Me, myself and i
By Caroline Winter, 2008 Fulbright scholar, edited by Jim Watson
Why do we capitalize the word I ?
There’s no grammatical reason for doing so, and oddly enough, the majuscule (upper case) I appears only in English.
Consider other languages:
• Hebrew, Arabic and Devanagari-Hindi: no capitalized letters
• Japanese: its possible to drop pronouns altogether
• French: all personal pronouns are in lowercase
• German: capitalize the formal form of you and even, occasionally, the informal form of you, but would never capitalize I.
• English: the solitary I towers above he, she, it and 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.
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.
“Graphically, single letters are a problem,” says Charles Bigelow, a type historian and designer of Lucida and Wingdings fonts. “They look like they broke off from a word or got lost or had some other accident.” When “I” shrunk to a single letter, Bigelow explains, “one little letter had to represent an important word, but it was too wimpy, graphically speaking, to carry the semantic burden, so the scribes made it bigger, which means taller, which means equivalent to a capital.”
The growing 'I' became prevalent in the 13th and 14th centuries, with a Geoffrey Chaucer manuscript of The Canterbury Tales among the first evidence of this grammatical shift. Initially, distinctions were made between graphic marks denoting an 'I' at the beginning of a sentence versus a midphrase first-person pronoun. Yet these variations eventually diminished, leaving us with our all-purpose capital 'I,' a change apparently made for simplicity’s sake.
In following centuries, Britain and the United States thrived as world powers, and English became the second-most-common language in the world, following Mandarin - the origin, meaning and consequences of the capitalized 'I' went largely unchanged.
So what effect has capitalizing I but not you (or any other pronoun) had on English speakers? Perhaps our individualistic, workaholic society would be more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small i with a sweet little dot. There have, of course, been plenty of rich and dominant cultures throughout history that have gotten by just fine without capitalizing the first-person pronoun or ever writing it down at all. Modern e-mail culture has shown that many English speakers dismiss all uses of capitalization. But take this a step further: i suggest that You try, as an experiment, to capitalize those whom You address while leaving yourselves in the lowercase. It may be a humbling experience. It was for me.