LINGUIST List 9.253

Fri Feb 20 1998

Sum: Pronoun "I" again

Editor for this issue: Elaine Halleck <>


  1. Tatje, Pronoun "I" again

Message 1: Pronoun "I" again

Date: Thu, 19 Feb 1998 10:48:05 +0100
From: Tatje <>
Subject: Pronoun "I" again

After I had posted my summary on the capitalized pronoun "I", I received
some more responses (from Kate McCreight <, Paul
Purdom <> and, again, Keith Battarbee <>),
which basically added ideas in the same sense as summarized earlier.

I also received two very detailed responses from Charles Bigelow
<> who made the effort (or allowed himself the pleasure?) to
look into quite a number of facsimiles of medieval English manuscripts. I
think what Charles found out may be of interest for the list members so,
having received his permission, please find attached his results.

Rolf Tatje

- -----------------------------------------------

"The paleographical record suggests that the "technical" arguments of "minim
confusion" or indistinction (avoidance of minuscules) are probably
incorrect; see note below on the Peterborough Chronicle). Also, the
argument based on typography is certainly incorrect, see notes on Chaucer
and Caxton. The suggestion of differentiation with figure "1" is difficult
to test, but is not highly persuasive because documents containing both the
figure and the pronoun in confusable contexts appear to be rare (I didn't
find any, but I couldn't search very deep). The suggestion that the pronoun
"I" is capitalized because it is often initial in a sentence is
contradicted at least by the Peterborough Chronicle (see below), where
initial majuscule and medial minuscule forms of the word appear in the same
sentence. The psychological argument of egotism is untestable unless we can
gain a better insight into the personalities of Middle English scribes.

The orthographic emergence of capital "I" for the first person singular
pronoun is located somewhere in the middle period of Middle English. ME
manuscripts show the forms "ich", "i" (minuscule, without dot), and "I"
(majuscule). The first two tend to occur in the early or middle periods of
Middle English, and the last seems dominant, though not unique, in the late
period. There may well be other spelling variations, but my brief search
did not turn them up.

Middle English orthography was more diverse than that of Old English or
Modern English, and Middle English was transformed by major sound changes
that affected, among many other words, the first person singular pronoun,
including loss of the velar fricative /x/ in "ich" (which was already
subject to dialectal variations) and the Great English Vowel Shift which,
among other things, changed the long high front vowel of "ich" or "i" (of
early Middle English) to a diphthong (perhaps /Ii/ in late Middle English,
if that was the first stage in the vowel shift, as some say).

I don't have enough data or knowledge for a reasonable hypothesis, but I
would look at the periods of those sound shifts, plus the more or less
concurrent change from Old English orthography to Norman orthography in the
writing of Middle English.

A few notes:

The typographic hypothesis is certainly false, because the use of capital
"I" becomes common in late Middle English manuscripts of the late 14th and
early 15th century, more than 60 years before the first book printed in
English - "Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy", translated and printed by
William Caxton circa 1474.

In the prologue to the printed "Recuyell..." c. 1474, Caxton uses capital
"I" as the first person singular pronoun.

A Chaucer manuscript of approximately the same date, c. 1475, also uses the
capital "I", cf. British Library Harley MS 7334.

Approximately 70 years earlier, the Ellesmere manuscript (dated circa
1400-1410) of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" also uses the capital

A manuscript ("The Equatorie of the Planetis", dated 1392), illustrated in
A.G. Petti's "English Literary Hands from Chaucer to Dryden" and doubtfully
attributed to Chaucer himself, also shows the use of the capital "I".

However, an English manuscript written circa 1400 of Robert Mannyng's
"Handelyng' off Synne" shows the first person singular pronoun distinctly
written as "i", in minuscule, clearly distinct from a majuscule "I" used as
a sentence initial on the same page.

It is perhaps significant that, though this manuscript was written in a
Textura hand, the minuscule "i" for the singular pronoun was undotted. This
casts doubt on the hypothesis that capitalization of "I" was related to the
problem of "minim" confusion (especially in Textura) that led to the
emergence of the dot or jot on the minuscule "i". For a facsimile, see
"English Handwriting 1400-1650" by J.F. Preston and Laetitia Yeandle.
Frequent use of the Old English "thorn" and "yogh" letters in this MS
suggests that the scribe may have been deliberately archaizing the
orthographic style, but I know no paleographical discussion or other
evidence for this, and it may be just a late holdover of some Old English
orthographical conventions.

Of about the same period or a little earlier, the British Library's Cotton
manuscript of "Sir Gawain and the Green Night" (I don't have the date at
hand, but it is approximately late 14th century) apparently uses the
minuscule "i", though editors usually transcribe it as capital "I".

The 13th century "Owl and the Nightingale" uses "ich", with initial "i"
minuscule, for the first person singular pronoun.

The 12th century Old English Peterborough Chronicle shows, in a passage
covering the year 1154, the use of minuscule "i" for the first person
singular pronoun when medial in a sentence, but capital "I" when initial.
The small illustration I am looking at (on p. 33 of David Crystal's
"Encyclopedia of the English Language) may have a slight jot in a different
color above the "i". But, if the jot is actually there, it may have been a
later scribal addition."

"Because the preliminary evidence suggests that capitalization of the "I"
pronoun began during the Middle English period, I looked for other ME texts
that use "I" or "Ich". I don't have many facsimiles at hand, and almost
no examples of ME documents like correspondence and legal docs - which would
often be in Latin anyway, but found a fair number of literary manuscripts
that have been transcribed, which at least point out where we might begin to
look for manuscript evidence.

I previously mentioned "Sir Gawain and the Green Night", the unique ms
of which is dated to the last quarter of the 14th century (1375-1400). Also,
there is "The Vision of Piers Plowman," which survives in several
manuscripts (there are three main texts, the "B" version dated circa 1377).
And of course
there are many manuscripts of Chaucer.

Short Middle English lyrics often have "I" and/or "Ich" (or "i" or "ich"),
but I have at hand only modern typographic transcriptions, in which the
editors have probably altered the orthography. The mss would tell a clearer

The dates of the following are not exactly known, but estimated as late
13th or early 14th century, in the Norton Anthology of English Literature,
where I looked them up. The titles given here are modern. In the modern
transcriptions, the "I" is capitalized, but I doubt that it is always
so in the earliest manuscripts. In brackets I note which versions of the
pronoun appear in transcription, but the capitalization should not be
assumed to accurately reflect the manuscripts.

 "Fowls in the Frith" ["I"]
 "Alison" ["Ich", "ich-", "I"]
 "My Lief is Faren in Londe" ["I"]
 "I Have a Young Sister [...Yong Suster]" ["I"]
 "Spring Has Come with Love" ["Ich-", "ich", "I"]
 ('Lenten is come with love to towne')
 "Say me, wight in the broom" {"Ich"]
 "The Henpecked Husband" ["I"]
 "In Praise of Brunettes" ["I"]
 "The Appreciative Drinker" ["I"]
 "I am of Ireland" ["Ich"]
 ('Ich am of Irlonde')
 "I Sing of a Maiden" ["I"]

But my favorite is the Second Shepherds' Play, circa 1385, which not only
contains both "I" and "Ich" but uses the dialectal contrast between them as
part of the story and the basis for a joke. "Mak" is a thief who steals a
sheep belonging to the shepherds, "Coll", "Gib", and "Daw".

Mak at first uses "I", like the shepherds, but then affects a southern
accent using "Ich" in an attempt to deceive the shepherds into thinking
he is an important person from the south, but he can't quite keep it

[line 201]

MAK: What! Ich be a yeoman, I tell you of the king,
 The self and the same, sond from a great lording
 And sich.
 Fie on you! Goth hence
 Out of my presence:
 I must have reverence.
 Why who be ich?

[the shepherds recognize him, and make fun of his fake accent]

[line 214]

COLL: But Mak, is that sooth?
 Now take out that southern tooth,
 And set in a turd!

Immediately after this, there is a series of assonances and rhymes between:

 "ee" (eye) / "lean",
 "me" / "teen" (vex),
 "three" / "seen"

They all rhyme for us today, eh? But I wonder if the vowels were then
the same, despite the spellings, and how close they were to the vowel of
the "Ich" and "I" that formed the nucleus of the preceding joke.

Also, there are rhymes of "doth" - "tooth" and "word" - "turd".

The vowels seem to have been variable, or the orthography jumbled, even in
1385. And the presence or absence of the fricative /x/ in the first person
singular pronoun was obviously a matter of note.

I don't have a facsimile ms of this, so I can't tell if the modern editors
"updated" the orthography of "I" and "Ich". Possibly so.

Anyway, if we want to pass from data to theory, albeit on shaky ground, I
might surmise that, if the Great English Vowel Shift had begun, as some
around the last quarter of the 14th century, by shifting the high front vowel
of "I" and/or "Ich" to a diphthong, at roughly the same time that the
fricative /x/ was being lost in the southern dialects, having been earlier
lost in the north, then these changes, both affecting the pronoun, might
somehow have prompted the trend toward capitalization that seems to have begun
in the last half of the 14th century and become common in the first quarter of
the 15th century.

That is, if the vowel was lengthened by diphthongization, while the
consonant was reduced or lost, would that have been enough to motivate
scribes, in an era when orthography was highly flexible, to mark the word
by capitalization?

That's a reductionist hypothesis that tries to link an orthographic
change to sound changes. Since one purpose of orthography is to represent
sounds, that's not entirely implausible.

On the other hand, perhaps, as some have suggested, those 14th century
scribes just didn't like the look of that puny little "i" (often without
even a dot capping it) all by its lonesome out there on the page, so
they used capitalization as a grammatical marker to signify that the
letter was a word, and an important kind of word. (We don't need to
speculate on the egotism of the English. It's enough to acknowledge the
grammatical importance of the nominative singular pronoun as compared
to, say, the indefinite article 'a'.) Here, the scribes would be employing
another use of orthography, to mark a word class in a special circumstance.

Well, we'll have to wait until someone turns up more manuscript evidence.

- Chuck Bigelow"
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