Thursday, September 11, 2008

Capitalizing the Word "I"

Caroline Winter writes about the history of the English word "I", and the significance of its capitalization. Apparently many other languages don't do this:

Why do we capitalize the word “I”? There’s no grammatical reason for doing so, and oddly enough, the majuscule “I” appears only in English.

Consider other languages: some, like Hebrew, Arabic and Devanagari-Hindi, have no capitalized letters, and others, like Japanese, make it possible to drop pronouns altogether. The supposedly snobbish French leave all personal pronouns in the unassuming lowercase, and Germans respectfully capitalize the formal form of “you” and even, occasionally, the informal form of “you,” but would never capitalize “I.” Yet in English, the solitary “I” towers above “he,” “she,” “it” and the royal “we.” Even a gathering that includes God might not be addressed with a capitalized “you.”

HT: Jollyblogger


greg. said...

i, for one, am uncomfortable with capital letters in general, and certainly with capitilizing my self. check out my blog and you'll see that i am very consistent with this. however, forget whether or not we capatalize it, what about trying to have a conversation without the word 'i' at all? i think c.s. lewis once prescribed this as a helpful exercise. we tend to be quite self-centered. at least i do.

BruceA said...

that's Interesting.

Steve West said...

Fascinating, I didn't know that. Actually, it's quite illuminating since our culture is so focused on what I call the "New Trinity" (me, myself, and I!). Could our language contribute to our focus on self, or is it simply a reflection of it? Hmmmmm.

Jeff the Baptist said...

We probably capitalize "i" because it is a single letter. In most of the other languages "I" is translated to a word with multiple characters. The exception might be German, but then it's often "ich".

Sure we don't capitalize "a", but "a" is an indefinite article and rarely an important part of sentence or crucial to meaning.

Also the reason why English is considered an informal language compared to most of the continental tongues is that we effectively lack formal grammar. Since thee, thou, and thine (which were actually the familiars not the formals) are considered archaic, the current pronouns have done double duty as both formal and familiar.

Every European I've worked with has come to realize that losing the formal/familiar divide is one of those things that has greatly shaped English-speaking class structure. Talking to their bosses the same way they talk to their friends is considered a wonderfully subversive language feature.

Andrew C. Thompson said...

This is exactly the kind of thing I find fascinating. I loved attending a small college as an undergrad, but going to a big university with a linguistics department would have been really enjoyable.

I've always wondered how and why the use of the familiar thee, thou, and thine forms dropped out in English. Just from a general sense of reading historical literature, it seems like it happened over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.

If you really want to mess yourself up, think about how extensively we use the helping very "to do." As in, "Do you want to go to the store?" And, "I didn't want to eat that." Or, "I did practice the piano yesterday." To my knowledge, the other European languages don't do this. They would say the equivalent of "Want you to go to the store" or "I no wanted/wanted not to eat that." I would love to have someone explain how that usage developed in English.

Jeff the Baptist said...

English is a wonderful hodgepodge of a language. The original gael speaking Angles interacted with the Latin speaking Romans. The Angles were conquered (or driven into Wales) by Viking Saxons and the French-speaking but also Viking Normans. Somewhere German influences were brought in as well.

There was a tv show on the History Channel that actually gave a list of where we got certain words from and more interestingly the various words that all originally meant the same thing. For instance "big" is Scandinavian and "Large" is French-Latin in origin.

John said...

Yeah, English is unique (at least, differing from the Romance languages that I have studied) in that it has no distinct familiarity/unfamiliarity. That, and all nouns are of neuter gender, unless they are literally male or female.