Etymology Usage

Is capitalizing “I” an ego thing?

Q: I’m an American living in Norway. My Norwegian wife wonders why “I” is the only English pronoun that’s capitalized. Is this an ego thing?

A: English pronoun usages are interesting, to say the least! But there’s no egocentric reason why we capitalize the first-person pronoun “I.”

It’s written this way only because in a wilderness of letters, a small “i” might get lost or overlooked.

But this wasn’t always the case. In its earliest forms, the Old English pronoun was icih, or ich.

Citations in the Oxford English Dictionary show that as the word developed, it had a great many spellings, some starting with “h” or “y” in addition to “i,” but these were eventually shortened to a single, lowercase letter (i).

The capitalized “I” first showed up about 1250 in the northern and midland dialects of England, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers notes, however, that the capitalized form didn’t become established in the south of England “until the 1700s (although it appears sporadically before that time).”

Capitalizing the pronoun, Chambers explains, made it more distinct, thus “avoiding misreading handwritten manuscripts.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, offers an interesting historical note: “Essentially all the Indo-European languages share the same first person singular pronoun, although naturally it has diverged in form over the millennia.”

“French has je, for example, Italian io, Russian ja, and Greek ego,” Ayto continues. “The prehistoric German pronoun was eka, and this has produced German ich, Dutch ik, Swedish jag, Danish jeg, and English I. The affirmative answer aye ‘yes’ is probably ultimately the same word as I.”

And, as we’re sure you know, “I” is jeg in Norwegian.

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