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PostPosted: Sat Dec 25, 2010 3:38 am
Post subject: Further Elucidation on the Capitalization of “I” in English
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(this is a paper in progress)

The first-person pronoun in English is the only personal pronoun that is capitalized in English at present. This is set in a world where numerous other languages capitalize both the first-person pronoun and other personal pronouns. “You”, or more precisely the second person formal/distanced address, is among the most commonly capitalized. That capitalization is generally based on a respect for position or the individual. There may be little wonder then that the sole capitalization of “I” in English has garnered a somewhat sweeping dismissal as being egotistical. There are other explanations that have varying amounts of merit, however. In addition, there is an often overlooked refute of the individual self-centeredness explanation.

Despite there being no record of a definitive explanation from the early period of this capitalization practice, there is scholarly merit (and simple curiosity) to prompt the continued seeking of an explanation. Herein is presented what seems to be the most comprehensive, though intentionally concise, consideration of the subject known to this author. Obviously, any additional relevant information would be helpful in the formulation of a more complete examination, and all input on the content herein is welcome, as well.

First, a noting of some dates relevant to this examination seems beneficial. These are listed in chronological order, not in order of significance, since the chronological ordering of these events seems to speak directly to the likelihood of some prominent explanations.

[The referenced sources regarding the appearances of “i” and “ich”, alternate forms of the first-person pronoun in English at the time, should not be considered comprehensive.]

    Around 500 BCE, the Pratishakhyas were written. These constitute some of the earliest recognized writings on linguistics and include a delineation of language surface structure, including suffixes and prefixes. These were written regarding Sanskrit. ("Shiksha: Pratishakhyas")

    Coming to the 4th century AD and a more Western culture, we find the Roman grammarian, Aelius Donatus. He is known to have been a tutor of grammar and wrote a minor and major work of one Ars Grammatica. This work included, among other language topics, a detailed section on the eight parts of speech, including pronouns. The Ars Grammatica is reported to have been a popular schoolbook in the Middle Ages. It was written in regard to Latin, which was studied in England and elsewhere, Latin being one of the official languages of legal proceedings and church documents at the time. ("Aelius Donatus", Brittanica; "Aelius Donatus", Wikipedia; "Ars Grammatica")

    In the 11th century the tittle had appeared over the “i” in Latin. The intention is suspected to have been to set the letter apart from characters on either side of it. Some notable points are that works were handwritten at the time. The dot used in the “i” would have been significantly larger and likely of a slash shape compared to today's dot which developed with typesetting. ("Tittle", Encarta; "Tittle", Wikipedia)

    Original surviving documentation attests that by the 12th century lowercase “i” has appeared in texts. In addition, in the 1154 issue of the Peterborough Chronicle, a handwritten manuscript, there can be seen both an uppercase “I” at the beginning of a sentence and a lowercase “i” later in the same sentence. (Halleck; Crystal)

    There is another printed book that includes the text of a manuscript from 1250. This text includes a capitalized "I" in the sentence. However, the printed book is not original to the time and Editor's notes regarding the original manuscript attest to inconsistencies (typos). (Morris)

    De vulgari eloquentia [On eloquence in the vernacular] is suspected to have been written between 1302 and 1305, based on references within the text. While this work by Dante Alighieri was never completed, it speaks directly of a contemporary interest in elevating respect for and understanding of vernacular languages of the day. This takes the form of a proposition to use Italian dialect in the writing of literature, instead of Latin. This discussion would continue in Italy. ("De Vulgari Eloquentia", "Dante Alighieri")

    The first of the final shifts toward what would constitute English as the official language within England took place in the 14th century. It was in the form of an official allowance and protection of the use of English in the oral arguments of legal cases. This was established by a statute in 1362 following support and practice among the people. Until this time, French was the official language for speaking and Latin was the official language used for writing in court. Many common people were not educated in these languages however. ("ENGLISH STATUTES"; "Pleading in English Act 1362")

    “Ich”, “ich”, “Ic”, “ic”, [each of these are recognized as variations of the Proto Germanic first-person pronoun] and “i” continue to appear in texts into the 14th century. During this period there are at least six different forms of the first-person pronoun, counting capitalized and lowercase variations separately. (Halleck)

    In the late 14th century and early 15th century the use of the capitalized “I” becomes common. (Halleck)

    Around the mid to late 15th century English became the accepted language of the Parliament of England and became commonly used in King Henry V's court that same century. ("Middle English")


Considering all of this in assessing the likely explanations of the capitalization of “I” can be helpful, as is demonstrated when examining one of the most popular of the accepted explanations. The explanation states, quite simply, the capitalization was the result of the lowercase “i” being less legible or not as likely to withstand the wear of multiple readings. This seems not only plausible, but there are some major supports for this explanation. Among such supports are the design of the quill pens of the day and the drippings that have been noted to occur at times when using them.

However, as we can see from our outline, the lower case “i” appeared no later than the twelfth century. It was then approximately two centuries before the capitalized “I” became commonplace, outside of the start of the sentence. Noting that the capitalized “I” was already found at the beginning of sentences, it seems unlikely that the remedy would have been put off for two centuries, if it was an immediate matter as simple and demanding as function. Consider also that the dot above the “i” is commonly recognized as an adaptation to reduce the risk of the letter being or becoming illegible. That innovation is recorded as occurring in the century prior to the time “i” is first used as the first-person pronoun in English.

Another point is, after the uppercase “I” was introduced into use within the sentence, other than as the first word, instances of the lowercase continue to appear. This may be explained by the time required for a practice to spread through a population however. It may also indicate that legibility was not the only factor, as function tends to be a simple concern and better function is often reason enough to embrace change, in the absence of other considerations.

These considerations seem to reduce the likelihood that the lowercase “i” simply not functioning adequately was the sole instigator of the change or the only consideration among individuals making the choice to continue the practice of capitalization once it was instituted.

Denoting Status

Now, to turn to that populous explanation that was mentioned at the outset. Perhaps the English were/are individually self-centered. “I” was not the only first-person pronoun used in English at the time. A choice to capitalize pronouns based on an individual self-centeredness would likely capitalize “me” as well. "Me" provides the same certainty in regard to which individual is referred to as the pronoun “I” does. Therefore the reasoning was either not one of individual self-centeredness, or it was a faulty application of it. The faulty application condition does not seem well-founded either considering the amount of language study that had already occurred by the time the practice was instituted, more on this and the intuitive similarities and differences of “I” and “me” later, and the amount of language change that was occurring at the time. Though the fact that "me" was already established with lowercase, while the first-person pronoun was being changed in spelling and therefore may have seemed more accessible in regard to capitalization.

Identity, and perhaps pride, should not be eliminated from the examination entirely. In examining the timeline, and going so far as to supplement it with a more exhaustive history of England, a number of notable occurrences present that relate to these concepts and may have played a role. The period around the 14th century, contrasted against the turmoil that preceded it, represents, in England, a move toward stability. While the monarchs of the day were technically not all native to England, the period was the introduction of a greater certainty to the establishment of what it was to be English, and the reinforcement that there was indeed a future for England and all that was to be English. These occurrences were immediate to the timing of the change in capitalization. Consider the emerging English identity. Now consider the implications of the pleading statute of 1362. The right of the people to speak their language in court was secured. The common people, not only those educated in French and Latin, now had personal presence in court. Consider the timing of that statute in relation to the appearance of the capital “I”. (It is commonly accepted that the popularity of speaking English in court in rural and poor areas had already been established prior to the time of the Pleading Act.) Now consider the continuing wave of English through Parliament and into the King's Court, and again consider the timing of this in relation to the established commonplaceness of the capital “I”.

There seems substantial support that the capitalization of “I” may have been linked, to some degree, with a sort of linguistic-nationalism. Again though, we might ask, “Why only 'I', why not 'me'?” in regard to the reason for capitalization. Here the linguistic-nationalism explanation is not excluded as the individual self-centeredness explanation seems to be. When looking at the Old English pronouns used in England, they are recognized as derivations from external languages.

The use of “ic” or “ich”, which were among the Old English spellings of the first-person pronoun, bear a notable resemblance to “ich” or “Ich”, which is the recognized first-person pronoun, of the protolanguage of Old English. A shift to “I”, or “i” alone, would have been a shift away from the Proto Germanic. In the case of “me” remaining “me” one should note that this pronoun had already changed significantly from the Proto Germanic predecessor, “meke”, which would have been a notable orthographic and phonetic change. Thus the further change of “ic” or “ich”, among the last of the notably similar personal pronouns, would have been a move away from the protolanguage, Germanic, and toward a new and more fundamentally English English, a development already achieved in the second-person pronoun.


Yet another potential explanation of the capitalization of "I" is related more directly to the pronunciation of "I". What are today known as long vowel sounds came into existence, sometime prior to the capitalization of the first person pronoun, but a number of more subtle shifts in the pronunciation of the vowels continued to develop even after the capitalization of "I" was commonplace. One proposed explanation of the capitalization is that "i" was capitalized to denote the long vowel sound. There major consideration that may prove conflicting in regard to this theory is that the more dramatic establishment of long vowel sounds is generally considered to have occurred in Old English, prior to the central time of the capitalization change. In many cases these sounds are traced to alternate spellings in languages other than English.

There are also other single-letter vowel words that may shed light on whether the pronunciation or single letter aspect of the word was sufficient to prompt capitalization. There are considerable complications in the examination of this however, among the primary are lack of information and the conflicting nature of some sources. The primary points of concern regarding disagreement is whether these other single-letter vowel words were originally pronounced with long-vowel sounds. This could reveal much about the possibility of connection between pronunciation and capitalization.

The first of these single-letter vowel words is "a". It is one of the many words that came into being around the same time as the capitalization of "I". Today, it is pronounced with what has come to be known simply as a long vowel sound, yet it was never capitalized. According to Dobson (Vol II pg.450) the article form would have had a long vowel pronunciation in Middle English. Similarly, the interjection "a" is noted to have had a long vowel pronunciation in A Comprehensive Old-English Dictionary. The example of "a" (as interjection and as article) also speaks to the single-letter word concern, that a word of a single letter might have been assumed to be a typo, and so require capitalization, though the shapes are notably different.

Interestingly the development from only "a" to the two forms "a" and "an" are noted as occurring from the 12th to 14th century by Etymology online. This would be another example of word development which occurred over the span of two centuries. It is also pertinent to note that the development of "a" and "an" is not considered to have been related to legibility, which does not contradict the likelihood that necessity of that sort would likely result in quicker change. Instead it is a development determined to be related to pronunciation, as "an" came to be used typically before words that began with vowel sounds and "a" with consonants. However, neither "a" nor "an" were commonly capitalized outside of the start of sentences neither around the time in question nor since. 

The word "a" has a listing as an interjection, also noted as being pronounced with a long vowel sound, in Stratmanns Middle English Dictionary in addition to the article usage that most modern English users are familiar with. This may provide adequate reason to dismiss these interjections' part of speech alone as a factor in capitalization. "O" is interesting not only because it was capitalized in some instances around the time that the capitalization of the first person pronoun was developing, but also because it continues to be capitalized in some instances today. Examination of "O" may shed light on the nature of this instance of capitalization and possibly on the capitalization of "I" and the sustainment of their capitalization in English.

"O" seemingly presents an alternate side to capitalization from "a", but the interjection "O" has possibly more telling complexities.  "O" is listed as being capitalized in a number of sources that quote original texts from the time in question. These quotations include mid-sentence use as well as usage as the first word in the sentence. The online Middle English Dictionary maintained at the University of Michigan lists a number of these quotations. There are also a number of sources that have entries for a minuscule "o". These include the entry word at the University of Michigan, where capitalized quotations are found; a seemingly incomplete entry at Online Etymology that redirects to "oh"; and an entry in Stratmanns Middle English Dictionary which cross-references to the interjection "a". 

Pronunciation alone seems an even less likely explanation when considering The Oxford  English Dictionary Second Edition states that short and long "o" sounds were etymologically and already phonetically distinct in the Old English, while it states that Old English had neither the interjection "o!" or "O!" nor "a!" "A!". It is also notable that "O" or "o" is noted as originating in the 12th century which is considered early Middle English. Stratmanns' entry for "o" includes notation of the long "o" sound in pronunciation. The two letter form of the interjection is noted as being used in the 17th and 18th century  in specific instances.

A search through the texts available in the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse at the University of Michigan website revealed that "o" and "O" were much more common than "oh" and "Oh". Notably "O" appeared most frequently in the text of the Bible. Examples of the texts that included "oh" and "Oh" were wills, records, minor poems, a manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury tales, as well as at least one collection of thirteenth century hymns, among others. In addition, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004) explains, "O" is an interjection that is often "associated with religion and with high literary style" today.(Simpson pg. 624) This general coupling with holy subjects and revered contexts cited in the sustained instances of capitalization seems evident in the analysis of texts of the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse. The more modern direct stating in the Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004) may likely belie one of the strongest natures of the practice of capitalization, status, which is central to capitalization in other languages as well.

Language-based Considerations

For further understanding on distinctions between “I” and “me” that may have prompted capitalization of one and not the other, regard first the timeline of linguistics, noted sparsely above. While English might be considered to have been a relatively young language at that point, the practice of studying languages to varying degrees and using various approaches was already age-old. This is something that continued to move closer and closer to English as the period around the 14th century, which was seminal for the English language, approached. By this time, parts of speech, including pronouns, had already been studied and written on. One particular book was reproduced widely as a schoolbook during the Middle Ages, as stated earlier. The study of language had also begun to penetrate the vernacular languages prior to that period when English began to be recognized as an official language as well. Considering all of this, there is little reason to assume that writers such as Chaucer and some of the others, who are noted for their use of the capital “I” early in the shift to capitalization, had not given some conscious thought to the workings of the language.

Which brings us to a linguistic function based explanation of why “I” might have been capitalized, or at least distinguished from other pronouns including “me”. “I” and sometimes “you” act as a title that invokes the role of the individual that it refers to. These roles have been, perhaps too simply termed in the past as “receiver” and “sender” to denote the communicative context of them. Herein the role of "first-person" and "second-person" are aptly reiterated.

"I" invokes the first-person role in real-world use. "You" sometimes invokes the second-person role in real-world use. This can be demonstrated in the following, in accordance with the basest explanation of pronouns, that would have been more than understood at the time, a pronoun is used where something else could be used and conveys the same thing.

In the use of “I” we find:

“I do not want to offend anyone.”

It can not be said that “I” replaces any noun phrase directly. Consider the following:

“Edward Wells II do not want to offend anyone.”

The direct replacement of words requires grammatical agreement, which is not present.

It can be said, however, in each usage of “I” the first-person role is signified by “I”.

“I, the speaker, do not want to offend anyone.”
“I, the thinker, do not want to offend anyone.”

Here the grammatical agreement is incidental, but the noun phrase within the commas does much to illustrate the point.

The result is an instance when the pronoun seems not to replace words, so much as refer to some distinct role. This is not exclusive to “I”. In some instances “you” may refer to a second-person role capacity, for example.

This might be termed a titular quality that is shared by some pronouns, in that pronouns used this way denote a role rather than directly replace other words. Only “I” demonstrates this quality alone in each usage though. It does not require recent language discovery or technique to recognize this, so it can be assumed that the astute, the studied and even the commonplace linguist of the day would likely have been aware that this pronoun, "I", was different than all other personal pronouns.

To further distinguish “I” from “me” we need only consider their grammatical usage. “I” is a personal (subject) pronoun, while “me” is an object pronoun. In this way, “me” is liberated from verbal agreement in English. This coupled with the contrast of subject and object represent significant differences. The resulting differences in application may result in an intuitive distinction to users of the language as well.

In the sense that there seems to be a verbal agreement, “me” might be considered to replace other words more directly than “I”.

“Do you understand me?”
“Do you understand Edward Wells II?”

The applicative differences of “me” and other object pronouns compared to “I” along with the linguistic distinctions would likely have further set “me” apart from “I”.

It should be noted that much of this would likely have been known prior to the shift to capitalization. This seems to reduce the likelihood that these factors might have prompted capitalization, and instead may have supported the change.


In addition to all of this that may have set "i" apart as a target for being set apart, ultimately consideration should be given to the act of capitalization. Capitalization was established prior to the institution of "I" and is something that remains a part of a number of languages. Capitalization has been refined and limited in English relatively recently, but the intent, even at the height of capitalizing many nouns in a sentence, can be seen to follow a central theme, to denote respect, position, or prominence in general.

Nature of Language

While much of this may not have been planned, seemingly no reasoning was recorded, today, it is recognized by some of the foremost linguists that the unconscious working of the structures of the mind determine language. This is vital in the understanding of language presented by Noam Chomsky. It does not seem unfounded to consider that the unconscious impact of dramatic social changes, of the sort seen in England around the period in question, may influence a language. In addition, social change has been actively observed to directly impact language through both resultant conscious planning and through the unplanned impact of exposure. More on this can be found in the brief introduction “Language Change” at the National Science Foundation's website.


In light of all that is presented here, there is little compelling evidence as to which of these factors or combinations instigated the capitalization of "I". However, there are refutes of a number of the presented causes based on other words that would, or should, have been changed by the same reasoning, timing, etcetera. This sort of refute is not necessarily reason enough to dismiss any of these explanations, considering the nature of language and language practice.

The change to the capitalization of “I” was not the only, nor the last, change in the English language during the period around the 14th century either. The reality is that this period was one of heightened, widespread development in the language. As with any embraced change, the motivations of individuals were likely varied. There is the possibility that, for some, their individual shift was largely one based on legibility and ease of use. Even with the use of the printing press, which occurred on the heels of the common use of the capital “I”, there may have been concerns regarding a word that consisted of a single letter. Considering the press process of the day, a word composed of a single small letter might more easily omitted by uneven type or surfaces. By increasing the surface area of the letter, in this case, by using a wider letter, capital "I" compared to lowercase "i", the chance that some marking would be made consistently is increased.

The shift to capital "I" coincides also with considerable social change that may have prompted and supported socio-linguistic reasonings, including an increased consideration of vernacular languages, including English, an increased significance of the English language in the English society and to some degree the indirect impact of the strengthening of the English national identity. The similarity of the word, "I", to "ic" coupled with a time of considerable changes in pronunciation may have been additional motivation or even constituted reason enough for capitalization in the minds of some.

It would also be faulty assessment not to acknowledge that some language practices simply happen and stick. Though that implies that either people found something correct or fitting about the change (because with each writing and reading there is creation, correction and/or consideration) or the delivery, or they simply followed without thought and through some statistical anomaly capital "I" became repeated more often, to influential people, and/or at the right moment... to the point of institutionalization and the present. This would have been an even more personal act in the time of the shift to the capitalization of "i" since dictionaries were not yet as fundamental in dictating how to write something.

Works Consulted:

"Aelius Donatus." Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2011.

"Aelius Donatus." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Dec. 2010. Web. 21 Dec. 2010.

"Ars Grammatica." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 25 Nov. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

Borden, Arthur R. Jr. A Comprehensive Old-English Dictionary. University Press of America, Inc. 1982.

Chomsky, Noam (n.a. for the synopsis). “The Biology of the Language Faculty: Its Perfection, Past and Future.” n.p. 19 Oct. 2007 (n.d. for the synopsis). Web. 23 Dec. 2010

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language. (image of Peterborough Chronicle 1154 pg.33). Italy: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.

"Dante Alighieri." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004. Web. 26 Jan. 2011.

"De vulgari eloquentia." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Dec. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

Dobson, E.J. English Pronunciation 1500-1700. Vol. I Oxford At The Clarendon Press. 1968.

Dobson, E.J. English Pronunciation 1500-1700. Vol. II Oxford At The Clarendon Press. 1968.

"ENGLISH STATUTES." Peter Tiersma. n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <>

"Etymology of a." Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 07 May 2011.

"Etymology of I." Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

"Etymology of Me." Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

"Etymology of o." Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 07 May 2011.

"Etymology of Thou." Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

Halleck, Elaine (editor). “Sum: Pronoun "I" again.” LINGUIST List 9.253., n.p., Web. 20 Feb. 1998.

Jacobsen, Martin (editor). “Sum: Pronoun 'I'.” LINGUIST List 9.253., n.p., Web. 20 Feb. 1998.

Mahoney, Nicole. “Language Change.” n.p. 12 July 2008. Web. 21 Dec. 2010 <>

"Middle English." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Dec. 2010. Web. 21 Dec. 2010.

Morris, Richard. The Story of Genesis and Exodus. Trubner and Company. 1865 Web ( 13 Feb. 2011.

"o." Middle English Dictionary. N.D. Web. 07 May 2011.

Peters, Pam. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press. 2004.

"Pleading in English Act 1362." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 7 Sept. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

"Shiksha: Pratishakhyas." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

Simpson, J. A.; Weiner, E. S. C. The Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition: Volume X: Moul - Ovum. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1989.

Stratmann, Francis Henry. A Middle-English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1967.

"Tittle." Encarta World English Dictionary (North American Edition). 2009. Web. 26 Jan. 2011.

"Tittle." Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 18 Nov. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.

Williams, Peter N. “Narrative History of England: Part 5: Medieval Britain.”, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <>

Williams, Peter N. “Narrative History of England: Part 6: From Reformation to Restoration.”, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <>

Special Thanks to Elyssa Winzeler whose discourse was invaluable in prompting this work.

Special Thanks to David Wake whose insight and informing discourse prompted expansion of the Pronunciation section of this work.

Thanks also to Barbara Abbott PhD, who encouraged simply by acknowledging an email.

Last edited by ecw2nd on Sat Jan 14, 2012 1:30 am; edited 3 times in total
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