The his genitive
was a linguistic phenomenon in the syntax
of the English language
. 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), 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 sixteenth and early seventeenth century. For example, in 1622, the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador in London "ran at tilt in the Prince his company with Lord Montjoy". 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
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. Prior to that period, authors mixed "his" genitives with -s genitives, but employing the "his" genitive as a replacement occurred in the seventeenth 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"). 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) 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. 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". 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".
The "his" genitive had a brief literary existence, whatever its prevalence in spoken English. Having only appeared around 1680, 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 an "his" had been contracted) had gone to all nominal genders, including nouns that previously had an unmarked genitive (such as "Lady" in "Lady Day"). This remains the general form for creating possessives in English.
Parallels in other Germanic languages
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. This use has spread to some varieties of colloquial German. By those who do not employ it, however, the construction is widely perceived as unaesthetic. Usage of the construction is commonly ridiculed or even scorned, especially as revealing lack of education, by those speakers. The construction is deliberately used as a pun in the titles of three very popular books on common German language mistakes, critically acclaimed for their humour, by German journalist and author Bastian Sick.
- In Dutch the construction is common in colloquial use: Jan z'n fiets, "Jan his bicycle" meaning Jan's bicycle; Anja d'r tas, "Anja her bag". Note that the possessive pronouns are represented as they are spoken, in their informal, unstressed form. In Flemish Dutch, the full form is common: Jan zijn fiets, Anja haar tas, and the standard form Jans fiets is not 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 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").
- 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 it is used with all genders and numbers: e.g. die vrouens se kinders "the women's children".
- In some Norwegian dialects, constructions like Ola sin katt ("Ola reflexive-possessive cat") are common. Though frowned upon by some purists, the construction has gradually become more common in the written standard languages, especially Nynorsk.