19 March 2009

I Salute You (or do i?)

Before i go further, there are some things i should clarify.

I don't capitalize the letter 'i' when it is by itself, unless it starts the sentence. I just don't. And i have very good reason for it. (Whether i can convince some future publisher to listen to me, i don't know.)

English is the only language that capitalizes the first-person pronoun. French and Spanish use all lowercase letters for their pronouns. German capitalizes 'you' but leaves 'i' to its diminutive status. English is the only language that exclusively capitalizes the word 'i'. Why is that?

According to this great article in the New York Times, it comes from scribes prior to the 13th century who began capitalizing it to differentiate it from the rest of the letters. That is, without being a capital, it could be misconstrued as a vagrant letter, straying from a word to which it belongs. Yet, on that same token, the word 'a' is left untouched. There is no way to know that when i say 'a round' i didn't instead mean 'around,' unless you look at the words contextually.

If we can understand 'a round' versus 'around' and know that the letter 'a' is good enough on its own without being accentuated, why not also do the same for the letter 'i'?

Because of this precedent established over 800 years ago, we speakers of English have taken on a characteristic of the capital word 'i' that we will be hard-pressed to undo.

Western society is know for its focus on the individual, in contrast to Eastern focus on the collective, the community. I'm not going to say that this contrast was set up because of a single capital letter. Western society is formed from more than just those of us who speak English. However, I will argue that those of us in the Western world who speak English, especially Americans, are far more individual-minded than our non-English-speaking counterparts.

It's been said repeatedly in the news recently that the United States is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not have universal health care. Whether or not you agree with it, it does say something about our America. We are so individualistic, we don't think it's up to the collective to care for the health of the individual; it's up to each person, or family, to work that out.

Or look at our politics. Since the beginning of our country, America has been involved in 21 different wars. The only countries that have been involved in more than us are the United Kingdom and France, both of whom are middle-aged compared to us. This is probably why other countries consider America a bully, or imperialist; we enter wars, or start wars, or provoke wars across the globe, treating rival nations as if we have the right to govern them.

Again, i'm not saying that giving the word 'i' has caused all of this. It hasn't. We have. Yet our language both forms the way we think and instills in us our view of the world. Is it any wonder we are so selfish and individualistic when we place our own selves higher and taller than the others around us? Instead we say, through our language, 'he and she aren't as important as I am, and you are less than I am, too.'

We are a selfish people. Why should we capitalize the first-person pronoun the same way we would the name of God?

There are a couple solutions. We can, like Germany, flip things around. Make 'You' the word we capitalize as we leave 'i' small. Or We can equalize everyone with capitals and give every pronoun that jump in size.

I choose to leave all pronouns small, unless they fall under other rules of capitalization, just as this sentence did. So unless 'i' begins the sentence, i'm keeping him small.

(Just for the record, i've written on this before in my other blogs, but rather than copy it here, or even expand on it, i didn't even consult my previous blog. Every sentence is newly constructed, only the thoughts remain the same, but even then, some new ones entered the fray in this blog.)


  1. I've honestly never thought about this, but I think you raise some very clear and well thought up points.

  2. wow, i had no idea. I think I'll teach that to my ESL students. (ha ha, OK maybe not them... they're confused enough by English!)

  3. A well constructed argument.

  4. Did you do this in your classes? If so how'd your teachers feel about it?

  5. I did not, Shawny. There are certain norms i still had to live by. It's only my own work, from my own head, for my own self, that i consider the non-capitalized 'i'. So my own work, the stuff i get published, i will probably try to get an editor to accept my idiosyncratic use of capitals. :)

  6. There's one teensy little factor you've left out.

    The evolution of language.

    I'm sure you can point out a dozen words whose meaning has changed from its origin to something entirely different. Hypocrite once meant an actor of a play, now it means someone who contradicts themselves.

    So while i may be the correct original use, I is now the modern correct use.

  7. What do you mean? In what way does the evolution of language play a part in this?

  8. I mean that language and its proper use will change depending on the culture, the environment and the times.

    In these modern times 'I' is correct. 'i' may have been correct in the 12th century but this isn't the 12th century any longer. The english language has changed and evolved to suit the needs of each generation, one of those changes is to capitalise the letter I essentially turning it into a proper noun.

    Proper nouns refer to unique entities. I'm a unique entity so I capitalise the I when referring to myself.

  9. So why did we capitalize the noun 'i' but not other nouns, 'he,' 'she' and 'we'? Are they not good enough?

    I am saying that even though language evolves, that doesn't make it better having gone through that change. You could say i'm not a language naturalist; i think we should consciously change the language in areas where it is weak. I'm not saying we should set up barriers entirely around language to prevent it's continued evolution, but we should check ourselves where it has evolved and where that evolution has impacted the way we think.

  10. he is not unique as he can refer to a variety of things human and animal, even inanimate onjects. Same with she. Our languages originated in evereything being male or female.

    We is not unique, 'we' varies depending on the group.

    There is only one I. I am the only I, you are not I, you are you.

  11. So what is the reason we don't capitalize the word 'me'? The same reasoning you are applying to 'i' should also go for 'me,' but we never capitalize it unless it's at the beginning of the sentence.

    The _only_ reason we capitalize 'i' is due to visual aesthetic. But now that the internet has broken down some barriers of what is visually pleasing with capitals, i don't think that's much of a problem any more.

  12. Good point. Me really should be capitalized.

    "But now that the internet has broken down some barriers of what is visually pleasing with capitals"

    Uhhh... broken down barriers? Don't you mean total frigging laziness? That's really the only reason and not even a good one. I could drop my punctuation and proper spelling due to that reason but it won't be visually pleasing it would cause confusion.

    "wen u talk lik dis al teh time its nt cool its just annoyn" <-- see this? I struggle to read things like that, yet that is common internet speech.

    Probably one of the few things I hate about the internet. The terrible english and grammar.

    Ooo you should write a blog on internet talk.