Endangered apostrophe

In one place at least, the apostrophe’s future looks secure

Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev recently ordered that his country’s language dump its modified Cyrillic script in favour of the Latin alphabet. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev recently ordered that his country’s language dump its modified Cyrillic script in favour of the Latin alphabet. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

 

These are uncertain times for the humble apostrophe – those suspended squiggles rejected by George Bernard Shaw as “uncouth bacilli” and dismissed by Cormac McCarthy as a “weird little marks”. Ever since it was imported into English from French in the 16th century, the apostrophe has served to annoy those who know how to use it and confuse those who don’t. Now it is being assailed on several fronts. Texting teenagers often don’t bother with it. Companies are dropping it from their brands. The US Board on Geographic Names, citing savings in time and money, has a policy of removing it from names proposed for American towns.

But in one place at least, the apostrophe’s future looks secure. When Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, recently ordered that his country’s language dump its modified Cyrillic script in favour of the Latin alphabet, he framed it as a symbolic break with Moscow and a nod towards the digital future. The plan ran into a problem, however: how to render Kazakh sounds that don’t exist in other languages written in standard Latin script? Instead of following Turkish, which uses umlauts and other phonetic markers, Nazarbayev defied linguists and courted public ridicule by suggesting apostrophes – lots and lots of them. The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy.

That will hardly mollify champions of the English-language apostrophe, who fear it’s going the way of the diaeresis (coöperate ) and, increasingly, the hyphen. Those fears are over-done. First, because English doesn’t have a French-style academy to pronounce on such matters, no change will be imposed from above. Second, while contextual cues would enable readers to understand most apostrophe-free sentences, there will probably always be some need for the possessive form.

In any case, the insistence on uniformity in apostrophe usage is a recent obsession. Shakespeare played fast-and-loose with it. Companies have been dropping it since the 19th century. Languages evolve all the time. The weird little mark may survive or it may decline. So be it. Well manage.

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