English is certainly a tough language to learn. There are many rules, and exceptions to those same rules, which can make it difficult to pick up. One thing in particular that can sometimes confuse people is capitalization. In this post, we’ll be looking specifically at the letter “I”. Why do we capitalize the pronoun “I” in the first place?
Let’s first start by comparing “I” to its equivalents in other languages. The personal pronoun is common, but only English capitalizes “I.” For example, several languages, like Hebrew or Arabic, have no capitalization, while French leaves its personal pronouns lowercase. In the case of German, the formal version of “you” is capitalized, but the personal pronoun is not. So what it is about English that makes the capital “I” so special?
Why Do We Capitalize the Pronoun “I”?
To get to the root of this question, we have to look back to the days of Old and Middle English. In those times, the equivalent for “I” was closer to its German version, ich. If we look at texts from the day, it was often spelled as “ic”. However, as things generally go, the language began to change, and the “c” disappeared. As a result, you would generally have a lowercase “i” as the personal pronoun. However, this caused a bit of a practical issue.
Single letters, in the visual sense, caused a problem for something as important as a personal pronoun. When reading text, it initially looked like an error, and some linguistic experts felt that writers of the day may have seen a singular lowercase letter as too small for such an important term. As a result, to add a bit of visual flair, they made the “I” slightly larger. One of the original examples we have of this visual flair is in the classic Geoffrey Chaucer manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. Originally, there were graphical markers designating an “I” at the start of the sentence versus as a personal pronoun in the middle. However, in time, this eventually evolved into a capital “I.”
History of Capitalization
So, ironically enough, the most likely reason we have for the capitalized letter “I” is the fact that writers in the Middle Ages needed something that “popped” off the page. However, does a similar mode of thinking apply to the rest of English capitalization as we know it? Maybe. Here are some examples.
Going back to those old days of Middle English, we need to remember that written texts were still relatively rare, and generally the domain of the clergy and the rich. As a result, there wasn’t a need for the concrete standards that we see today for a lot of modern written grammar. This changed with the advent of the printing press. At this point, capitalization began to become a lot more popular and common. Part of this, as we mentioned before, was visual, but there was a practical side to things as well. Punctuation wasn’t as common or as uniform as we know it today. In those historical texts, they used punctuation as an easier way to let readers know when one sentence ended and another began.
When the US Constitution was written, every major noun was capitalized. This mimics how the German language handles capitalization. But this practice would fade away over time. By the time that the 18th and 19th centuries came around, we had standards and manuals on proper English grammar, bringing things closer to how we know them today.
Granted, this only applies to an extent. If you were to read your average text or email, chances are that capitalization is optional before anything else. Who knows, perhaps we’re in the middle of another language evolution.
If you liked this post, you might enjoy these other articles from the Sporcle Blog.
- Why are There Two Pronunciations of G and C?
- Than vs Then – What is the Difference?
- Why Do We Have Silent Letters in English?