Loving The English Language
Using "I" As
I don't know when I learned the word "conceited."
I was raised in Utah where most of us didn't use
"conceit" in the sense of an elaborate or strained
metaphor but rather to mean that someone thought
they were extra-super special. The little
girl across the street who snubbed me because
I didn't wear long stockings with garters (which
was an immediate tipoff that I was not her kind)
was "conceited" rather than prejudiced. The kid
who was quick to make a point of how bright he
was when I made a mistake was "conceited" rather
than arrogant (or insecure). Gawd! I loved the
word "conceited." I could apply it to so many
situations and avoid learning new vocabulary words.
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, when it comes
to pronouns, 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
Which, of course, brings us back to the idea
that we speakers of English are, in fact, "conceited."
(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists
a Tidbit that will help authors write or
promote better. She will also include a
Tip to help readers find a treasure among
long-neglected books or a sapphire among
Readers' Tip: If you are
fascinated by the English language, you
may also want to check out a new book,
Slang: The People's Poetry by
Michael Adams, published by Oxford University
Press. I found it dense reading, but worth
it because of the new and delightful ideas
and facts therein.
Writers' Tidbit: Though
newsletters are on the wane (they are losing
ground to blogs), you will still want to
subscribe to some of the best—the
ones full of tips and leads. Penny Sansevieri's
Marketer, Joan Stewart's Publicity
Hound, Jendi Reiter's
Winning Writers, C. Hope Clark's
Funds for Writers and my own Sharing
MyShelf.Com. All Rights Reserved.