Only English Speakers Capitalize 'I,' But That Doesn't Mean We're Obsessed With Ourselves

06/09/2015 09:26 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

Here's your weird fact of the day: English is the only language that capitalizes "I."

Yep, no other language has made it a formal requirement to distinguish first-person singular nominative pronouns with capitalization.

We're all snowflakes!

What does that mean? Well, to profess love for fried potatoes, a German speaker could write "ich liebe Pommes" and a French speaker might admit "j'adore des frites." But an English speaker would have to write, "I love French fries." Spanish speakers talk about themselves using "yo," and, Russian speakers write a small "я."

This language quirk might make you ponder why we English-speakers think so much of ourselves. We don't highlight first person plural, "we," the same way. We could, you know, think about others for once and give "you" or "they" some special capitalized treatment on the page. But we don't.

Famed linguist Otto Jespersen wrote about this odd convention more than 100 years ago. "It is often said, on the Continent at least, that the typical Englishman’s self assertion is shown by the fact that his is the only language in which the pronoun of the first person is written with a capital letter, while in some other languages it is the second person that is honoured by this distinction," Jespersen wrote. In German, all nouns are honored with capitalization. In Spanish, it's generally only proper names of people and places.

But the real story behind the great capital "I," according to Jespersen, is an "innocent one."

Apparently, in the Middle Ages, it was easy for a little "i" to get lost on the page in a sea of lowercase letters. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid confusion, scribes began elongating "i" sort of like a lowercase "j" without the dot when it appeared at the end of a word. Or, in the case of our first-person pronoun, constituted the entire word. (This would explain, in part, why Medieval script is so hard for modern English speakers to read -- although it did look quite nice.)

When the printing press took off in the 15th century, that elongated "j" character was represented by a capital "I," Acrisio Pires, a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan, told The Huffington Post. And that, folks, is how we got here.

But, you might still wonder, could "I" actually affect English speakers' sense of self? The answer is: probably not. At least according to psychology professor Adele Goldberg of Princeton University.

"It's like saying Germans may be more materialistic because they capitalize all nouns. Or that Chinese speakers are less analytical because they can use a writing system that doesn’t analyze words into their phonemic segments. I don’t think anyone would entertain either claim," she said. Stanford University linguistics professor Paul Kiparsky echoed Goldberg's strong doubts, too.

"Note that only 'I' is capitalized [in English], and not 'me,' 'my,' 'mine,' 'we,' 'us,' 'our,'" Kiparsky pointed out. That is to say, if we were really in love with ourselves, we'd distinguish all our first-person pronouns and not just the nominative one. And considering how easy it is to type "i" on a keyboard without losing any meaning, we can't say capital "I" will remain the widespread rule forever. But for now, English speakers, you can save your energy for the real grammar issues at hand, like comma usage and single spacing.

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