Tuesday, August 12, 2008

i, and You, and We

I had a bit of time to kill at the gym today between clients, so I read a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine. One of the articles that caught my attention, being a geek and all, was Caroline Winter's Me, Myself and I, a rather interesting look at our use of the personal pronoun.

She points out:

Why do we capitalize the word “I”? There’s no grammatical reason for doing so, and oddly enough, the majuscule “I” appears only in English.

Consider other languages: some, like Hebrew, Arabic and Devanagari-Hindi, have no capitalized letters, and others, like Japanese, make it possible to drop pronouns altogether. The supposedly snobbish French leave all personal pronouns in the unassuming lowercase, and Germans respectfully capitalize the formal form of “you” and even, occasionally, the informal form of “you,” but would never capitalize “I.” Yet in English, the solitary “I” towers above “he,” “she,” “it” and the royal “we.” Even a gathering that includes God might not be addressed with a capitalized “you.”

Interesting. Somehow I got through six years of college without knowing that. Hmmm . . . makes me wonder about my education, but that's another topic.

Anyway, she concludes the article thus:

So what effect has capitalizing “I” but not “you” — or any other pronoun — had on English speakers? It’s impossible to know, but 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. There have, of course, been plenty of rich and dominant cultures throughout history that have gotten by just fine without capitalizing the first-person pronoun or ever writing it down at all. There have also been cultures that committed atrocities even while capitalizing “you.”

Still, there seems to be something to it all. Modern e-mail culture has shown that many English speakers feel perfectly comfortable dismissing all uses of capitalization — and even correct spelling, for that matter. But take this a step further: i 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.

No we're talking. I smell some Buddhism is these words. Or maybe i should say, i smell some Buddhism in these words. i am going to experiment with this for a few days (hopefully) and see how it feels.

On the same topic, sort of, this reminds me of David Brooks column from today, Harmony and the Dream, a look at the cultural differences between the East (China) and the West (US).

The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality.

This is a divide that goes deeper than economics into the way people perceive the world. If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

In light of the article presented above, this may make a little more sense. One of the things linguistics has taught Us is that language shapes thinking (NLP is based in that concept). This idea finds its clearest expression in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis:

In linguistics, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (SWH) (also known as the "linguistic relativity hypothesis") postulates a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. Although known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, it was an underlying axiom of linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf.

The hypothesis postulates that a particular language's nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers: that different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of perfectly representing the world with language, because it implies that the mechanisms of any language condition the thoughts of its speaker community. The hypothesis emerges in strong and weak formulations.

Brooks missed this logical angle in His article because He wanted to make a political point. As pointed out above, Japanese does not use pronouns, and according to Wikipedia, the use of most pronouns in Chinese is a recent development due to contact with the West.

Perhaps the differences in cultural values Brooks outlines have their origin in the language of each individual culture. Americans are all about the singular "I," while the Chinese are all about the collective "We."

It's an intriguing idea that Western thought may be shaped by the English use of "I" as the personal pronoun.


Anonymous said...

I don't think it's as big of a deal as all that. It seems to be a case of trying to look for patterns where none exist.

I've never even thought of the capitalization of "I" as being more important or ego-driven or whatever. It was just the way the language worked. And I learned French from my early school years, where "je" is never capitalized (unless it's at the beginning of a sentence).

However, I was not raised a Christian, which I think may have more to do with this whole phenomenon than just speaking English. The Bible constantly uses capital letters to denote superiority. Since I wasn't exposed to that, I guess I just dismissed the capitalization of "I" as one of the quirks of the English language.

But that's not to say I'm not annoyed when people say "i".

Anonymous said...

I have wondered why we capitalize the I as well. In fact, i wrote a paper in which i didn't capitalize it and had to discuss why. Glad I am not the only one who thinks about such things


Anonymous said...

On the topic of "eastern" vs. "western" thought, I'd like to point out that less collectivist societies also tend to be more free. Individualism is not such an evil thing.