Friday, April 17, 2009
Using "I" As a Conceit
Of course, in a culture where being extra-super humble was valued, I soon noticed that our English language is, indeed, "conceited."
I'm speaking of the way we capitalize the pronoun "I." None of the other pronouns are capped.
So what about this "I," standing tall no matter where you find it in a sentence?
Recently as I tutored students in accent reduction and American culture I noticed that some languages (like Japanese) seem to do quite well without pronouns of any sort. I did a little research. Some languages like Hebrew and Arabic, don't capitalize any of their letters and some, like German, capitalize every darn noun. So, English—a Germanic language at its roots—just carried on the German proclivity for caps.
But the question remained. Why only the "I?" Why not "them" and "you" and all the others? Caroline Winter, a 2008 Fulbright scholar, says "England was where the capital "I" first reared its dotless head. Apparently someone back then decided that just "i" after it had been diminished from the original Germanic 'ich' was not substantial enough to stand alone." It had to do with an artistic approach to fonts. The story goes that long ago in the days of handset type or even teletype machines little sticks and dots standing all alone looked like broken bits of lead or scrappy orphan letters.
Then there is the idea that religion played a part in capitalizing the "I." Rastafarians (and some others, too) think in terms of humankind as being one with God and therefore—one has to presume—it would be rather blasphemous not to capitalize "I" just as one does "God." Capitals, after all, are a way to honor a word or concept.
Which, of course, brings us back to the idea that we speakers of English are just plain "conceited."
Carolyn Howard-Johnson is an instructor for UCLA Extension's world-renown Writers' Program, and author of the HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers including The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. It is a USA Book News award-winner as well as the winner of the Reader View's Literary Award and a finalist in the New Generation Book Awards. She is the recipient of both the California Legislature's Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award and is a popular speaker and actor. Her Web site is http://www.howtodoitfrugally.com/.