Using Apostrophes and the Future of English in Europe

English has long been fashionable to use in other languages. For teenagers and young adults, it’s the language of a lot of their pop culture, as well as being an international lingua franca, that can help one connect with people all around the world. That’s why, especially across Europe, you’ll find little bits of English peppered throughout people’s speech.

Naturally, this isn’t always going to be accurate in terms of native speakers’ usage, but that’s not so important. I’ve noticed recently though, an apparent trend in how non-native speakers use English that’s a little bit curious, because it reflects one of the ways in which native speakers make mistakes in English.

I’ve written before about how native speakers can struggle with using apostrophes in English (quick recap: they’re used to show possession and in contractions, never in a simple plural word). As English is the only major language to use an apostrophe with an S to indicate possession, non-native speakers don’t tend to make the same mistakes with apostrophes, as they’ve never grown up with words ending in S both as plurals and possessive forms, and thus don’t get too confused with when to use an apostrophe (though German does add an S to indicate possession, but not an apostrophe, so a German speaker might omit an apostrophe accidentally, but probably won’t add one to a plural). More than likely, people will avoid using a possessive structure with an apostrophe, especially if they speak a Romance language, in which case it’s easier to use a noun+of+noun structure similar to that of their native language.

Recently though, I’ve noticed a lot of apostrophes used in a lot of languages around Europe. Recently, the popular Italian Eurovision song “Occidentali’s Karma (“Westerner’s Karma) satirized this anglicisation of Italian with the apostrophe in the title (without it, it would be “Occidentalis Karma: “Western Karma in Latin). Sometimes the apostrophe is used correctly, sometimes logically enough but not exactly the way we’d use it (e.g. the lion’s enclosure at a zoo: we’d say lion enclosure, but it still makes sense). Sometimes though, it’s incorrectly used. This is often due to confusion about translating the noun+of+noun structure into English, e.g. in French, la maison de mon frère is my brother’s house, whereas le stade de foot is the football stadium, not football’s stadium. That’s understandable, but  what I find curious is how apostrophes are becoming more commonly used in plural English words by non-native speakers.

This might be the result of native-tongue interference. In Dutch for example, words ending in long vowel sounds add an apostrophe and S in their plural form. This is similar to how native speakers often add an apostrophe to a plural of a word ending in a vowel (e.g. disco’s), as without the apostrophe it might look like a singular noun ending in S (e.g. discos, even though that’s the correct plural). In Dutch the reasoning is different though: it’s to avoid having two consecutive long vowel sounds. This might lead some Dutch speakers, or Walloons who studied Dutch in school, to put an apostrophe between a vowel and the S in plural nouns. That doesn’t explain its use in nouns that don’t end in vowels though, especially in other languages.

That could partly be down to people encountering much of their written English online. They might be replicating the errors they see native speakers make, specifically adding apostrophes to plural nouns. Mostly though, I think it’s a simple case of people knowing that the apostrophe is used in English, mainly before S and that their teacher explained something about it in school that they can’t remember exactly. They just know that using an apostrophe is an English thing, and adding it to an English word will give it that little extra touch of Englishness. Plus, most non-native speakers might not notice it’s used incorrectly, so there’s no pressure to use it perfectly. Just throw it in there, and it’ll look more English.

Not that we native speakers are much better. Not only are errors with apostrophes very frequent, we can also used accents from other languages incorrectly, just to give words a more exotic flavour. Plus, we like to throw apostrophes all over the place when coming up with words in alien language in science fiction.

I wonder how long this fashion will last though. While “Occidentali’s Karma” might have been one sign of a backlash of the use of English in other languages, there was perhaps a more ominous sign a few weeks before the Eurovision Song Contest. On 5 May, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, was applauded by diplomats for announcing that he would give his State of the Union speech in French instead of English, because English is “losing importance” in Europe:

Of course there’s an obvious immature reaction there to the equally immature Brexit. And English will still be a major language in the EU, seeing as how it’s an official language of EU members Ireland and Malta, and much more familiar in Eastern-European countries than French (French used to be the main language of EU business, until a shift to English in the early 2000s with increased Eastern-European membership). English will also remain the language of international trade and politics. Sadly though, I can picture people strategically choosing to use either French or English to exclude and aggravate political enemies, and make political statements, as Mr Juncker did. Language will be used to divide or to exacerbate the divisions that are always barely hidden in Europe.

I’m curious as to what the future of English in Europe will be like outside of politics. Certainly I can imagine something of a backlash. There’s always been a murmur of resentment at the global dominance of English and subsequent pressure to learn it, while English speakers never need to worry about learning another language. With Brexit and Donald Trump being the two most common associations in Europe with the two best-known English-speaking countries, I can imagine resentment spreading: who wants to speak their language?

It remains to be seen really. People are still going to learn English everywhere, but I wonder how committed people will be to learning it seriously. And if Emmanuel Macron proves to be popular, maybe French will become the dominant lingua franca of Western Europe. Whatever happens, I feel I should appreciate people throwing apostrophes into their language to anglicise it, as it might not last forever.

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