Why Do We Capitalize ‘I’?

When it comes to capitalizing its first-person singular pronoun, English goes its own way.
English is an outlier in this regard.
English is an outlier in this regard. / JDawnInk/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (letter); Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (bubble)

Some languages capitalize several of their pronouns. Some don’t capitalize any of them. English is an odd duck in that it capitalizes only the first person singular, I.

Why? Honestly, linguists and historians aren’t sure. They have been unable to find any record of a definitive explanation. We know this much: In Old and early Middle English, the German-flavored ich was used as the personal pronoun. Around the middle period of Middle English, personal pronouns proliferated and Ich, ich, Ic, ic, I and i were all used in writing with varying frequency. By the end of the Middle English period, I stood alone, tall and triumphant. The ch was dropped in one of the major phonetic changes that English experienced during these years, but the reason the solo i suddenly got the capital treatment is less clear.

Scholars have proposed some explanations.

For one, capitalization might have been a linguistic concern. When I appears, it’s frequently the subject of the sentence, and may have gotten capitalized to denote its importance in a statement.

In a similar vein, capitalization might be psychological, affirming the importance not of the subject, but of the writer. One problem with this hypothesis is, if you’re going to capitalize I out of ego, why not do the same to every appearance of me?

Another explanation is that the capital I had less to do with language and more to do with the practicalities of handwriting. The lower case i looks a little weak on its own. Some historians—including Charles Bigelow, a type historian and designer of the Lucida and Wingdings font families—think that an i all by itself would have become illegible after multiple handlings and readings of a manuscript, and scribes had to make the pronoun graphically sturdier to stand the tests of time and smudging hands.

A version of this story was published in 2012; it has been updated for 2024.

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