Some of the oldest words in English have been identified. Reading University researchers claim I, we, two, and three are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years. What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins states, “Essentially all the Indo-European languages share the same first-person singular pronoun, although naturally, it has diverged in form over the millennia.” (French – je, Italian – io, Russian – ja, Greek – ego). The prehistoric German pronoun – eka became German – ich, Dutch – ik, Swedish – jag, Danish/Norwegian – jeg, and English – I.
Besides being one of the oldest words, there are two more curious facts about I. First, it is the only English pronoun that is always capitalized, unlike me, you, or we. Second, English is the only language that always capitalizes I as a pronoun. History gives us clues as to why this came to be.
During the adoption of the Latin script, lower-case letters were in development and gradually came into fuller inclusion by the 8th century. I had many spellings as it evolved from Old English into Middle and early Modern English. The Old English pronoun was ic or ih, with neither being capitalized. Around 1250, I was used in the northern and midland dialects of England and extended to the south of England in the 1700s. By the time Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, it was common to mix upper and lower-case letters within a single word and sentence. Capitals were used to add emphasis or to indicate that a letter standing alone was intentional. As a personal pronoun, I was written slightly taller than its lowercase equivalent. As the orthography developed, the lower case i, like the lower-case j, acquired an extra jot or tittle for differentiation among other letters. Additionally, the letter I was used in Roman numerals for the number one, with J operating as a “swash” indicating the conclusion of a number, e.g., xxiij.
As printed texts spread across Europe, different languages developed different conventions when printing. There is a belief that Germans, for example, capitalize the formal you out of respect and never capitalize the less-presuming I in deference to the reader. When comparing European texts, English, with its always-capitalized I, might appear to be more writer-centric. However, with that logic, because the Germans also capitalize their nouns, it could be said that they hold people, places, and things with more reverence than English speakers. These “ideas” are more reactionary in tone and cultural hubris rather than representing historical facts. It is more likely the use of capitals is simply part of the writing conventions of a given language, developed over time, and directly relates to their ease in being read. Nonetheless, as we moved through the centuries, these notions about printing, orthography, and how they mean in our relative cultures have frequently been the subject of… conversations.
During the development of English as a written and spoken language, England went through numerous invasions, consequent changes to the language, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, as well as the introduction of the printing press. All this greatly influenced our relationship to the written word, books as holy relics, and scientific texts outside of the Church’s domain of influence. Like a religious text, the printed book, given its content, was sometimes seen as a tool of the Devil capable of conjuring up any number of conceits and evils from its leather-bound pages. Even the capitalizing of the letter I raised accusations of blasphemous audacity. Roger Lass in The Cambridge History of the English Language tells of one folk legend about a printmaker who, convinced by the Faustian demon, Mephistopheles, began the unholy practice of capitalizing the I pronoun. In the 21st century, these same “vanities” are projected onto the language in a slightly different tone and context.
Caroline Winter, in her 2008 article in The New York Times Magazine, suggests that the towering, capitalized, single-letter I that first appeared in England’s Middle Ages, signifies we English speakers as “discrete beings and connotes confidence, dominance and the ambition to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” She continues, “The generally accepted linguistic explanation is that it could not stand alone, uncapitalized, as a single letter, which allows for the possibility that early manuscripts and typography played a major role in shaping the national character of English-speaking countries.” Ms. Winter also prefers the more humble uncapitalized i pronoun when writing personal emails; a small act of protest with a language where “even a gathering that includes God might not be addressed with a capitalized “you.” Her article amplifies a notion that today’s youth are shedding the arrogance of capitalized forms, (testified by the lack of capitals in digital correspondence) and with it, the lingually associated “capital” of “[self] importance, material wealth, assets and advantages.”
In the same New York Times Magazine article, Charles Bigelow, a type historian and designer of fonts explains, “Graphically, single letters are a problem. They look like they broke off from a word or got lost or had some other accident.” “When the word I shrunk to a single letter,” Bigelow explains, “one little letter had to represent an important word, but it was too wimpy, graphically speaking, to carry the semantic burden, so the scribes made it bigger, which means taller, which means equivalent to a capital.”
Continuing this “conversation” online, chat spaces abound with more personal grievances than factual ideas about the capitalized I pronoun. In research, and reading in general, it’s important to stay on guard to the reappearance of age-old, reactionary sentiment. With I having survived so long, it’s likely the dialogue will continue far into the future.
If you’re interested in reading more about the English language and its rich history, check out the awesome history of the word dude, the history of American spelling bees, or what the word paddywhack from the song, “This Old Man,” actually means!