24

The Rule

The personal pronoun “I” is always capitalized in English, regardless of its position in a sentence. This is an orthographic convention that every native speaker should know.

Whenever I have seen anyone breaking this ‘rule’ online, irrespective of their nationality, I've tended to make the following assumptions:

  1. a typo
  2. fatigue (pressing that shift key can be so exhausting)
  3. ignorance

For ignorance I don't mean stupidity, I mean that the writer (of any nationality) either chooses to ‘ignore’ the rule, or he is ignorant of its existence. This can be caused by a person's first language (or mother tongue) interference. For example, the italian personal pronoun, io, is only capitalized at the beginning of a sentence, and coincidentally, the lowercase letter is also adopted for the words italiana and italiano.

So it was quite an eye-opener to read the following, posted on EL&U nearly three years ago.

But i read a fantastic article some years back that convinced me to write a small "i" instead of a capital one, and to make the y capital in "You" to show more respect to the person, and attach a modesty to oneself.
jeega (Sep 5 '12)

I'm not 100% certain, but I believe jeega is Indian, and it's indisputable that many Indian speakers who are learning English have a tendency to write the subject pronoun “I” in lowercase.

Questions

  1. How established is this praxis among Indian English speakers?
  2. Is writing i a means of circumventing the perceived limitations of the English language?
  3. Can anyone confirm this practice, and/or provide a link to the aforementioned article?
  4. Because English is continuously evolving and it has become, for better or for worse, the 21st century lingua franca, I wouldn't be surprised if I was written i in two generation times. Are there any studies on this eventuality?

Related:

  • 4
    @Mari-Lou: My key point was that I think even within the last decade, the proportion of all written English communications which are made by non-native, uneducated, or careless writers has increased dramatically (because of certain technological changes). Consequently we can expect to see a much higher proportion of "mistakes", but I don't see the definition of "correct usage" changing any time soon. Especially not because of influence from IE, specifically because of the "status" aspect. – FumbleFingers Apr 23 '15 at 15:00
  • 2
    The real problem is simply what @FumbleFingers has stated: “written English communications [...] made by non-native, uneducated, or careless writers”. – tchrist Apr 23 '15 at 15:12
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers IE will have a huge influence on English as “she is spoke”. Wait and see, look at how AmEng has revolutionised the language. It's inevitable, I'm sorry. What is the population of India, 700 million citizens? And you don't think they won't have any influence? The English language is a mish mash, it's never been "pure" in the first place. The people who speak and write English will force it to change, and that includes textspeak—which I personally hate, but it's here to stay. – Mari-Lou A Apr 23 '15 at 15:14
  • 3
    @Mari-Lou: The power company cuts the power to my quartier usually once a day, and not at the same time every day. I'm on a laptop, but the modem is on the mains. So no participation when the power is off. Yes, I, too, fear for a future in which people won't be able to read the canon because it's not in textspeak, the way I can't read Beowulf. Me, I write SMS in full-bore English (and French with accents, if my cellphone supports them), out of sheer cussedness. – David Pugh Apr 23 '15 at 16:22
  • 3
    I am Australian. When I'm writing quick emails or chatting online I often write "I" as a lower case "i" and don't capitalise the beginnings of sentences. Many other people do they same thing. For example, I can tell when I am Skype messaging with someone on a phone, as opposed to a computer, as their sentences will be auto-corrected to have a capital at the beginning when they are using the phone. – geometrikal Apr 24 '15 at 7:40
46

TL;DR:

I'd hate for anyone to walk away with the idea that Indians think 'i' is acceptable. You won't find it in any respected Indian publication. You won't find the average Indian writing it down on paper. It's just textspeak and that's why it's common in text and tweets and comments online.


Detailed answer:

I’m from India. I assure you there’s no such thing as the lowercase 'i'. No grammar teacher of mine — and I've had quite a few good ones — ever so much as mentioned it. In fact, this is the first I'm hearing of it.

The tendency of Indians to write in textspeak is unfortunate, but 'i' is as erroneous as 'u'.

I'd like to point out that almost all of these violations occur in the electronic medium. Nobody writes 'i' on paper. They type it. And if there's no autocorrect, most of them can't be bothered to rectify it themselves.

How established is this practice among Indian English speakers?

Based on my experience, this is pretty established, but not so much among Indian English speakers as among Indian netizens.

Is writing i a means of circumventing the perceived limitations of the English language?

If you mean the limitations regarding the tiered system of politeness, then no. The tiered system affects more pronouns than 'I', and affects verbs and modifiers as well.

I might as well mention that Hindi's script Devanagari (or any other Indian script I'm familiar with) does not have the concept of capital and small letters. So, the question of whether this practice is a carry-over is moot in this case (unlike that of some European languages).

Can anyone confirm this practice, and/or provide a link to the aforementioned article?

Don't know about the link, but I can confirm that what you have there is a practice evolved solely for digital media. Admittedly Indians use it a bit more, but it's not exclusive to Indian English and shouldn't be considered a part of it.

I don't know what article Jeega was referring to, but that was just an opinion piece, an opinion he seemed to agree with. But it's definitely NOT a feature of Indian English. I'll eat my words if anyone can provide a shred of evidence to the contrary.

EDIT: Sumelic seems to have unearthed the article link in his answer below.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jan 29 '17 at 16:38
  • I'm sorry, but in light of Ari's recent answer, i have to withdraw my green tick. The Times of India is indeed a very reputable Indian publication, and it used the lowercase pronoun i albeit for a short period. – Mari-Lou A Jan 30 '17 at 9:32
  • It's a pity that the comments have been shifted to chat, they were on topic and provided extra info and clarification. – Mari-Lou A Jan 30 '17 at 9:34
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: I personally find TOI to be very pretentious, and I'm not surprised they tried to pull this gimmick. Clearly, it backfired. If anything, the failure of a leading daily to sway the masses should be seen as a vindication of the uppercase I in InE. I respect your decision, but one swallow does not a summer make. – Tushar Raj Jan 30 '17 at 9:37
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: I also said I'll eat my words if there's evidence. <Chomp>. But no, Jeega's comment had no foundation. The whole argument about the lowercase i being modest comes from that being the case in some European languages. And it's those speakers that might feel the need for this in English. It's those speakers that this article was referring to. Indians never had this problem with uppercase I. As I recently edited into my post: Indian languages don't even have capital/small letters. We only have one kind. (Btw, I'm still reeling from the news that TOI actually tried to pull it.) – Tushar Raj Jan 30 '17 at 9:48
20

Jeega's post has a number of features.  It shows Jeega's awareness of the usual convention.  It hints that Jeega used to follow that convention.  It mentions a reason to defy that convention and follow an alternate.  It alludes to but does not cite a source which would support that reason.

There are also, of course, a number of features that Jeega's answer lacks.  Notably, it lacks any mention of ethnicity, national origin or dialect of preference, and it lacks any attempt to persuade us to adopt this alternate convention.

I see no reason to associate Jeega's individual, unconventional choice with any particular dialect.  It seems far simpler to regard this alternate convention as one person's idiosyncratic choice—an intentional distance placed between one idiolect and whichever dialect may encompass it.  Whichever dialect that may be seems irrelevant, both because that dialect cannot be discerned and because that dialect does, in fact, capitalize the first-person singular subjective pronoun.

The post in question does not and cannot support the idea that Indian English in particular is undergoing any sort of change.  At best, it very weakly supports the idea that some unidentified dialect exists which is not undergoing this particular change.

  • Fair point, perhaps I jumped the gun thinking Jeega could have been (or was) Indian, I admit to have been influenced by a previous comment of his or hers: I think it is not weird to use capital Y in 'You' because unlike in French and Hindi where You has the form "vous" and "aap/tum" respectively, to show more respect and politeness. Nevertheless, I was left feeling very curious about the article, which s/he mentions but fails to provide the title of. Thank you for posting. (From a cursory online search, it seems jeega is a woman's name) – Mari-Lou A Apr 23 '15 at 16:19
  • 1
    Jeega's post (an answer that has garnered 9 downvotes (speculate as needed)) mention of Hindi and its aap/tum distinction is reasonable evidence that the person, if not actually Indian, has much more familiarity with Hindi than the average person not of Indian origin. – Mitch Apr 24 '15 at 12:43
  • It was at seven downvotes when I quoted this poster. I am sorry that I inadvertently caused such animosity. – Mari-Lou A Apr 24 '15 at 12:45
  • The mention of French happens to precede the mention of Hindi, @Mitch. I don't think I should count that as evidence supporting Jeega's possible European origin. I only count is as proof of an awareness of the T-V distinction. – Gary Botnovcan Apr 24 '15 at 15:36
  • @GaryBotnovcan yes. This is all speculation based on the wink of a gnat's eye. – Mitch Apr 24 '15 at 17:13
5

I don't know of any particular connection to Indian English. The idea that lower-case "i" is somehow more humble did appear in a New York Times essay by Caroline Winter about the English first-person singular pronoun, "Me, Myself and I" (hat tip to Neil Fein for locating the article in his answer to the question "Is it alright to use lowercase 'i' or should you always use 'I'".) It seems likely to me that this is the article Jeega was referring to.

The essay covers several aspects of the capital "I", including its history. Most bizarrely from a linguistic standpoint, Winter suggests at several points that the usual capitalization is somehow egoistic or prideful. She refers to "I" as

the towering single letter that signifies us as discrete beings and connote confidence, dominance and the ambition to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

After a bit of discussion of I-counting in political speech, she hypothesizes that

perhaps our individualistic, workaholic society would be more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small “i” with a sweet little dot.

The essay concludes with a call to the reader:

i [sic] suggest that You try, as an experiment, to capitalize those whom You address while leaving yourselves in the lowercase. It may be a humbling experience. It was for me.

  • I’m not sure it’s so bizarre from a linguistic point of view. It is a well-established notion in several languages that capitalising a pronoun is a way of showing respect: polite pronouns are capitalised, normal ones are not. Whether the capitalisation originated in respectfulness or not, it is linguistic reality that that’s what users associate it with. No such notion is deliberately cultivated in English, since there is no parallel connection between capitalisation and respect—but that doesn’t mean that similar connotations don’t exist in users of English. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 29 '17 at 18:09
  • 3
    @JanusBahsJacquet: It's bizarre because the capitalization is completely conventional. Pretty much nobody thinks about it, just like nobody thinks about the fact that we use the same second-person pronoun for singular and plural. – sumelic Jan 29 '17 at 18:11
  • 1
    That’s false logic, though. The fact that it’s conventional doesn’t necessarily mean that it does not have any effect. I saw a reference to a study in an article once that indicated that German people in general tend to perceive nouns as being more forceful than verbs in German, but that the tendency diminished severely if the nouns they were presented with were not properly capitalised. Capitalising nouns is pure convention in German, but it does seem to have a subconscious effect nonetheless; I’m not aware of any studies on whether the same is true for ‘I’ in English, but it could be. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 29 '17 at 18:18
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: When did I make a logical argument? I never said that Winter must be wrong; only that her speculation is bizarre. All kinds of things are conceivable, but my default assumption is that society is not molded by the arbitrary features of particular words. The arbitrariness of the relationship between the signifier and the signified is a fundamental principle of linguistics; exceptions should be justified. – sumelic Jan 29 '17 at 18:30
  • 2
    @JanusBahsJacquet: ...but by itself, this argument would also be ridiculous as a basis for suggesting changing the pronoun in more somber circumstances to something like /a:/ or /au/. – sumelic Jan 29 '17 at 18:32
5

A leading daily in India did decide to use the lowercase 'i' instead for 'I' for a brief period of time. Though I don't find that to be the case now.

Facts are as under:

The Daily


The Times of India

The Times of India (TOI) is an Indian English-language daily newspaper. It is the third-largest newspaper in India by circulation and largest selling English-language daily in the world according to Audit Bureau of Circulations (India). It is the oldest English-language newspaper in India still in circulation, with its first edition published in 1838. In 1991, the BBC ranked The Times of India among the world's six best newspapers. Wikipedia

The Style


Handbook of Journalism and Media: India, Bharat, Hindustan By Kovuuri G. Reddy Vikas Publishing House, 2015

Proper nouns are always capitalised, but this also depends on ones style or trends of the time. For example, 'I' is always capitalised, but 'I' is used in its lower case (i) in Times of India.

Peoples' reaction


Blog

Posted 03/04/12 - 8:04 PM: Subject: i versus I : Times Of India

I have subscribed to Times of India last week, after a gap of about 4 years. Something I noticed in the editorial columns is a prevalence or clear dominance of 'i' for first person singular pronoun, over 'I'. This was not the case with TOI editorial columns four years ago, when I used to peruse it regularly.

Now what has happened?

There seem to be two possibilities:

  1. Either all of the TOI writers have switched to 'i' because it has gained some popularity in journalism.

  2. Or editor(s) of TOI prefer 'i' for some unknown reasons.

I don't know exactly what the reason is...

Motivation?


From TOI editorial

my little i

Jug Suraiya | TNN | Mar 10, 2007, 11.45 PM IST

you've noticed that i've been cut down to size, and good thing too. being the perspicacious reader that you are, not once did you think that the stoi was losing it when it began to write the first person singular, the capital, upper case i (which we can't show here anymore, but you know what it looks like, a sort of high-rise or i-rise i) as a small, lower case i.

no, far from thinking that stoi was now chucking out typographical protocol, having long chucked out various norms of grammar, syntax, rhetoric, prosody, orthography and other pettifogging rules of verbal engagement, you at once surmised the philosophical underpinnings of the metamorphosis of the great big self-promoting capital i for i-dolatory into a self-effacing small i, an i that knows its place and doesn't try to get above itself. which of course was exactly what it was doing. in our i-centric (rather than you-centric, or even he-centric) language, it was i which assumed capital, upper case proportions. you and he enjoyed no such exalted status. this type-casting amplification of i in print had a correspondingly inflationary effect on the inner i of the ego (should it really be spelt i-go?).

nowhere was this enlargement of the ego like a pneumatic tyre swelling under air pressure more evident than in the effusions of sunday columnists, such as myself. particularly myself. does this fellow have an i-dentity problem, or what?, readers would ask.

ok, so he sometimes makes passing reference to bunny and brindle, but mainly he writes about himself, first person singular. it's all i i i i i, like a stuck ipod. the only excuse i have is that columnists are supposed to write on subjects they know something about. and as the only subject i can claim the remotest acquaintance with is that admittedly very limited, and limiting, branch of knowledge that is myself, i had little option but to resort to i-teration. and you can see the consequences. the stoi has whittled me, and the other columnists (poor things, though no fault of theirs), down to lower case size.

but why not decapitalise the works? not just i, but everything: proper nouns, acronyms, initial letters after full stops, and other punctuation marks which end sentences. the whole jing-bang lot. i mean, fair's fair. if i'm going to be i, why shouldn't george w bush be george w bush, or the usa be the usa, or god be god, or indeed, the big b be the small b? or for that matter, why shouldn't that last o after that question mark be a lower case, uncapitalised o. what's this o got that i haven't, puffing itself up like that just because it starts a sentence? big deal. or rather, small deal.

and as you know, there's a literary tradition of decapitalisation going all the way back to american poet don marquis who in 1927 had a cockroach called archy who would sneak into the typewriter at night and type out the ongoing saga of mehitabel the alley cat who claimed to be an avatar of queen cleopatra who in reincarnated life had fallen on hard times. not to mention lower case times, because her chronicler, archy, being a cockroach, couldn't press the typewriter key for capitals so everything came out in small letters: i have had my ups and downs/ but wotthehell wotthehell/ yesterday sceptres and crowns/ fried oysters and velvet gowns/ and today i herd with bums.

mehitabel wasn't the only one to be downsized. another american poet, e e cummings (1894-1962), also eschewed not only capitals but also punctuation marks: it's/ spring/when the world is puddle-wonderful/ the queer/ old balloonman whistles/ far and wee. true yogis, mehitabel and old e e, who mastered their upper case egos. and what more appropriate way to better their yogic instruction than for me to upend myself, sirshasan-wise, and turn myself into an ulta-pulta?

Sample Story


A tale of two cities

Boria Majumdar | Apr 18, 2012, 12.00 AM IST

With 100 days to go before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, everything was falling apart in the Indian capital. The Games Village was half done, and one corruption scandal after the other was rocking the games preparations. Even the world leaders had expressed concern over India's ability and preparedness to host the Games. Forced to intervene in the chao-tic situation, the prime minister constituted a core committee to do damage control.

Now with 100 days to go before the Olympic Games begin in London on July 27, the city is already geared up to becoming the cynosure of the world's gaze. Having seen the games preparations over the last few days, it's evident that London is almost ready to host the spectacular sporting event.

On the eve of the Commonwealth Games, when i spoke to Delhiites, the common refrain was that an unnecessary white elephant had been thrust on them. There was little community integration and an even lesser sense of pride at Delhi hosting the games. London, on the other hand, presents a different picture. While there are concerns over excessive spending on the games and its impact on the British economy, the local Londoner is excited at being a resident of an Olympics host city....


Now The Question:

'and it's indisputable that many Indian speakers who are learning English have a tendency to write the subject pronoun “I” in lowercase.'

Would the OP like to share the data upon which this observation of hers, is based?

What I am trying to gather is whether a simple rule of 'writing' is picked up differently by native and non native 'speakers'.

In any case, which portion of Indian demography is being referred to here? Kids in school, freshmen or adults? A quantified parameter for the comparison; something like percent lower case 'i' per capita, would be interesting to know.

  • 2
    Wow! But the answer needs to be formatted, use blockquotes, and the excerpts could perhaps do with shortening a bit. – Mari-Lou A Jan 29 '17 at 18:01
  • One can read the poet cummings [sic] here poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/49493 – ARi Jan 29 '17 at 18:21
  • 1
    The use of i is just something that I used to notice quite a bit, here on ELU, but also on different forums. the trend seems less marked nowadays. So I'm sorry, I don't have any official data that I can share with you. – Mari-Lou A Jan 29 '17 at 18:21
  • I dont't question your observations or inferences, only thing which bothers me is that being a native speaker may have little to do with it @Mari-LouA – ARi Jan 29 '17 at 18:25
  • 2
    I'm happy that Mr. Suraiya spared the content and just decided to do his thing in the editorials. I'm even happier that he stopped. Something to be noted. – Tushar Raj Jan 30 '17 at 9:40
4

I'm not aware of any specific link with Indian English ("indian english"?) but I do have an addendum to your list:

(4) - Stylistic reasons. One might disagree with it, but the lowercase "i" is often a deliberate stylistic choice, a flouting of convention for effect. It's particularly closely associated with poet e.e. cummings, who also rejected the standard English convention of capitalizing proper nouns.

Although the lowercase personal pronoun is strongly associated with textspeak, where it is easier to type, its stylistic use among teenagers is older than that --I remember it being common in the longhand writing of teenage girls in my high school days (circa early 90's), long before texting or online chats.

As is the case with the quote from the OP, the lowercase personal pronoun is typically associated with an almost obtrusive modesty or humbleness --a deliberate lowering of personal status vis-a-vis the audience. Capitalization does have connotations of importance and respect --it's worth noting that English speakers used to capitalize any number of terms that we don't any more (chiefly abstract nouns).

  • 5
    Wasn't the teenage-girl longhand lower-case I because you otherwise can't make the dot into a heart? – David Pugh Apr 23 '15 at 16:41
  • @DavidPugh Ah, but which came first, the chicken or the egg? – Chris Sunami Apr 23 '15 at 16:47
  • and archy, (courtesy of Don Marquis), who could be excused proper capitalisation on the grounds that using the shift key is extremely difficult for a cockroach... – Brian Drummond Apr 23 '15 at 19:49
  • I'm glad you posted this, as it was a distinct lack in the other options presented. There are occasionally times when I affect extra an extra-casual attitude by lowercasing my entire statement, going so far as to go back and "correct" anything that was auto-corrected to uppercase. It's situational, and doesn't happen often, but I see value in having it in my repertoire. Expressing ourselves in text is hard enough, playing with grammar and style, intentionally, gives another dimension through which to add meaning. – Jason Apr 24 '15 at 15:41
  • The words capitalized in the constitution are the nouns; German works that way to this day. As a German I find that a tremendous help with reading. German sentences with all-lowecase nouns are a pain to read. Conversely, the personal pronoun in German is not capitalized in mid-sentence (except for cases where the pluralis majestatis would apply). – Tomalak Apr 24 '15 at 17:37

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