Variation in the form and function of the possessive morpheme in Late Middle and Early Modern English

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This paper analyses the morphosyntactic nature of the possessive -s in the Late Middle and Early Modern English periods. As is well known, the possessive <i>-s</i>, or the inflectional genitive, was increasingly replaced by the <i>of</i>-possessive during the Middle English period (Mustanoja 1960; Fischer 1992; Allen 2003). By the Late Middle English period the possessive <i>-s</i> occurred almost exclusively in cases where the possessor was an animate, human entity. Furthermore the possessor phrase was typically short, only one or two words long, and complex possessors were avoided. Nonetheless, in this context the possessive <i>-s</i> was the most frequent, neutral possessive construction of choice in most genres. I argue that by the Early Modern English period, at the latest, the possessive <i>-s</i> can no longer be categorized as an inflectional case due to the syntactic and semantic constraints on its use. However, neither can it unproblematically be categorized as a clitic. Rather than insist on a specific categorization, I present the types of orthographic, morphosyntactic and semantic evidence available relevant to its classification, based on a corpus of about 900,000 words and about 5,000 tokens.


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