LINGUIST List 9.253

Fri Feb 20 1998

Sum: Pronoun "I" again

Editor for this issue: Elaine Halleck <>


  • 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 "I".

    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 tale.

    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 consistent.

    [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 say, 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"