LINGUIST List 6.389

Sun 19 Mar 1995

Sum: History of Capitalisation in English

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Anthea Fallen-Bailey, Sum.: History of Capitalisation in English

Message 1: Sum.: History of Capitalisation in English

Date: Thu, 16 Mar 1995 15:37:56 Sum.: History of Capitalisation in English
From: Anthea Fallen-Bailey <>
Subject: Sum.: History of Capitalisation in English

Back in late January/early February I posted a query to LINGUIST about
sources on the
history of capitalisation in English. Several people responded asking me
to post a summary to the list on any replies I might receive. My
apologies for the delay, but I have been fighting three different winter
"bugs" (some viral, some bacterial) since my original posting, and then
had to rush to catch up on acadaemic commitments before the end of term!
Anyway, here is the summary....

The most immediate "success" reply, so to speak, came from David Denison
at U. of Manchester, U.K.: David suggested
the following article:

 Osselton, Noel (1985) 'Spelling-book rules and the capitalization
 of nouns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries'. In
 Arn, Mary-Jo and Hanneke Wirtjes (eds.). **Historical and
 editorial studies in medieval and modern English: for Johan
 Gerritsen.** Wolters-Noordhoff, Groningen, pp. 49-61.

To my delight, I found that "my" university library (Knight Lib. at the
U. of Oregon) had precisely this volume. The article (chapter) is only 6
pages long, but contains as well a list of spelling books and grammars,
etc. to which Osselton referred in the text. There is also a page of
notes. This reference is the most useful I have yet seen, and I will be
using it (when I have the time) as a foundation for finding more info. on
this topic. A good place to start, I think.

A reply from John E. Koontz ( pointed me towards
UseNet lists which, I regret, I have not yet been able to try. John
suggests comp.fonts, or hte repositories of past UseNet postings (he is
not sure where they are), or the UseNet FAQ collections. Also, comp.text.

Larry Rosenwald ( suggested looking into the
literature of printing history, as he reminded me that "in fact
capitalization was often regularized by the printer."

Henry Rogers ( wrote and remarked that "[t]he
distinction between upper and lower case in the roman alphabet obviously
developed in the writing of the Middle Ages..." I confess that my
knowledge of the Middle Ages is not sufficient to know why this is
"obvious", and I haven't yet managed to contact Henry to find out. Do
you have a moment to respond, please, Henry?

Eleanor Olds Batchelder ( suggested I might look at
Geoffrey Nunberg's writings, "esp. his history of punctuation", but she
noted that this is "just a hunch", as she has not yet read the work. Nor
have I, yet!

A final response came from Stavros Macrakis ( with the
following suggestions:

 "I note that there is a Library of Congress (tn3270
 heading Capitalization, but most of the books there are
 prescriptive or educational. There is also a subheading
 Capitalization under languages, but English Language--
 Capitalization gives only workbooks. I found some books on
 German capitalization which may (or may not) be helpful.
 See below. Harvard's catalogue lists 15 books on English
 capitalization, all prescriptive.


Materialien zur historischen entwicklung der Gross- und
Kleinschreibungsregeln / Wolfgang Mentrup (Hg.). Tuebingen : Niemeyer,
1980. 336 p. LC call # PF3147.M34

SUBJECTS [for Mentrup]: German language--Capitalization--History.


Moulin, Claudine.
 Der Majuskelgebrauch in Luthers deutschen Briefen (1517-1546).
Heidelberg : Winter, 1990. xxxiii, 462 pp.

SUBJECTS: Luther, Martin
 German language--Capitalization
 German language--Orthography and spelling

Originally presented as author's doctoral thesis, 1989, in
Otto-Friedrich-Universitaet, Bamberg.


That is all. I would like to thank everyone who replied, even if only to
express an interest. It was heartening to know that other people find
this a tantalizing question as well. To conclude, I would like to put
forward some further questions that have occurred to me as a result of
the responses I received....

1) In connection to the point about the rise of the printing industry as
an important influence in **regularising** the use of capitalisation, I
still have questions about the way people capitalised BEFORE the printing
press. For instance, in religious writings, such as the Book of Kells
(Eire), we find capital letters, ornately decorated, at the start of
portions of text/top of the page. Why were capitals used? I haven't
seen copies of the work, but did Adam Bede do the same?

2) Building on (1), I then ask, where/why did the idea of capitalisation
arise in the first place? In quite a number of other writing systems of the
world, a method of marking "important" words with a larger, and slightly
different version, of the "normal" sized letters is completely absent.
Thus, who/why/where did capitalisation come into being? We take this so
much for granted, I wonder if we can still re-/discover the reasoning
behind this "distinctiveness" strategy.

(And as a final parting shot, so to speak, I would like to point out
that in English writing we use a capital letter for the 1st.p.s. in ALL
environments, but not for any other person! Why? Was this a printing
influence too (e.g., to distinguish it from small "i" in Roman numerals?).
)From talking to a local professor, Russian, for
instance, (if I remember correctly), does NOT have this distinction.
How about other language writing systems, European or not? And what
effect does this English pattern have on us psychologically? In the
sense that "I" is more important than "you, them" etc.?).

Once again, thank-you to all respondents. I look forward to discussion,
if any, on my questions -- either post to list or to me directly.

Regards to all,
 ** "Words don't mean, people mean...." **

(have forgotten the author of this reminder). AFB.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue