Last year on the HH blog, we looked at why the lower-case letter i—and its alphabetical cousin j, for that matter—has a dot above it. Turns out it had something to do with stopping intelligent people being mistaken for their knees. But this week in our noticeably infrequent series of Questions About The Language You Never Even Thought About, we’re posing another I-related conundrum: why do we capitalize the pronoun I?
After all, none of the other English pronouns—including all the other first person pronouns, like me, mine, my and myself—is capitalized, unless you happen to be God or He Who Should Not Be Named. Nor was I’s ancestor, the Old English word ic, written with an uppercase letter. And the translated equivalent of I in most other languages is usually left in lowercase, like the French je, Spanish yo, Italian io, and German ich.
Speaking of German, of course, it capitalizes all of its nouns, like Mann and Frau, Apfel and Orange, Kapitalbuchstaben and Kleinbuchstaben. That’s something that English reserves only for its proper nouns (John Smith, Australia, the Cabinet, Sister Act), unless you happen to have some kind of point-making rhetorical effect in mind, as in “He doesn’t just think he’s the bee’s knees, he thinks he’s The Bee’s Knees”.
German does however capitalize the formal form of its second person pronoun, Sie, “you”, along with all its derivate case forms like Ihr, “your”. That’s part of a linguistic phenomenon known as the T-V Distinction, which has nothing to do with how much better than terrestrial television Netflix is, but rather the way in which some languages like to show polite respect by altering the pronouns used to refer to people you don’t know very well or hold in high regard. It’s the same reason why French speakers will politely ask you to respondez s’il vous plaît, unless they know you particularly well (in which case résponds s’il te plaît will do just fine). Same goes for voulez-vous coucher avec moi, çe soir, but you really shouldn’t be saying that to someone you don’t hold in high regard.
So is this what’s happening in English? Do we think so highly of ourselves that we’ve grown accustomed to capitalizing our first person pronoun? Some etymologists have suggested so, and have even theorized that there’s a latently egocentric, psychological reason behind uppercase I. But if that’s the case, why hasn’t that filtered down to the likes of me and myself, or we and ourselves? And why is it only English speakers who are self-centred enough to capitalize ourselves while other languages are not? Don’t answer that.
So perhaps there’s something more pragmatic going on. An alternative theory claims that because the pronoun I occurs so frequently in sentence-first position, it’s only natural that it would eventually become capitalized. It’s a plausible idea, but does I really occur enough times in sentence-initial position to permanently alter its form in every other context? And again, why hasn’t the same thing happened to all the other pronouns?
Instead the most likely explanation of how we ended up with capital I is a surprisingly practical one, instigated by the fact that around the time capital-I first began to appear in writing (in the Middle English period, roughly 700-800 years ago, so Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provides much of its early evidence) there was a phonological change also taking place.
At that time, many dialects of English were busy reducing the Old English word for I—ic or ich, which was pronounced a bit like “itch” but without the T—to a single “i” sound, making the Cs and Hs normally used to spell it no longer necessary. In written English, however, a single lowercase letter i can look a little lost on its own, and in a densely handwritten document it’s easy to imagine just how easily a solitary pint-sized stroke, even with or without its dot, might be misread, overlooked, or even dismissed as a smudge or dash.
As a result, early Middle English scribes began making their single letter Is a little bigger, so that they could stand a little prouder and little more robust on the line of text. And over time, that became the standard and gave us the pronoun capital I. And that’s The Truth—or at least, the Best Theory We Have.