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I've been listening to a podcast called 'The History of English'. In the latest episode it touches on the use of the possessive.

In Chaucerian English the possessive was written with an '-es-' suffix, e.g. 'The Milleres Tale'.

By the 17th century, printers were using what I believe is called the Saxon genitive, i.e. putting 's at the end of the word instead of 'es', e.g. 'The Miller's Tale'.

However, the podcast omits to say what would have been the case in the time of Shakespeare. Would it have been the same as Chaucerian English - 'The Milleres Tale', or 'The Millers Tale' or even 'The Tale of the Miller'?

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3 Answers 3

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The other answers have corrected my original answer by noting that Shakespeare didn't write the possessive with the apostrophe 's. However, the possessive used in Early Modern English was generally pronounced the way it is today, and modern editors have changed Shakespeare's spelling into an 's. There was a difference in pronunciation from modern-day usage, though. If a word ended with an "s" in an unaccented syllable, the possessive was pronounced the same way as the base word, and only an apostrophe was added.

Some examples from Shakespeare:

From Othello:

He'll be as full of quarrel and offence
As my young mistress' dog.

From The Merchant of Venice:

But stop my house's ears, I mean my casements.

From Henry VI, Part II:

For underneath an alehouse' paltry sign.

From Henry V:

Let us not hang like roping icicles
Upon our houses' thatch.

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    It's probably worth noting that, in the Shakespearean examples here, the addition of just ' or of 's -- as in "house's" in Merchant of Venice, versus "alehouse'" in Henry VI, may also have something to do with the meter -- removing the 's from "house's", or adding an s to "alehouse'", breaks the "da DA da DA" syllabic flow of the iambic pentameter. Feb 10, 2022 at 23:31
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi It is also worth noting that the 's was not used for the genitive in Shakespeare's time. The appearance of the 's here is the result of editors modernising Shakespeare's texts to match more recent orthographic conventions.
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 11, 2022 at 9:10
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    @Eiríkr Útlendi: Shakespeare did in fact take the meter into account when choosing between the pronunciations mistress' and mistress's. However, he used mistress' 33 times and mistress's twice, so it's clear which pronunciation he favored. And the statistics for highness' are quite similar.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 11, 2022 at 14:03
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The question is expressed in terms of orthography: how was the possessive written? But I think that a related question is also worth investigating: how was the possessive pronounced in the poetry from Chaucer to the Elizabethans?

Poetry often preserves old forms of pronunciation, so that a feature may linger on in verse when it has already disappeared from common speech. You may be familiar with the case in French, where the “mute e” is no longer pronounced in everyday language, but continues to be pronounced in verse and songs, so that “flamme” is pronounced [flam] but may become [flamə] in song. Something similar was going on with Chaucer and his contemporaries like Gower:

it is worth emphasizing here that in the colloquial language of the period, final unstressed e [ə] was dying fast; some speakers probably used it only in set expressions like atte laste, to bedde, in towne, etc. Chaucer, however, continued to use the obsolescent pronunciation of final [ə] as an important metrical device.

Helge Kökeritz (1978). A Guide to Chaucer's Pronunciation, pp. 10–11. University of Toronto Press.

This applies to the possessive too, so that although the older form [əz] was already on its way out when he was writing, Chaucer consistently uses it in his poetry. I’ll give six examples from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

And specially from every shires ende
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;
That swich a lewed mannes wit shal pace
That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1400). The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue. Wikisource.

Scan these lines and you’ll see that each requires the possessive ending on the word I’ve marked in bold to be pronounced [əz], as indicated by the spelling “-es”.

Unfortunately scansion ceases to be such a useful tool when when we come to the generation or two of poets following Chaucer and Gower, because iambic verse fell out of fashion, and poets such as Henry Lovelich (fl. 1450) and John Skelton (c. 1463–1529) used accentual verse instead, with a variable number of syllables per line, making it hard to deduce the pronunciation from the scansion. The evidence from Lovelich, writing in the mid-15th century, suggests that poets of this period could choose whether to pronounce the possessive ending as [əz] or [z]/[s] according to the needs of the line. I’ll give three examples from Lovelich’s Merlin:

that non Man scholde be born of wommans body,
and ʒe ben ordeygned for Mannes kende,
thanne sette he this Maydenis herte on fyre

Henry Lovelich (c. 1450). Merlin. In Ernst A. Kock, ed. (1904). Merlin, a Middle-English Metrical Version of a French Romance. Early English Text Society.

In the case of “wommans”, the rhythm and spelling go together to indicate that the pronunciation is [z]; in “Mannes” the rhythm and spelling go together to indicate [əz]; and in “Maydenis” the spelling suggests [əz] but the rhythm suggests [z] so the case is uncertain.

It’s not until Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, writing in the mid-16th century, that we find verse that scans regularly again, and Surrey nearly always requires [z]/[s] for possessives:

Of our mishaps, and Troyès last decay
Rich, and of fame, while Priams kingdom stood
Hidden behinde her targettes bosse they crept.
They sayd Lacons desertes had derely bought
Her prophetes lippes yet neuer of us leeued
When the kinges ship put fourth his mark of fire,
The right, and faith, my Hectors bloodless corps

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c. 1540). The Second Boke of Virgiles Aenæis. In Samuel Johnson, ed. The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper, volume II, pp. 338–345. London: J. Johnson etc.

In this work, the only word that needs the old pronunciation is “Troyès”, which the editor has marked with an accent.

Putting this together, between 1400 and 1540 the pronunciation of the possessive as [əz] gradually became too archaic for use by poets, but the paucity of regular verse in this period makes it hard to trace this process. Spelling took even longer to catch up: you can see that Surrey wrote “targettes”, “prophetes” and “kinges” even though he no longer pronounced the e.

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    Side note: I encountered Chaucer in high school after starting to study German. In English class, we found that The Miller's Tale, when read using modern English pronunciation, was very disjointed and made for terrible poetry. On a lark, I read some out using German pronunciation rules -- things like pronouncing the initial K or C in words like knight / cnight, and pronouncing the usually-silent E on the end of many words -- and suddenly, Chaucer's writing scanned correctly and had proper meter and rhythm. Feb 10, 2022 at 23:36
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi See this question and its answers for a look at how Chaucer's pronunciation was lost so that by the end of the 17th century, poets like Dryden doubted that Chaucer's poetry could ever have been scanned. Feb 11, 2022 at 11:06
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    Some people have speculated that iambic verse fell out of fashion after Gower and Chaucer precisely because the uncertainty of whether your readers would pronounce the final 'e's made it impossible to write verse that would be reliably read in iambic meter.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 11, 2022 at 14:06
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One way of expressing a possessive was the use of a genitive. However, this genitive was written without an apostrophe. In his book Early Modern English (Edinburgh University Press, 1997), Charles Barber pointed out (emphasis mine)

In PresE, we distinguish four forms by the spelling, even though only two forms are distinguished in pronunciation: $boy*, boy's, boys, boys'. This use of the apostrophe to mark the possessive is not a feature of eModE. Usually, both plural and possessive are spelt without an apostrophe. If an apostrophe is inserted, it is just as likely to be in a plural as in a possessive. The use of '-s as the spelling for the possessive singular is not common until the late seventeenth century.

(PresE refers to present-day English; eModE stands for Early Modern English.)

Below are a few examples:

He'l be as full of Quarrell, and offence
As my yong Mistris dogge.
(Othello, Act 2, scene 3; First Folio text)

But stop my houses eares, I meane my casements,
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, scene 5; First Folio text; same spelling in the 1600 Quarto)

For vnderneath an Ale-house paltry signe,
(Henry VI, Part 2, Act 5, scene 2; First Folio text; the 1594 Quarto said, "vnder a paltry Ale-house signe")

Let vs not hang like roping Isyckles
Vpon our Houses Thatch,
(Henry V, Act 3, scene 5; First Folio text)

Though yet of Hamlet our deere Brothers death
The memory be greene:
(Hamlet, Act 1, scene 2; First Folio text)

That comes in Triumph ouer Pompeyes blood?
(Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 1; First Folio text)

the Kings sonne Ferdinand
(The Tempest, Act 1, scene 2; First Folio text; many other instances of "the Kings ..." in the same scene, all without apostrophe)

Another way of expressing the possessive was the so-called possessive dative, i.e. a construction such as "Moses his Meekness". Manfred Görlach writes in his Introduction to Early Modern English, (Cambridge University Press, 1991; page 82),

The use of the possessive dative was unanimously condemned by grammarians, including Ben Jonson, who — while he saw in ti a useful means of distinguishing between singular and plural genitives — nevertheless preferred his own solution: princis (sg.) vs. princes (pl.). However, his is found in this plays (...); indeed, it even occurs in the title of Seianus His Fall.

Examples:

Once in a sea-fight 'gainst the Count his gallies,
I did some seruice
(Twelfth Night, Act 3, scene 3; First Folio)

(For hee's a Spirit of perswasion, onely
Professes to perswade) the King his sonne's aliue
(The Tempest, Act 2, scene 1; First Folio)

Of course, the preposition of could also be used. Examples:

Euen in the presence of the Crowned King
(Henry IV, Part 1, Act 3, scene 2; First Folio)

The Play's the thing,
Wherein Ile catch the Conscience of the King.
(Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2; First Folio).

(As can be seen from the examples above, discussions on the genitive in Shakespeare's time need to be based on original-spelling editions, not on the type of modernised texts used in the original version of one of the other answers.)

Sources:

  • Barber, Charles: Early Modern English. Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
  • Görlach, Manfred: Introduction to Early Modern English. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • The Norton Facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare. W. W. Norton, 1996.

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