Me, Myself and I

Print edition : August 29, 2008

The word capitalise comes from capital, meaning head, and is associated with importance, material wealth, assets and advantages.

WHY do we capitalise the word I? There is 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 capitalised letters, and others, like Japanese, make it possible to drop pronouns altogether. The supposedly snobbish French leave all personal pronouns in the unassumin g lowercase, and Germans respectfully capitalise the formal form of you and even, occasionally, the informal form of you, but would never capitalise 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 capitalised you.

The word capitalise 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, uncapitalised, 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 simplicitys 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 capitalised I went largely unchanged, with few exceptions.

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 scrutinised Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obamas 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. Obamas 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 capitalising I but not you or any other pronoun had on English speakers?

It is impossible to know, but perhaps our individualistic, workaholic society would be more rooted in community and quality and less focussed 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 capitalising the first-person pronoun or ever writing it down at all. There have also been cultures that committed atrocities even while capitalising you.

Caroline Winter, a 2008 Fulbright scholar, is a Brooklyn-based writer. William Safire is on vacation.

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