Several years ago, I noticed that a Palestinian acquaintance I met on the internet never capitalized “i” or his name when he sent me emails (I’ve since lost touch with him). Earlier, I had read in one of L.M. Boyd’s columns, “Just So You’ll Know,” that English is the only language where the first person singular is capitalized. Most other languages capitalize the formal second person singular/plural, the form used in addressing strangers and elders and superiors as a way to show respect. I suspect that my former Palestinian friend found it embarrassing to capitalize “I,” maybe as a result of his “total submission to Allah” outlook – and he may have found my use somewhat self-centered and arrogant. Since language confines and/or defines our thoughts and perceptions, I was wondering where the capital “I” started. I was thinking that it might be something to do with western culture, maybe going back to Greece or Rome. Maybe some “humanistic” ideas were involved….
I found that English did not use to have the first person singular capitalized. It started as “ic,” which came from the Old High German “ih,” related to the Latin and Greek word for “ego.” “I” was not capitalized until the Renaissance – which makes some sense.
While researching, I ran across this comment:
“Emphasis on individualism. A second common assumption is that individuals are the building blocks of all societies. Most classrooms are set up to focus on learning in the individual. Pedersen described an example of this assumption, ‘While teaching English as a second language (ESL) in Indonesia, I was asked why English speakers always capitalize the first person singular (‘I’) in writing English. I confessed that…I really had no idea…The students smiled at me and said knowingly that they already knew why. It was because English speakers are so thoroughly individualistic that the capitalization of the first person singular comes naturally…’ In many cultures it is normal and natural to put the family first, and the individual second.”
Later, I was discussing this with another friend and he suggested that I might check out the unique way Rastafarians use “I” because it related. I did and here is a little of that:
“ I-n-I is central in understanding the Rastafarian reality. The idea of I-n-I connotes the self as being linked with symbols of divine agency i.e. Sellassie I, Rastafari I. I-n-I is used as a substitute for ‘me’ which the Rastas consider a servile and exclusionary word, and also for the words ‘you,’ ‘them,’ and ‘we,’ all of which detach the object from the speaker. Furthermore the ‘I’ of the self is fundamentally related to the ‘I’ in Sellassie I (the Roman number I or first is entirely disregarded and instead understood as the first person singular). Similarly the use of ‘I’ is rather extensive, it is used to replace the first syllable of particular words, such as ‘I-cient’ (ancient), ‘Ital’ (vital/pure) ‘I-ration’ (creation or vibration), and ‘I-techtion’ (protection). Thus I-n-I heralds the collapse of the radical dichotomy between creator and creature and heaven and earth which was a basic premise of missionary Christianity. ‘The self-consciousness of one’s linkage to Jah or Jah’s linkage to one’s self implies a further relation to other selves.’ ‘Since Jah is believed to be manifest in all persons, all persons are joined to one another by virtue of their unity with Jah.’ (Johnson-Hill 1988:23). The Rastafarian who chooses to assert I-n-I is thus and ‘uplifted’ one, one that has rediscovered his/her dignity.
“’Livity’ is a term used to designate the Rasta lifestyle orientation and one that correlates with moving towards ‘the moral quest’ of ‘Ethiopia-Africa.’ This quest entails a collective vision of the good. The I-n-I self who has a personal relationship with nature seeks to live in harmony with the environment, that is to live authentically in relation to nature. ‘Ethiopia’ pertains to a vision of dignity, religious communion, equal rights, and justice.”
I find all this very interesting and hope to learn more. I’m keeping an eye on “I.”