Tag Archives: apostrophes in Romanization


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What an exciting title for a post! It don’t get much hotter than that little upper hook (and not its younger brother, the lower hook, a.k.a. the comma).

For regular readers of this blog, you might remember I did a post about Lynne Truss’s fabulous book on punctuation called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which is obviously about panda bears that have a meal, unload their pistols/shotguns, and then take their leave (as opposed to the diet of panda bears, which includes eating bamboo shoots and leaves). And all this confusion because of a single comma!

While there are some fairly straightforward rules to the use of apostrophes in the English language — see the amazing Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for more info on English grammar and punctuation) — perhaps their most confusing use has to do with the Romanization of foreign words.

Take, for example, these three words from Mi’kmaq (the plural of Mi’kmaw, the native peoples most populous in Newfoundland & Labrador, Quebec and Ontario) that have the exact same seven Latin letters, yet mean wildly different things because of the placement of the apostrophe(s).

kesalul — I love you
kesa’lul — I hurt you
ke’sa’lul — I throw you gently into a fire

I, for one, have no idea how to pronounce those three words differently based on their apostrophes, but would be very scared to tell my Mi’kmaw partner I love her for fear that I would be “killing her softly.”

Another example is the old McCune-Reischauer Romanization system, no longer used in South Korea, for the written Korean language, Hanguel (though North Korea still uses a modified variation of McCune-Reischauer). Take a gazing gander at these two examples:

않다 — ant’a — not (some action in the negative)

안타 — anta — a base hit in baseball

You don’t have to be a Machiavellian (i.e. cunning) linguist to see that the two words are spelled differently in Korean. But how the fork you’re supposed to pronounce those two words in distinct ways based on their Romanization is anyone’s guess.

On a final note, is it just me, or has the most egregious use/misuse of the apostrophe in today’s world of constant texting and instant messaging become our tendency to confuse “their” and “they’re”?

UPDATE: From the woman who tweeted about the apostrophe challenge with “I love you” in Mi’kmaw:

there are more people that liked this tweet than there are fluent mi’kmaw speakers.

let that sink in.


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