LINGUIST List 9.229

Sun Feb 15 1998

Sum: Pronoun "I"

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  • Tatje, Sum: Pronoun "I"

    Message 1: Sum: Pronoun "I"

    Date: Fri, 13 Feb 1998 12:47:17 +0100
    From: Tatje <>
    Subject: Sum: Pronoun "I"

    On January 21, I posted a query concerning the capitalization of the English pronoun "I". Our guess here was that it is just conventional and had to do with the desire to distinguish it from similar-looking i's, u's, v's etc. in (medieval) handwriting.

    In contrast to my very late summary (my apologies for the delay), the first answers popped in almost immediately. I would like to thank the following people for their help:

    Anne Marie Augustus <> Keith Battarbee <> Antony Dubach Green <> Hartmut Haberland <> Kathryn Hansen <> Earl Herrick <> N. Hottel <> Mark Mandel <> Ingrid Piller <> Geoffrey Sampson <> Steven Schaufele <>

    I have tried to find some kind of tentative categorization for the answers, as follows:

    1. The "technical" arguments:

    1.1. Several people agreed that the similarity of, i, j, u, v, m and n in medieval handwriting is the source of the problem. Mark Mandel illustrats this with the word "minimum", which would have been composed of similar strokes more or less like that: /////////////// which is /// / // / /// // /// m i n i m u m

    (Still a problem in modern handwriting, I think. Just try to write words like "communism" or "communication" without a pause and without counting your strokes afterwards!) Mark points out that the dot on the i and j is a fairly late addition in order to distinguish these letters in words like those above. Similar problems arose in words with combinations of u and v, as long as they were both represented by v (lvve and dvve\255ve and dove in Middle English). 1.2. Keith Battarbee points to the development of the tail in j as distinction from the tailless i. 1.3. Geoffrey Sampson mentions the number one, which was also written as a simple stroke and could thus be confused with i. 1.4. Several people argue that i is such a small letter and can therefore easily be overlooked (one hypothesis is that the dot on the i is there not only for distinction, but also to make it look bigger); consequently, it was left capitalized when lower-case initial letters became normal - which leads Geoffrey Sampson to ask "why "I" failed to change to "i", not why it was "I" in the first place." 1.5. "I" is the only one-letter pronoun, the article "a" being the only other one-letter word in English; Keith Batterbee says that there seems to be a general "dislike" of one-letter words in English orthography. 1.6. Several people argued that the capitalization developed with typesetting since the Middle Ages, for basically the same reasons as those given above for handwriting (Ingrid Piller indicates K. Faiss (1989): "Englische Sprachgeschichte", p. 152, as a source - one that I have NOT consulted).

    2. A purely linguistic(?) argument: 2.1. Anne Marie Augustus points out that "I" generally appears as the subject of a sentence; consequently it frequently appears as the first word and is therefore capitalized (As a proof, she counted the I's in my query and found seven I's in it, but only one was not sentence-initial. Well, this may not be statistically significative, but thanks for counting anyway. ;-) ).

    3. The "psychological" arguments:

    3.1. N. Hottel "would go for an explanation that takes into account our egocentric nature, but more ..."

    3.2. "... that considers I as a name, and names are capitalized." This leads to...

    3.3. Ingrid Piller thinks that "particularly intriguing is the way this conventional spelling got re-motivated (by German scholars; Volkerkunde, Volkerpsychologie and all that stuff) at the beginning of this century when they tried to find out "universal character traits" of a people from its language. The spelling served them as "evidence" that "the English" are self-centered, whereas "the Germans", capitalizing the 2nd p. pronouns, were supposed to be truly altruistic." Well, unfortunately, "the Germans" had the chance to falsify this theory in the thirties and forties, and used it.

    4. A contrastive argument (inter- and intralingually):

    4.1. Hartmut Haberland points to similar problems in Danish, where the few capitalized words can also have a distinctive function: - "I" (always capitalized), "you" (2nd plural) in contrast to "i", - "in" "De", "you" (address pronoun, expresses rather distance than - respect) in contrast to "de", "they"

    I found the answers very interesting though at least the question whether the source for the capitalization of "I" is in medieval handwriting or early typesetting doesn't seem to be quite evident. I suppose both processes are related with each other. Obviously, some more research is still necessary, which has not yet been done because, as Earl Herrick points out, "it would require looking at a lot of written and printed English." Any volunteers?

    - --------------------------------------------------------------- Dr. Rolf Tatje Gerhard-Mercator-Universitat FB 3 - Romanistik D-47048 Duisburg

    Phone: (+203) 379-2605 Fax: (+203) 379-1952 E-mail: