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Why should we capitalize first person pronoun 'I' even if it does not appear in the beginning of a sentence? Why it is not the case for other pronouns?

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"We", "us", "me" etc. are also first person pronouns but they are not capitalized. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 5 '11 at 4:16
A good addition to my former question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/172/… –  VonC Jan 5 '11 at 8:01
Interesting article with history and what-not: nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03wwln-guestsafire-t.html –  glenneroo Jan 19 '11 at 7:44
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2 Answers

up vote 49 down vote accepted

The pronoun I began to be 'capitalized' around the middle of the 13th century. But this was not true capitalization. Note that it was long before the printing press: all texts were in manuscript.

Before the 11th century, the letter i was normally just a short vertical line, without a dot. The j did not exist as a separate letter. When an i was written as a separate word or mark, as the Roman numeral I and the pronoun I, or when it was the last one of a group of i's, it began to be written elongated, as a j (without the dot). The elongation of the separate, single i was probably done in order to avoid confusion with punctuation marks. That of the last i of a group was mostly in order to avoid confusion between u and ii or between n and ii, which often look identical in manuscripts: from then on, such groups looked like ij and iij (but without the dots).

I believe that this convention of elongating the pronoun I had already been established by the time the dot was first used. Because a long j without a dot looks much like a capital I—which has been written the same way since Antiquity—, it was later assumed to be a capital. (Incidentally, the dot was then usually written as a very short diagonal line above the i or j.)

From http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=I :

The reason for writing I is ... the orthographic habit in the middle ages of using a 'long i' (that is, j or I) whenever the letter was isolated or formed the last letter of a group; the numeral 'one' was written j or I (and three iij, etc.), just as much as the pronoun. [Otto Jespersen, "Growth and Structure of the English Language," p.233]

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But then why is "i" (meaning "and") not capitalized in Catalan/archaic Spanish and Polish/Serbo-Croatian? –  Mechanical snail Oct 11 '11 at 1:10
@Mech: An interesting question. Of course there was no forcing necessity that made scribes lengthen the single i in English: before the 11th century, apparently it wasn't deemed necessary. Compare u and n: these two letters were usually indistinguishable, and yet there was never a universally used diacritic (the small curve or circle above u was never universal, as far as I know). So the supposedly improved legibility of lengthened i was only one of the factors at play (I don't know the others). It's quite interesting to know that it didn't happen in any of the languages you mention. –  Cerberus Oct 11 '11 at 12:14
Comment by user FCR: "You can find this dotless letters in unicode chartable. ı - Latin small letter dotless I (U+0131) ȷ - Latin small letter dotless J (U+0237)" –  Cerberus Apr 18 '13 at 15:39
@Cerberus why did you rollback? –  kinokijuf Jan 6 at 8:13
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For reasons of typography. Minuscule "i" just gets lost.

From the article in NY Times:

England is where the capital “I” first reared its dotless head. In Old and Middle English, when “I” was still “ic,” “ich” or some variation thereof — before phonetic changes in the spoken language led to a stripped-down written form — the first-person pronoun was not majuscule in most cases. The generally accepted linguistic explanation for the capital “I” is that it could not stand alone, uncapitalized, as a single letter, which allows for the possibility that early manuscripts and typography played a major role in shaping the national character of English-speaking countries.

“Graphically, single letters are a problem,” says Charles Bigelow, a type historian and a designer of the Lucida and Wingdings font families. “They look like they broke off from a word or got lost or had some other accident.” When “I” shrunk to a single letter, Bigelow explains, “one little letter had to represent an important word, but it was too wimpy, graphically speaking, to carry the semantic burden, so the scribes made it bigger, which means taller, which means equivalent to a capital.”

The growing “I” became prevalent in the 13th and 14th centuries, with a Geoffrey Chaucer manuscript of “The Canterbury Tales” among the first evidence of this grammatical shift. Initially, distinctions were made between graphic marks denoting an “I” at the beginning of a sentence versus a midphrase first-person pronoun. Yet these variations eventually fell by the wayside, leaving us with our all-purpose capital “I,” a potent change apparently made for simplicity’s sake.

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Wow, I learned something! –  JSBձոգչ Jan 5 '11 at 4:07
Funny how we can come up with two very different answers, even though they are probably equally right. –  Cerberus Jan 5 '11 at 4:30
But then, why is vocative "O" usually capitalized too? –  Alex Jan 5 '11 at 15:42
@Alex: Capitalization in the Middle Ages, and to a varying extent even up to 1900, was in many ways unpredictable; and, in so far as it was consistent, it often followed rules different from ours. I can only guess about "O". Capitals were mostly used when words were deemed important or venerable; since the word "O" usually expresses strong emotion, writers might have felt that it deserved the emphasis of a capital letter. –  Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 0:31
Am igh so wrong to want to add back some nice logical silent letters, so there's no need for inconsistent capitalisation? Igh think it looks rather nice, though igh'm unsure about contractions. –  Jon Purdy Jan 17 '11 at 6:09
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protected by RegDwigнt Dec 9 '12 at 15:56

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