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Why ‘I’ Is Always Capitalised

One of the well-known English grammar rules is that the first-person singular pronoun, I is always capitalised. But why?

Where the distinction between upper and lower case comes from

The origin of the upper case distinction is not so clear. The uncial script is a majuscule script, a synonym meaning large or capital letter, commonly used by Latin and Greek scribes beginning between the IV and VIII centuries. The word is derived from the Latin uncialis meaning of an inch, of an ounce. As the Latin alphabet was adapted for other languages over time, more letters were added that also incorporated the majuscule lettering, leading to the Modern Latin alphabet from which the English alphabet is derived.

As the uncial script evolved, a smaller, more rounded and connected Greek-style lettering, called minuscule, was introduced around the IX century. It soon became very common to mix minuscule and some uncial or capital letters within a word, the latter being used for emphasis. In contrast, many other writing systems such as the Georgian language and Arabic make no distinction between upper and lowercase lettering – a system called unicase.

With time, languages developed grammar rules, sometimes quite complicated, for the use of minuscule (lower case) and capital (upper case) letters, all languages using capital letters for emphasis but each language to emphasise different aspects. It is generally understood that the first word of a sentence and all proper nouns are always capitalised.

Capitalised for aesthetics

Whilst somehow natural to English speakers, this is quite unusual: in fact, English is the only language that writes the first-person pronoun in capitals: only the singular (I) not the plural (we)! (Is this a hint about English society?)

It turns out that this grammar rule came up somehow for an aesthetic reason. In Old and Middle English, the word for I was closer to the German version, ich, and it was often spelled ic, all lower case. However, the pronunciation and the spelling changed over time, losing the consonant c. At first, the new word, i, was left lower case. However, it began to grow taller than other words for a silly reason: a single letter looked bad…. It is strange that the other single-letter word in English, a, statistically more often used, never looked bad enough at all! Anyway, at the beginning of the XV century, by the time Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, the first-person singular pronoun was consistently written slightly taller than its lower case equivalent and, from that point on, it was typically written in capitals.

The effect of practicality

Slowly but steadily, some regression can easily be noticed: in e-mails and instant messaging conversations, all grammar rules about capitalisation – and some orthography rules as well – are progressively ignored for the sake of practicality and speed. Autocorrection and automated spelling aids are not always helping….

Is there a chance that, in a few years, the capital I will go extinct?

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