Why Do We Capitalize the Word "I"?

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Caroline Winter (sitting in for William Safire) tackles the issue of the English capitalized "I" in her column My, Myself and I in yesterday's Times Magazine. It's an interesting read (okay, and deliciously nerdy), touching on the use of personal pronouns in various languages, and tracing the peculiar history of this particular one-letter English word. (Also, big bonus points for using the word majuscule in the opening paragraph!)

Here's a sample:

"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. ...

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."

Read the rest for a nice review of the issue, including some amusing presidential candidate statistics related to the use of "I."

(Via Daring Fireball.)

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August 4, 2008 - 11:12am
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