NZTC International Word of the Week: i

Date
Nov
28
20141128

This modestly-sized word carries a heavy weight of meaning in several language groups. In Slavic languages such as Czech, Slovak and Polish it means and. In Italian and Romanian it means to him/her. In Vietnamese it means to be motionless. In New Zealand Māori and Cook Islands Maori it marks the past tense. And as a preposition with meanings such as in, at, to, from, by it is found in a whole spread of languages from Polynesian (e.g. Niuean, Māori, Samoan), Fijian, Lithuanian, and Scandinavian (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian). In Scottish Gaelic it means she, her or it.

And last but by no means least, in English its capitalised form I refers to oneself, the person speaking or writing. Just why I warrants a capital letter in English – the only language that marks the first person singular pronoun in this way – is not clear. This practice dates back to the 13th century. Explanations range from that of font designer Charles Bigelow: “ ‘I’ 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 possibility that the capitalised I is more a sign of the inflated Ego of the English and reflects the individualistic ethos of the English-speaking world has also been suggested. But i wouldn’t know about that.