What is a Saxon Genitive?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Stoggler, Apr 22, 2013.

  1. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    In another discussion, there is reference to the Saxon genitive - I'm assuming it is the standard possessive 's or s' in English.

    But why "Saxon" genitive? Is this correct? Whenever I see the word Saxon, I think of Saxony in Germany (or the varieties of language spoken there, either today or in the past). Is this a standard term for this form of possessive in English? (as a keen enthusiast of Anglo-Saxon English history and of the Old English language, I cannot abide the use of "Saxon" so willy-nilly!).
     
  2. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    The Saxons were an invading tribe that came from North Germany (Saxony) to England from about the 5th century. They brought with them their language, also called Saxon, whose genitive was formed by adding 's' to nouns. "The Saxon 's'/genitive" is a commonly used term.
     
  3. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    I guess you didn't read the bit about me being very interested in Anglo-Saxon English history then... :)

    The Saxons were not the only people who invaded (what was to become) England, and that period of history is generally called Anglo-Saxon; to refer to that period as simply Saxon is incorrect as there was a contemporary polity on the continent called Saxony and the word Saxon refers to the various incarnations of that area.

    And Saxons may well have called their varieties Saxon, but what did the Angles call their languages? Or the Jutes? Or the Frisians? Or anyone else who came along for the ride? They all spoke Germanic varieties that came together to form what they called englisc.

    I do not know of any university history department that specialises in pre-1066 English history that refers to the period or the people as "Saxon" (it's always "Anglo-Saxon"), and studies of the language from that period are called "Old English" or occasionally "Anglo-Saxon" - it's never Saxon history, never Saxon studies and never Saxon language.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  4. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    I'm sorry. I am at a bit of a loss. You asked
    If you are asking about other languages and the origins of Modern English, you may be better off asking in the Etymology and History of Language forum.
     
  5. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    I'm not asking about other languages, and I'm not asking about the origins of English, modern or otherwise.

    I'm asking what a Saxon genitive is (which I think you've answered) and why it's so called - if the reason for its name is because of what you've suggested, it would appear to be erroneous. If it is a term that is being used in the teaching of English grammar then it seems a very odd one.
     
  6. Edinburgher Senior Member

    Scotland
    German/English bilingual
    Now, now, children, behave. To bicker about Saxon vs Anglo-Saxon is not germane here (excuse the pun).
    What it might be more interesting to discuss is that if there is a "Saxon genitive", then what other kinds of genitive are there, from which it is useful to distinguish the Saxon one.
    And, Paul, do you really mean just adding "s", as opposed to "'s"?
     
  7. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Paul is right. The people who invaded England where indeed the Saxons -- together with the Angles. The modern German state of Saxony belongs to a formerly Slavic area that was conquered and incorporated into the German kingdom in the 10th century as a march officially assigned to the duchy of Saxony and called the Saxon Eastern March. Though this entity existed only for a few decades, the name stayed and the the state covering most of the area of the original Duchy of Saxony is today called Lower Saxony to distinguish it from the area of its former Eastern March.
    When one uses the adjective Saxon in English, one obviously refers to the "real" Saxons; and that is certainly not erroneous.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  8. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    Then that is counter to everything ever written about Anglo-Saxon England and its history.

    Getting seriously off topic for the forum, but as I mentioned previously, the Saxons were not the only invaders at that time. There is a reason why the English took the name of their language from the Angles, and why Bede and other contemporaries refer to Angles as well as Saxons and why regions like East Anglia and Middle Anglia exist(ed).

    Paul's probably right in that this should probably be best discussed on the Etymology forum.
     
  9. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    Yes. I don't think that the Saxons/Anglo-Saxons used an apostrophe.

    If you know when the apostrophe came into existence, I would be interested.
     
  10. rhitagawr

    rhitagawr Senior Member

    Wales
    British English
    I agree that Saxon genitive is an odd phrase. The genitive seems to have died out in Dutch and presumably Frisian (although someone more knowledgeable than I am might be able to correct me). But it exists in all the other Germanic languages. Perhaps it ought to be called the Germanic genitive.
    The United Kingdom and the former British colonies of the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon nations. A silly phrase if you ask me, but there it is.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  11. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I didn't say they were the only invaders. But the reason why it is called Saxon genitive is evident. One may find other names more appropriate but that is a different question.
     
  12. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    The original West Germanic genitive ending was -es, not -s. The apostrophe indicates the elided <e>. In English, the <e> was lost in early modern English.
     
  13. Edinburgher Senior Member

    Scotland
    German/English bilingual
    OK, Paul, so the original Saxon genitive would not have used an apostrophe, but it seems that in the various discussions here about the SG all the examples did include the apostrophe, so the question really remains, what other genitives exist in today's English which would not be described as Saxon? Or did the discussions use the term SG in error, and should it be reserved to discussions which compare various historical genitives?
     
  14. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    It's often contrasted with the 'of-genitive', Edinburgher, as in the top of the hill.
     
  15. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Norway
    Polish
    The word Saxon is a pure and sheer convention, as it only defines a type of genitive that it is older then the genitive using "of". One could argue that other names would be more precise "Anglo- Saxon- Frisian genitive", "old Germanic genitive", "old English genitive" (maybe the last would be historically most correct), and many others. But why fighting a convention?
     
  16. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    Having never heard the term before, I know what it is now.

    I shall just accept that although I myself would avoid calling it a Saxon Genitive, others will continue to do so and that it's a fairly standard term is use. :)


    Cross-post:
    Am accepting it now ;)
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  17. Einstein

    Einstein Senior Member

    Milano, Italia
    UK, English
    In English teaching I've always understood the term "Saxon genitive" as distinguishing a form such as "Henry's car", from "the car of Henry", which would be the form in Romance languages. I assumed the term had been invented by language-teaching theoreticians for this purpose, rather than to distinguish particularly the English "apostrophe-s" from the German "s" without the apostrophe. In fact I don't know how much the term is used in teaching English to Germans.

    That "Saxon" is a misnomer I heartily agree! There was a heated debate recently in the Italian-English forum about the indiscriminate use of "Anglo-Saxon" by Italian journalists.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  18. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    That is exactly how it is used and what motivates the term.
    I've been familiar with the term ever since I learned English in school as a kid.
     
  19. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    The way I look at it is, you have to call it something, and you could do worse than "Saxon genitive." At least the name has some connection to the construction's history.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  20. Resa Reader Senior Member

    I still know the term (either from my own days at school or from university) but it's no longer in use when it comes to teaching grammar to German learners of English nowadays.

    I've just had a look at one of the "newer" grammar books. They contrast "the possessive form" and the "of-phrase".
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  21. Edinburgher Senior Member

    Scotland
    German/English bilingual
    The way I see it, what others call the Saxon genitive I would just call the genitive. It is one of the inflected forms (declensions) of the noun, like what we come across in Germanic and Romance languages.
    I would not view the of-form as a genuine genitive, it's just an ordinary prepositional phrase which happens to take on a role which is similar to the genitive.
    The problem, I guess, is that English does not have (or no longer has) that strict kind of inflection, which has been largely displaced by the use of prepositions, typically "of" for the genitive and "to" for the dative and accusative, which two are at times difficult to tell apart.
    The "genuine" genitive survives in some pronouns, e.g. whose, my, our.
     
  22. london calling Senior Member

    SALERNO, ITALY
    UK ENGLISH
    Which is precisely what I do, when speaking English. On the other hand, when speaking Italian I say the equivalent of Saxon Genitive, which is what all Italians are taught to call it at school.:)
     
  23. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    Now I'm confused again. Help me unravel the concern about calling it the Saxon genitive.

    The Saxons came to Britain. (As did others)
    They brought their language with them. (As did others)
    The Saxons formed genitives by adding -es.
    In modern day English, we use -'s to form a certain kind of genitive, and it is derived from the elision of the e that was present in the genitive that was present in the Saxon language it came from.

    Which of those statements is incorrect?
     
  24. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    None of them, as far as I can tell.

    But my original contention stems from the fact that we have no way of distinguishing what elements of Old English were of Saxon in origin or Angle or Frisian or of any other grouping. The invaders probably spoke very similar varieties so it seemed (to me at least) a little odd that we would call a feature of Modern English after one out of a number of groups of invaders who possibly/probably all shared that feature.

    Before today I hadn't even come across the term, but having now learnt that it's such a commonly used term in teaching English grammar to native and non-native speakers, I'm happy enough! ;)


    Edit
    I guess part of my original contention is that having been a student of the Anglo-Saxon period of history, I dislike the lazy shorthand use of "Saxon" as a catch-all term for the period and anything related to it which seems to have caught on in recent times. Seeing "Saxon Genitive" stuck out like a sore thumb to me.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  25. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    So your answer seems to suggest that I should reformulate one of the statements to

    Then your question becomes. "Why do we call it Saxon, if it wasn't uniquely a Saxon construction?" Is that what you meant at the beginning in your question?
     
  26. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima

    Singapore
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I would just talk about the use of the possessive form (and not even mention genitive) to students.

    I assumed Saxon was used in the term because the Old English that was becoming standardised was based the variety used in King Alfred's kingdom of Wessex - or West Saxon. The Angles settled in areas further north. The standard or the standardising variety is often taken to represent the language itself.
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  27. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    Yep, that sums it up. In a much more efficient way then I've put it in all of my blustering posts!

    Thank you
     
  28. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    True, although Alfred and his West Saxons didn't call the language that they wrote in Saxon - the language had been called englisc (or names similar to that) for some time before Alfred.

    I can't recall an example of the languages being called Saxon (or something similar) in Old English writing but it is possible. It certainly wasn't the most-used term though (not by the English anyway: Celtic speakers called their Germanic neighbours Saxons)
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  29. Cenzontle

    Cenzontle Senior Member

    English, U.S.
    So far, I think JustKate is the only contributor who claims Am.Eng. as a first language.
    So my question for you, JustKate, is this: Is "Saxon genitive" a familiar term to you?
    I came into contact with it only very recently.
    When I was taught about English grammar in primary school, there were "possessive" adjectives and pronouns, and the "apostrophe-s" on a noun made it "possessive".
    I only heard terms like "genitive" when friends of mine started studying Latin.
    JustKate, I deeply respect your contributions to the Forum, but when you say
    I have to voice a contrary opinion: You could not do worse than "Saxon genitive".
    "Saxon" is a misnomer, for reasons cited by others.
    "Saxon" has very little meaning for most English-speakers;
    for most of those few who have heard the term, it means an "ancient" tribe that has nothing to do with today's experience.
    "Genitive" has very little meaning for most English-speakers;
    for those who have studied a foreign language with case inflections it means something foreign, un-English.
    So "Saxon genitive" is a doubly opaque term.
    The term "apostrophe-s" is practical: it tells you what to do when writing.
    The term "possessive" is meaningful to English-speakers because most of us know what "possess" means.
    The term "Saxon genitive", according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer (GBNV), in today's American English, has a frequency of 0.6 parts per billion (ppb).
    It fares a little better in British English, with a frequency of about 2 ppb.


    My suspicion is that the term "Saxon genitive" is not indigenous to the English-speaking world, but is a calque from one or more Romance languages
    (in which the fine distinctions between Angles, Saxons, and Anglo-Saxons are often blurred). Hence...
    mentioned by Einstein.
    The GBNV puts the frequency of "genitivo sajón" in Spanish around 4 ppb, and of "genitivo sassone" in Italian at 30 ppb!
     
  30. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    I was taught Latin from age 6 to "O"level (age 14 - ~grade 11 ish) (and even actually learnt some Latin too, scraped through the O level) and know a little about genitives and ablatives etc. I had not heard this term until a while after joining the forum, a few, ahem, decades later. It now seems I need to "learn" about the term (even if I don't have a strong opinion on the prohibition of its use for inanimate objects :eek:)

    I'm still unclear on two things.
    Did the Saxons have their "own language" or not? (Or bring one even if others call it something else)
    Did they make genitives by adding -es?
    If both are "Yes", then it would seem to be that it is a misnomer only because Saxon can mean other things to other people (or the language they brought can't be called Saxon, only they can be called Saxon and they are the ones who brought it, or something).
    If either answer is no, case closed:)
     
  31. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Yes. Well, it actually depends on how you define "familiar." I certainly knew the term before coming here to the WR forum. I am sure I heard about it in school, but it didn't really stick. I think I actually learned about it on another grammar forum made up of mostly AmE speakers, including a couple of AmE English teachers, and I'm sure that's who I learned it from.

    The way I look at it, almost everything involving the history of English is convoluted, so why not "Saxon genitives"? I mean, it's called English after England...but it's called England after the Angles, and where does that leave the Jutes and Saxons? You can't be inclusive in your nomenclature when you're talking about anything as chaotic as the history of English.

    I agree that genitive is not the most descriptive term, but I don't know of a better. Possessive works in many examples, but not all - e.g., "last year's drought" or "one month's pay," which look like possessives but really aren't. I tend to use genitive only when possessive doesn't work, but I don't know if any experts back me up on that. Garner's Modern American Usage refers to examples such as "last year's drought" as "idiomatic possessives," but I can't say that I find that particularly descriptive.
     
  32. Stoggler

    Stoggler Senior Member

    Regnum Sussaxonum
    UK English
    The simple answer to those questions is that we don't know for certain!

    I've just been re-reading the relevant chapter on David Crystal's The Stories of English and to summarise, the linguistic situation would have been complicated and rather fluid initially. It's now accepted that the terms Saxon, Angles, Jute etc are too simplistic and probably didn't represent the situation on the ground. "It is not possible to say how intelligible the [invaders] found each other. There was a great deal to unify them culturally, of course. They had a common oral heritage and a common set of religious beliefs. Probably their dialects would have been mutually comprehensible, for the most part, though with some islands of difficulty ..." Taken from the above quoted book

    So it is unlikely that the Saxons all spoke one dialect, but it is also probable that they would understand each other sufficiently.

    as for how the genitive was formed back then, again it's not known for certain but with some variation, an -es ending would likely to have been used.


    The above was all written on my mobile so typographical errors are to be expected!!
     
  33. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    “Saxon genitive” is an established phrase, more, I think, in school books than in serious linguistic writing. The genitive in “s” is the only real genitive in English and there is really no reason to call it “Saxon”. The “of” construction is not a genitive, but a prepositional phrase.
     
  34. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    It is obviously a pars pro toto denomination like English is too. You might object to the word English as a name of the language as well.

    What I find more problematic is that the opposition Saxon genitive vs. of+objective case suggests that the of-construct is (A) of non-Germanic origin (B) is a genitive. Neither of these implications are quite right.
     
  35. bibax Senior Member

    Czech
    In the Czech Republic we use both terms:

    - saský genitiv (the Saxon genitive)
    - přivlastňovací pád podstatných jmen (the possessive case of nouns)
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2013
  36. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    You can also argue that the "Saxon genitive" isn't really a genitive, since the apostrophe-s can attach itself to phrases as well as single words: the King of Spain's daughter.

    That said, I do find it a helpful shorthand sometimes, especially as - as Kate says above:) - the apostrophe-s often indicates something other than possession....
     
  37. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    In Old-Saxon, as in other West Germanic languages of the time, the genitive singular ends in -es/-as for strong masculine & neuter nouns (p55sqq).
     
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2013
  38. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    In Old English, the genitive ending is -es both for masculine and for neuter strong nouns.
     
  39. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Of course. Same is true for Old Saxon.
     
  40. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    It is the same in Old Norse for M and N singular.
     
  41. mplsray Senior Member

    From page 141 of Advances in Cognitive Sociolinguistics, edited by Dirk Geeraerts, et al.:

     
  42. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    That's really pretty cool, Mplsray - the contrast between Norman and Saxon genitive.
     
  43. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    In my view this just shows how sloppy and inconsistent “cognitive sociolinguists” are in their use of grammatical terminology. “Genitive” is a grammatical case. “Of” is a preposition.
     
  44. mplsray Senior Member

    The reason I quoted from that work is because it used three terms for the "of-construction" rather than just the term "Norman genitive"—a term which can be seen via Google Books in many other works not limited to the field in question.

    Some grammarians do not see the Saxon genitive as a case form. From the article "Saxon Genitive" in The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur:

     
  45. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Norwegian
    Whereas I agree that a grammatical case usually is an inflectional ending (or prefix), I am not aware of a definition that says a periphrastic case is not a proper grammatical case? If you consider "the capital of the Republic" and "the Republic's capital" - how do they differ as a case (yes, I am aware there is a preposition in the former)?
     
  46. Ihsiin

    Ihsiin Senior Member

    England
    English
    I suppose you could say the same of the Old English genitive; the second line of Beowulf, for example, has: "þeod cyninga þrym", "(power of (the/those) people-kings/kings of people). Klaeber's Beowulf renders "þeod cyninga" as one word, "þeodcyninga", and the Penguin glossed text hyphanates it, "þeod-cyninga"; but in the manuscript they're presented as two seperate words: http://www2.washjeff.edu/users/ltroost/british/Beowulf manuscript.gif.
     
  47. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Germanic composite nouns behave morphologically as one word, irrespective of what spelling convention an author adheres to.
     
  48. Ihsiin

    Ihsiin Senior Member

    England
    English
    This is true, but then again in "somebody else's seat", "somebody else" also behaves morphologically as one word, though we think of it as a phrase.
    The point about "þeod cyninga" is that it seems that the native speaking Anglo-Saxon scribe thought of this as a two word phrase, rather than a single word, and who are we really to say he was wrong?
    I have, however, since making that post, come to realise that "þeod" could be easily construed as operating as an adjective, the compound noun structure working on an adjective-noun model, so my point doesn't really work any more.
    I thereby (wrong word, but what the hell) withdraw it.
     
  49. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Germanic composite nouns always behave like one word, not only with respect to the genitive. Only the last constituent is ever inflected and only the last constituent determines the gender of the compound. This is very different to constructs like the king of Spain's daughter. In case-inflected Germanic languages, the constituent king would would be inflected for the genitve.
     
  50. CapnPrep Senior Member

    France
    AmE
    You're right: it's just a terminological choice. There's no reason why the notion of "case" cannot be extended beyond its original morphological sense to include other types of relational marking of nominal expressions. It doesn't have to be sloppy or inconsistent.
     

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