The apostrophe is a stylistic device of rhetoric and means the solemn or emphasized salutation to an imaginary object or an absent person. The apostrophe can thus be found in all literary genres, even though we can rather discover them in spoken utterances, such as drama or speech (→ speech analysis)
If the apostrophe is used in a work, the speech situation changes. The figure or even the poet of the work turns away from the real audience when speaking and is aimed at an imaginary, thus presented, second audience.
The supposed conversation partner, either a viewer or a reader, becomes an observer of a conversation between the character and an absent instance, such as a person, a god, or even an object. Let’s look at an example to illustrate the whole.
Masonry in the earth
The mold is made of clay.
Today the bell must be,
Fresh, journeys! be at hand […] These verses are taken from the first stanza of Friedrich Schiller’s The Song of the Bell, in which we can see an apostrophe in the last verse. Here, the work is aimed at journeyman, who are absent, whereby the addressee (recipient) of the poem changes.
We find a similar case of the apostrophe in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Egmont. Here, Egmont, who is alone in prison, turns to the personified sleep and calls for his appearance. In other words, Egmont wants to sleep and asks the instance of sleep to lower himself.
Old friend! Always faithful sleep! If you fly me,
like the other friends? How willingly you lowered yourself
down to my free head and chilled as one
beautiful myrtle wreath of love, my temple!
Note: The apostrophe always means a change of the original addressee (recipient) to an absent recipient. Usually a speaker turns away from the audience. However, the lyrical ego of a work can also address itself to an absent instance (divinity, muse).
However, the new addressee does not necessarily have to be a lifeless object or an absent person from the respective work itself. This is what we call an apostrophe when the auctorial narrator of a narrative text turns to us – the reader – and thus initiates us into his thoughts.
My dear reader, you will ask yourself how the hero has gone further […] This passage is devised and is not taken from a real original. Nevertheless, it clearly illustrates the principle of apostrophe in the literary text. The narrator turns to us, the reader, in which he asks us a question. The speech situation changes (→ rhetorical question).
Note: The most important criterion for the apostrophe is that the speaker addresses an object or a fictitious figure. It does not matter whether it is temporarily not present, does not exist, or is only fictional in the reality of the speaker, such as readers and narrator.
Further examples of the apostrophe
A stylistic figure can best be understood and understood by means of examples. Therefore, we would like to give you a small selection for your understanding.
O thou city of the fathers in the land of Thebes
and ye gods before us, I am driven, and no more hesitate […] This section is taken from Sophocles’ Antigone, with Antigone directed to the city of Thebes and turning away from their conversation partners. Through the salutation, the city is also personified.
Further examples of the apostrophe of Cicero, Brecht and Bachmann
For you, you heights and groves of Alba (Cicero)
Where once was a grass, now you are sitting, Oil-tank! (Brecht)
Tell me, love, what I can not explain (Bachmann)
Effect of apostrophes
The apostrophe, as described, changes the speech situation in the literary text. This change has, of course, a reason and effect on the reader or viewer.
Although it is difficult to attribute a clear and consistent function or effect to a stylistic device, the application nevertheless has an effect on the reader. So we should not rely on it, since a style figure can also be used against the expectations of the reader.
Overview: Impact and function of apostrophes
The apostrophe is usually used as a rhetorical question or exclamation (exclamation).
The stylistic figure often arouses the impression that the speaker or speech is very excited, which can lead to an influencing of the audience.
Furthermore, the apostrophe is also found in our everyday language. Sentence á la “Oh my God!” Or “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Always point to an absent instance.
The apostrophe is, therefore, understood as a turning-point of the orator to those who have so far been angered, absent or even dead, uninhabited things and objects.