Why capitalize? The story of me, yself and I

Article in the New York Times, by Caroline Winter.Published: August 3, 2008

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.???

The word ???capitalize??? comes from ???capital,??? meaning ???head,??? and is associated with importance, material wealth, assets and advantages. We have capital cities and capital ideas. We give capital punishment and accrue political, social and financial capital. And then there is capitalism, which is linked to private ownership, markets and investments. These words shore up the towering single letter that signifies us as discrete beings and connote confidence, dominance and the ambition to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

England is where the capital ???I??? first reared its dotless head. In Old and Middle English, when ???I??? was still ???ic,??? ???ich??? or some variation thereof ??? before phonetic changes in the spoken language led to a stripped-down written form ??? the first-person pronoun was not majuscule in most cases. The generally accepted linguistic explanation for the capital ???I??? is that it could not stand alone, uncapitalized, as a single letter, which allows for the possibility that early manuscripts and typography played a major role in shaping the national character of English-speaking countries.

Read the rest of this intriguing article on the capitalization of the pronoun “I” in the New York Times.

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