on Finnish and Swahili), Michael A. Covington (English, German), Peter T. Daniels (English, German), Yehuda N. Falk (Hebrew), Christine Haunz (on an experiment with English native speakers), Johannes Heinecke (Breton, Italian), Wolf Peter Klein (German), Mark A. Mandel (transcriptions and transliterations, Hawai'ian, Tahitian, English), Barbara Zurer Pearson (English), Marc Picard (English,
German), Lukas Pietsch (Turkish), Donald F. Reindl (Slovene), Charley Rowe (English, German), Nino Vessella (Swahili, Italian), R?my Viredaz (English, French, German), and Jeremy Whistle (French, Italian, Turkish).

My problem was the following: Usually it is assumed that the basic function of the apostrophe (in English, French, German, Italian, and a lot of other languages) is the marking of elision. In many languages, however, the apostrophe also marks boundaries where there is no omission; these cases are usually treated as 'exceptions'. My thesis is that in fact most cases that are commonly explained by omission can just as well be explained by the 'separative' function of marking (mostly morphological) boundaries, so that instead of two functions of the apostrophe we get one. There are some few instances left in which apostrophes occur in places where there is no boundary, but they are confined to 'transcriptions' of colloquial speech or poetically 'deformed' language and are not found in formal texts (see 3.below).

Consequently I have sorted the answers I received (with my personal additions concerning German, English, Ancient Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Dutch, IPA, and shorthand) by functions of the apostrophe:
1. boundary marker (exclusively)
2. marker of boundary and elision
3. elision marker (exclusively)
In addition to the two functions discussed above, there are three more functions:
4. abbreviation mark
5. diacritic
6. quasi-letter
In the following I will use the SAMPA conventions for phonemic transcriptions.

The first example are ENGLISH possessive forms, which are used predominantly with personal names, e.g. , . In possessive forms of nouns ending in an /s/, the apostrophe marks a zero morpheme, e.g. , . Because of the similarity of such forms to those mentioned before, there are many misspellings like (see below). -- Attempts to explain this use of the apostrophe as elision are abstruse: Either there is claimed to have been an , which is ''still'' pronounced (but not written!) in /-sIz/, or the possessive form is said to be derived from dialectal forms with a possessive pronoun, viz. . Nothing at all is missing in the possessive apostrophe of words ending in /s/ like . There has never been a sound after the /s/. However, there is a zero morpheme: 'Smith + plural + possessive'. In the pronunciation of mentioned above the apostrophe marks a place where there is not only nothing omitted but even something added, namely /I/. -- Note that possessives are marked with an apostrophe only if there is a morpheme boundary. Possessive pronouns, which do not contain a boundary, do not have an apostrophe (*, * etc.).
ENGLISH plurals of ''non-words or unlikely nouns or non-canonical words'' (Charley Rowe) like , , <5's and 10's>, often have an apostrophe. Peter T. Daniels comments on such forms: ''These are not normal according to contemporary stylebooks: the Chicago Manual of Style (the de facto American standard) uses 60s and _l_s (i.e., the l is italic, the s isn't). An apostrophe is inserted only in
desperate cases.''
In DUTCH, plural forms of words ending in a vowel are written with an apostrophe, e.g. 'cars'.
Historically, in ENGLISH, too, plural forms - especially of foreign words - were written with an apostrophe, e.g. in the 18th century , , , ,, (quoted from Elizabeth S. Sklar, ''The possessive apostrophe: The development and decline of a crooked mark'', College English 38.2, 1976, 175-183, 178).
Furthermore, in contemporary ENGLISH there is a widespread wrong use of such forms as (58,500 Google hits for this search term) or , where there is a morpheme boundary before the , and or (for ), where there is obviously felt to be a morpheme boundary, in analogy to the possessive marker mentioned above.
In GERMAN, the use of <'s> for genitive forms of names is usually viewed as incorrect, but the orthography reform of 1998 sanctioned the common usage (as a ''can'' rule, not a ''must''!) in such instances as 'Andrea's boutique'; the rules state correctly that as the genitive form of (female name) could be confused with the nominative form of (male name), but it is not clear whether the
apostrophe is allowed only in these cases of possible confusion or in general. In practice it is used with any ending and frowned upon by those who consider themselves educated. Of course the popularity of such forms is influenced by English, which gives them a certain 'cool value'.
(Charley Rowe claims that ''you certainly seem to find it more in Berlin, which is the apparent leader in English borrowing''.) However, in fact the genitive apostrophe is about as old in German as it is in English (attested since the 17th century). Wolf Peter Klein presumes that historically the genitive apostrophe developed from an apostrophe marking elision in instances like for 'God's truth', and that its function was re-interpreted as separating the stem from the ending, which gave rise to the plural apostrophe too, as in (nowadays only ) 'all the commas' (quoted from one of Schlegel's letters from 1804 in Gerhard Zimmermann, ''Der Genitivapostroph im Deutschen'', Muttersprache 44, 1983/84, 417-434, 424). -- The 1998 orthography reform also accepted the apostrophe in adjective forms like (alongside ) 'Ohm's law', where the suffix is felt to be related to , but it cannot be replaced, * does not exist (and would have to have an umlaut if it existed: *).
A morpheme boundary is also marked in the wrong usage of GERMAN imperatives which never had an /-e/ ending, e.g. instead of 'give!', where * has never existed in German. Of course, there is an analogy to forms where there _can_ be an /-e/ ending like alongside with 'go!' (the spelling of which as was correct until 1929 -
the 10th edition of the Duden orthographic dictionary). In this latter case there is indeed elision, but not in the former case . In both cases, however, there is a zero ending! -- Other instances of 'wrong' German apostrophes (called ''Dottikon'' after Sven B?ttcher's translation of Douglas Adams' and John Lloyd's _The deeper meaning of Liff_, _Der tiefere Sinn des Labenz_, M?nchen 1992, or ''Kapostroph'', as in Philip Oelwein's
''Kapostropheum'', http://www.kapostropheum.de/) are for 'small house' (which can be read as /''hOYS@n/ instead of /''hOYsC@n/) and for 'the fit sports studio' (where the foreign word is hard to recognize because of its ). Both examples are drawn from Daniel Fuchs, ''Die Apostroph-S-Hass-Seite'' ('The apostrophe-s hate page'), , and both mark morpheme boundaries.
R?my Viredaz gives a FRENCH (non-standard?) example of an exclusively separative apostrophe, the Senegalese surname or (besides ) ''to avoid the un-French initial group ''.
In TURKISH, flexives are separated by an apostrophe from the stem of proper names (both foreign and native, e.g. 'from Ankara'), while derivational suffixes are separated only in foreign proper names (e.g. 'inhabitant of Lille', but 'inhabitant of Bursa'). Problems arise with foreign proper names that are not felt to be foreign (i.e. that function as exonyms) like : or
'inhabitant of Paris'? (Thanks a lot to Lukas Pietsch, who gave me a German summary of Nemiye Alpay's article ''Dil Meseleri'' in _Radikal_ of 11 April 2002!)
Similarly, in FINNISH the apostrophe is used when a foreign proper name ''which ends in a written consonant but a pronounced vowel'' (Miikka-Markus Alhonen) is inflected, e.g. /bordo:s:A/ 'in Bordeaux', /versAis:A/ 'in Versailles' (but if is pronounced /versAj/, i.e. ending in a consonant /j/, oddly enough, the
inessive form has to be /versAjis:A/).
In RUSSIAN, foreign words are usually transcribed, but if they are left in their original Latin orthography, difficulties arise when Cyrillic morphemes (inflectional, derivational or compositional) have to be added to these words. The rule seems to be that derivatives ( 'of DOS (adj.)') and compounds ( 'IBM compatibility') are formed with a hyphen, while inflection is added with an apostrophe: 'of laptops (gen. pl.)'. [The second part of all these examples is to be
understood as originally written in Cyrillic letters, which had to be transcribed here; for a Cyrillic illustration see http://www.uni-koeln.de/~amd58/workshop/buncic.PDF]
In POLISH, inflected foreign words are written with an apostrophe if the inflection changes the pronunciation of the stem, e.g. 'of Harry (gen. sg.)', pronounced without the as /xarego/; but 'Harry (instr./loc. sg.)' pronounced /xarim/ with the .
In HEBREW, sporadically suffixes borrowed from Yiddish (e.g. the diminutive /le/) are preceded by an apostrophe, but this does not accord to the standard orthography.
In UKRAINIAN, the apostrophe marks a morpheme boundary before /j/, since the orthography otherwise does not differentiate between the combination [palatalized consonant + vowel] (appearing anywhere) and the combination [consonant + j + vowel] (appearing only at the morpheme boundary), e.g. 'to explain' (pronounced /zja.../, but cf. 'gills' pronounced /z'a.../), 'united', 'departure'
[cf. http://www.uni-koeln.de/~amd58/workshop/buncic.PDF].
In RUSSIAN, in the 1920s the apostrophe was used in the same way as in Ukrainian, e.g. 'departure'. Nowadays, the so-called 'hard sign' is used in this function (again).

In SEVERAL LANGUAGES, years can be named without the first two figures, and this can be indicated by an apostrophe, e.g. <'93> for <1993>.
In ENGLISH for , for , for ''of the clock'' etc. the apostrophe marks a morphological word boundary where two words have been phonologically melted into one at the expense of one or more phonemes, so that at the same time the apostrophe marks their elision.
Rarely the apostrophe also marks syllable boundaries: for ''(All) Hallow(s') E(v)en'', where only one of the three elisions is indicated by an apostrophe and where the form without the apostrophe is nowadays much more common, just as the pronunciation /-wi:n/ instead of /-wi:@n/; a syllable boundary is also indicated in for , where at least historically there is also morpheme boundary: 'my
In ITALIAN the apostrophe marks 'elision' at a boundary where the uncontracted forms are ungrammatical: 'the friend (female)' instead of *, 'the tree' instead of * or *, 'of all' instead of *, etc.
The same happens in FRENCH: 'the friend (male)' instead of *, 'this is' instead of *. In some words the apostrophe is now usually replaced by a hyphen, e.g. for older .
In SWAHILI for 'I have', for 'you (pl) have bought', where and are prefixes in the function of our personal pronouns.
For GERMAN apostrophe use, the standard example in the Duden is 'The water rushed, the water swelled', which shows that the sense would change if you did not put the apostrophe here ( is present tense, while for is past tense). So basically what is indicated here is a zero morpheme. The
imperative forms like instead of 'go!', where there is also an alternative form , have officially been outdated since 1929, but are still very popular (cf. 1. above for further German imperatives).
In FINNISH, the apostrophe indicates syllable boundaries when similar vowels become adjacent due to the elision of [k], e.g. 'scale' + 'genitive' becomes 'of a scale'. In old texts (e.g. the ''Kalevala'') this works with other consonants as well, e.g. 'from two places', where the original dialectal form was , but the modern standard form is . In ''poetic language and in songs'', the elision of word final vowels is also indicated by an apostrophe (e.g. samett' silkkipuku> for *). This occurs not only at the word boundary but also at morpheme boundaries inside compounds, e.g. 'every' + 'only' = 'every single'.
In ANCIENT GREEK, the apostrophe marked the elision of vowels at the word boundary, by way of which one of the words became a clitic, e.g. for * 'from me', for * 'but by him'.
In Early Modern ENGLISH, the apostrophe was used under the same conditions as in Ancient Greek: ''Christians d'obey th'officers and rulers, that b'appointed of God in th'Earth'' or ''writ th'articles plaine t'understand'' (John Hart, ''The opening of the unreasonable writing of our Inglish toung'', 1551, new edition 1951, 153, quoted in: Vivian Salmon, ''Orthography and punctuation'', in: The Cambridge history of the English
language, ed. Roger Lass, Cambridge 1999, vol. 3, 13-55, 22 f.).

ENGLISH contractions of /not/ have the apostrophe inside this morpheme: for (according to Peter T. Daniels written until the 19th century, e.g. in the 1865 edition of Lewis Carroll's _Alice in Wonderland_), for , for ; furthermore there are some rare singular cases, such as for .
Note that - in contrast to the possessive apostrophe - all these forms are _not_ used in formal texts but only for 'recording' colloquial speech.
A few GERMAN colloquial contractions have non-morphological apostrophes, too, e.g. <'n Abend!> for 'Good evening!'; this phrase cannot even be capitalized at the beginning of a sentence, so that the spelling has to be reformed anyway. Gallmann (_Graphische Elemente der geschriebenen Sprache_, T?bingen 1985, 267) proposes <'N Abend> - but why not put the apostrophe between the morphemes, which are pronounced as one word anyway - ?
ITALIAN non-standard post-vocalic or syllabic apocope: for 'give!', for 'do!', for 'stay!', , for 'a little'.
In SLOVENE the sound /i/ is often dropped in colloquial conversation, and this can be indicated in writing to convey the colloquiality; in many cases the apostrophe thus stands at the morpheme boundary: for 'of the other', for 'at the Mladinska Knjiga publishing house', for 'at one house'. However, in other cases the apostrophe is placed not at the morpheme boundary, e.g. <'mam> for 'I have', for 'been', for 'such'. All these forms are sometimes written without the apostrophe as well, and neither representation is sanctioned by official orthography.
In FRENCH ''pseudo-phonetic transcriptions of speech'' (Jeremy Whistle), the apostrophe is often at morpheme boundaries as well (as in for 'the other side' or for 'but after all'), but it need not be, e.g. for 'maybe', for 'small'.
Miikka-Markus Alhonen points out that the FINNISH apostrophe marking word-final vowel omission in poetic language (mentioned in 2. above) can appear before a pause as well, so that he does not find it very appropriate to speak of a _boundary_ here. Consequently, this use of the apostrophe would have to be classified in this chapter, too.

The GERMAN written forms for , for , for (all place names) and for 'direct object' (cf. Peter Gallmann, _Graphische Elemente der geschriebenen Sprache_, T?bingen 1985, 248) are pure abbreviations, since the words are exclusively pronounced in their full form (not as */''klaUt6n/!). These cases should not be confused with the
Berlin street name for , which is pronounced as /''ku:dam/, so that the apostrophe marks both elision and the morpheme boundary before .
HEBREW (something like ) for 'professor'. ''For an abbreviation based on more than one word, the double apostrophe is used, and it is placed between the last two letters. These letters may not come from different words. For example, The United States is called Arcot HaBrit in Hebrew; the abbreviation is '' (Yehuda N. Falk). Note that ''the position of the apostrophe does not necessarily mark the place of omission'',
as in the 'USA' example. -- This practice reminds me of Swedish abbreviations, which can have either a full stop (one dot) at the end or a colon (two dots) in the middle (e.g. for 'gross (weight)', for 'northern').

After ANCIENT GREEK letters an apostrophe means that the letters have to be read as number signs (alpha for '1', beta for '2', etc.).
Yehuda N. Falk adds: ''A similar use of the apostrophe in HEBREW is when letters are used as numbers. A single letter is followed by a single apostrophe, a sequence of letters representing a single number has the double apostrophe between the last two letters. This is not always done; when it is clear that letters are being used as numbers (e.g. in numbering lists or on a calendar) the apostrophes are usually omitted. -- A more
recent development is the use of the (single) apostrophe as a diacritic essentially equivalent to the hachek. For the sounds [tS], [dZ] and [Z], Modern Hebrew orthography uses .''
In CZECH and SLOVAK, the apostrophe is used to replace the ''hacek'' (or ''caron'') above some letters, which denotes the palatal pronunciation of consonants, namely for palatal /d'/ (where the upper-case letter is ), for palatal /t'/ (where the upper-case letter is ), and (in Slovak only) and for palatal /l'/; the ''hacek'' is not replaced in and for palatal /n'/.
In ITALIAN, the apostrophe is often used to replace the grave accent when words are written entirely in capitals, e.g. for .
In 19th-century FINNISH, the apostrophe was written at word boundaries after words that cause the first consonant of the following word to be lengthened, e.g. /vAstA: s:i:hen/ 'answer to it!', /kutsu?: ete:n/ 'invite [him] to the front!'. Although this is distinctive (cf. /vAstA: si:hen/ '[he] answers to it', /kutsu ete:n/ 'invitation to the front'), the apostrophe is not written any more nowadays.
In one of the orthographies of BRETON, is used as a grapheme for [x] or [h] (in contrast to for /S/, as in French), e.g. 'thanks a lot to you', 'the dog'. In another orthography, these forms are written , . Furthermore, there was a proposal (by Steve Hewitt in ''La Bretagne Lingusitique'', 1986?, reported by Johannes Heinecke) to contrast [x] and [h] by writing for [x] and for [h], but this has never been done in practice.
In SWAHILI, is used as a grapheme for /N/ (the last sound in ''sing''), in contrast to without the apostrophe for the phoneme combination /Ng/, e.g. (morphologically ng'o+mbe) 'cow', (nu+ng'u+ni+ko) 'moaning'; a minimal pair is /Ngambo/ 'a kind of tree' vs. /Nambo/ 'oversea'.
In phonetic TRANSCRIPTION of RUSSIAN and other Slavonic languages, the apostrophe also denotes the palatalization of consonants, e.g. for Cyrillic 'century, age' (transliterated ). This use is not official IPA (where palatalization is indicated by a superscript ), but accepted in the SAMPA adaptation of the IPA for e-mails etc.
In TRANSCRIPTION or TRANSLITERATION of QUECHUA and GEORGIAN (and many other languages, says Mark A. Mandel), the apostrophe indicates that the preceding consonant letter is a glottalic ejective. As symbol No. 401, the apostrophe is also used as a diacritic denoting 'ejective' in the INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ALPHABET.
In at least one system of SHORTHAND (the Russian one), the apostrophe is used to denote ordinal numbers, e.g. while <2> is read as _dva_ 'two', <2'> is read as _vtoroj_ 'second'.

In Arabic loanwords in TURKISH the apostrophe marks the glottal stop, e.g. 'valid, in force'.
Probably this use in Turkish is related to the use of the apostrophe in the TRANSLITERATION of ARABIC and HEBREW, where it also denotes the glottal stop, corresponding to the consonant letters 'alif and aleph respectively. I suppose that the apostrophe in Arabic transliteration is older than its use in Turkish roman orthography, which was introduced only in 1929. (As Mark A.
Mandel points out, the apostrophe is also used in this sense in the StarTrek language Klingon, but that is probably patterned on the Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew examples.)
In the TRANSLITERATION of RUSSIAN, BELARUSIAN, UKRAINIAN, and BULGARIAN, the apostrophe is used to represent the so-called 'soft sign', a letter of the Cyrillic alphabet basically indicating the palatalization of a preceding consonant or representing /j/. The 'hard sign' in Russian is transliterated either as a double apostrophe <''> or as a hyphen <->.
The apostrophe also denotes a glottal stop in the orthography of HAWAI'IAN (cf. the Hawai'ian name of the state itself ) and TAHITIAN.
The UKRAINIAN apostrophe described in 1. above, which indicates /j/, is also used in foreign words where there is no morpheme boundary, e.g. for /pjesa/ '(stage) play'. If one counts these cases, one has to classify the apostrophe as a quasi-letter representing /j/, or else one has to view

in the word as an orthographic pseudo-prefix.
Another function of the apostrophe, as Miikka-Markus Alhonen points out correctly, is its use as a single QUOTATION MARK. I am not sure whether the quotation marks are in any way related to the apostrophe or whether their graphical identity is just incidental. What is different in quotation marks is that they appear in pairs (and except in Finnish and on typewriters, opening and closing quotes usually look different, a feature they have in
common with parantheses), and quotation marks have many different forms in different languages (guillemets <<...>> and >>...<<, opening quotes at the bottom ,,...'' etc.), whereas the apostrophe looks more or less the same in all the languages I know. (In Hebrew it is mirrored because Hebrew is written from right to left.)

A very special case of apostrophe use, which I am not sure how to classify, has shown up in an experiment conducted by Christine Haunz. She examined the perception and reproduction of unfamiliar (in this case: Russian) consonant clusters by English native speakers (who do not have any knowledge of Slavonic languages). In one of her experiments the candidates had to transcribe an aural input, and many inserted vowel letters into the consonant clusters, just as in other experiments they pronounced the clusters with some kind of vowel (mostly shwa) when they had to repeat the input. Two of these clusters were word-initial /tv/ and /dv/, and one of the test candidates transcribed these as and , respectively. What does that mean? Did the test person hear some vowel between the consonants but did not know which, and did (s)he draw a parallel to forms like , which are sometimes pronounced with a shwa as well (i.e. [''Iz@nt])? Or did (s)he hear nothing between the consonants but knew that a consonant cluster like this cannot occur in English, so there must be ''something missing'' inbetween, or did (s)he just ''avoid'' this unfamiliar combination by separating the two letters with an apostrophe (cf. the French example
in 1. above)?

Please let me pay special thanks to all those who discussed this subject with me in long e-mail conversations (especially Miikka-Markus Alhonen, Peter T. Daniels, Johannes Heinecke, Wolf Peter Klein, Donald F. Reindl, Charley Rowe, and Nino Vessella). With counter-arguments against my thesis they have helped me refine my argument. Some of my weaker arguments, which have been refuted successfully, do not appear in this summary any more thanks to them.

For those who are interested: I will now go through all this material again and use it for a paper to be read in September at the Third International Workshop on Writing Systems ''From Letter to Sound'' in Cologne (cf. http://www.uni-koeln.de/~amd58/workshop/). The abstract is already online (http://www.uni-koeln.de/~amd58/workshop/buncic.PDF), and the whole paper will be published in the conference proceedings.

Daniel Buncic
Bonn University Seminar of Slavonic Philology
Lenn?str. 1, D-53113 Bonn
Phone: +49 228 73-7203
E-Mail: dbuncic@web.de
Homepage: http://www.uni-bonn.de/~dbuncic/

LL Issue: 13.1566
Date Posted: 31-May-2002
Original Query: Read original query


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