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.
“Graphically, single letters are a problem,” says Charles Bigelow, a type historian and a designer of the Lucida and Wingdings font families. “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 fell by the wayside, leaving us with our all-purpose capital “I,” a potent 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. Meanwhile, the origin, meaning and consequences of our capitalized “I” went largely unchanged, with few exceptions.
One divergence stems from the Rastafarians, who intentionally developed a dialect of Jamaican Creole in order to break culturally from the English-speaking imperialists who once enslaved them. Their phrase “I and I” can be used in place of “I,” “we” or Rastafarians as a group, but generally expresses the oneness of the speaker with God and all people. “I and I” is thus, in some ways, a conscious deviation — really the exact opposite of the English ego-centered capital “I.”
Not long ago, certain presidential candidates could have used a bit of the “I and I” spirit. At the close of the primary season, the news media scrutinized Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama’s use of the first-person pronoun, the implication being that a string of “I” ’s signifies ungracious self-inflation. On the last day of voting, Clinton led the pack with 64 “I” ’s and McCain followed with 60. Obama’s “I” count lagged at 30, and he was the only candidate whose combined “we” ’s (37) and “you” ’s (16) outnumbered his “I” ’s. These were spoken pronouns, but, of course, our understanding and use of language is informed by the printed word.
So what effect has capitalizing “I” but not “you” — or any other pronoun — had on English speakers? It’s impossible to know, but 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. There have also been cultures that committed atrocities even while capitalizing “you.”
Still, there seems to be something to it all. Modern e-mail culture has shown that many English speakers feel perfectly comfortable dismissing all uses of capitalization — and even correct spelling, for that matter. 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.