Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Apostrophic Memorials

Sluggo lightly chided me this morning in the Alpha Agora for omitting mention of the spelling Hallowe’en for today’s Good Word, Halloween. I didn’t think it an important issue but then it occurred to me that the terrible spelling system of English does use apostrophes as memorials to language change.

Oh, boy! We aren't pumpkin pies!Halloween, of course, comes from “hallowed even”, even the original noun lurking in evening. The appostrophe was a little memorial that we kept for a while to remind us of the V that once stood there but now has vanished. So far as I know, the fact that Vs, Ws, and Us often become one another and fact that the name of W is represents the sound [w] but is named “double U” is coincidental. However, in Old English V represented both [u] and [v] sounds—which is why a letter made up of two Vs is named “Double U”. The point is that it comes as no surprise that a V would be lost between vowels; it probably became a very weak W along the way but before the apostrophe dropped out, we had a little reminder that it was there.

We see the same reminder in all contractions: could’ve, I’ll, I’d’ve. The apostrophes in these words are like little flags saluting lost sounds of various sorts as unaccented “function” words are honed down to what they will eventually become: suffixes. Right now the full forms are still available and used for emphasis, the difference between “I WOULD HAVE” and “I’d’ve”.

These reductions result not so much from rapid speech, as is often claimed, as from lack of accent. English places one full accent on Noun, Adjective, Adverb, and Verb stems. Function words like auxiliary verbs, prepositions, particles, even pronouns generally are unaccented and tend to fade from hearing and view. One of my favorite function words is the pronoun you, often spelled ya [yuh] or just [y], as in y’all.

I find these reduced words interesting, especially my favorite, y’all which, I am convinced, is already a pronoun in many parts of the South. Here the singular pronoun you has been reduced to its initial consonant and attached to all, itself reduced to unaccented status. Y’all might as well be written yall since its status is exacly that of you in many dialects.

Yall will become officially a pronoun when some venturesome journalist begins using it because they feel at home with it. It won’t sound any worse than “less doughnuts”, “between Fred and I”, or “I’m going, too, aren’t I?” Others, less venturesome but just as comfortable with the pronoun will join in, as they did with these others and, after a few months outraged but futile opposition by the language mavens on the blogs, will pass unnoticed into the vocabulary, leaving you and all behind to fend for themselves.

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