I

Fascinating little article about the English word "I" -- On Language: Me, Myself and I -- by Caroline Winter in the New York Times. Really good read.

I didn't know where the capital "I" came from. I'm not surprised by the answer, though. The article says, in part, that the single letter, lower case "i" was just not hefty enough to stand on it's own and carry the significance of what "I" truly represents in English. So, scribes made it bigger. And it became a capital letter. Great story. And it seems reasonable given the evolution and structure of the English language.

The article goes beyond that, though. Winter suggests that capitalizing the first-person pronoun "I" may lead to excessive ego, and she cites examples of other languages that don't capitalize I. She also says that some languages, such as Japanese, make it possible to leave out pronouns altogether. Well, sure, but you don't really need subjects in Japanese, either. And in Japanese the emphasis is on the "topic" of the sentence, not the subject. Also, Japanese verbs are usually passive and/or nominalized and buried at the end of sentences well after all the context is explained in painfully long detail. But in English, a centralized subject performing an action is the focus right up front. And while English can structurally handle a "topic" it has no grammatical role and is generally left out -- just as Japanese leaves out subjects and pronouns and whatever else.

I'm not sure about the other languages Winter cites, but Japanese and English seem polar opposites to me. I also don't see how comparing the languages supports the argument that using "i" instead of "I" can make "our individualistic, workaholic society ... more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small ā€œiā€ with a sweet little dot." Japanese has a lot of what Winter is looking for, yet many Japanese people are workaholics, many express a lot of individuality (though not as much as the US), many are focused on money, and much of their famous humility/politeness is locked inside a rather rigid group structure with rules that would greatly stress the Western definition of community. Of course, many Japanese people are lovely and kind and genuinely community-oriented and all that, just as many English-speaking people are as well. It's extremely difficult to judge languages/cultures out of their context. Definitions of "community" and "individual" are expressed, perceived, and internalized very differently in the East and West.

Interesting article, but I think it goes a tad too far. I don't see why the capital I can't just be a quirk of linguistic history rather than a statement on individual ego -- and a pejorative one at that. Actually, I'd go further. I think it's perfectly fine to express "I" as a capital letter to reflect the centrality of a person articulating a perspective. That's how English is structured, and it makes sense in the context of that language. It may not make sense in another language, sure, but does that make it bad?
Comments:

Hi Jim,
Well looking for capitalization and ksh93, Google somehow suggested me to your blog and about a million of us other Sun folks.

However, about a capital i versus a lower-case i changing a language holder's outlook on the world: I agree such a change seems a bit far fetched to cause such an effect. But, language (I suspect as you point out - significantly structure) is believed by sociologists to play a role in one's world interpretation -- it's called the Saphir-Wharf hypothesis.

For me (once having spoken) German and English speaking, it's fun to look how expression changes with the language; let alone for you in at least Japanese and English as you've pointed out so much more different.

Posted by Clay B on October 30, 2008 at 07:09 AM JST #

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