Submitted by sunilkumar on March 30, 2010

why does english have capital letters?

i wonder why english has capital letters? as a non native english speaker, i could not understand the logic behind it. it also increases key strokes on typewriters, computers, and makes it difficult for non natives. i am sure that if puritans of english would be mild, it could be reduced.

similarly i find the use of THE very problematic. why it cant be reduced to a minimum?

Comments

Sort by

The question is interesting, but I would reverse it: Why does English have lower-case letters? Most of the letters used in English derive from the Roman alphabet, which was entirely upper case. (The terms upper case and lower case derive from movable-type printing, and refer to the physical location of the racks—cases—where each set of type was located.) Lower-case letters derive from script, and predate printing.

According to Wikipedia: "Originally alphabets were written entirely in capital letters, spaced between well-defined upper and lower bounds. When written quickly with a pen these tended to turn into rounder and much simpler forms, like unicals. It is from these that the first minuscule hands developed, the half-unicals and cursive minuscule, which no longer stay bound between a pair of lines."

The key script was Carolingian miniscule, which was "developed as a writing standard in Europe so that the Roman alphabet could be easily recognized by the small literate class from one region to another. It was used in Charlemagne's empire between approximately 800 and 1200," again according to Wikipedia.

The convention of capitalizing the first word in a sentence appears to have been part of Carolingian miniscule from the start. I don't know when the practice of capitalizing certain words—nouns, mainly—developed, but it used to be much wider in scope. Writers as recent as Jonathan Swift commonly capitalized all nouns; the same is true of the American Declaration of Independence. I suspect that the purpose was improved legibility, particularly in hand-written documents. English has largely abandoned capitalized nouns, with specific exceptions, such as names. German, on the other hand, still capitalizes all nouns.

The reason English continues to retain capital letters is primarily legibility. Words written in lower-case letters, with their varied sizes and shapes, are indeed easier to read than words written in all-caps. But capital letters add a layer of information to the writing, signifying sentence starts, names, titles, and proper nouns. The current trend away from capitalization is driven largely by email and particularly by texting. In the latter, shifting between cases is cumbersome; in the former it is simply laziness. If you find it cumbersome to capitalize, be glad you're not writing German.

24 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

English does not have capital letters. The script it uses has. And the reason is tradition. The capital script was designed by sculptors in ancient roman times and acquired prestige since it was used in monuments. When written with a pen, it proved to be time-consuming and demanded a skillful scribe. Therefore, texts written entirely in capital letters were reserved for “de luxe” editions. The minuscule were developed to give comfort to the scribe and save on writing material (namely parchment), while maintaining legibility. So, they were reserved for “economy” editions. To add more dignity to the minuscule text, scribes began “decorate” it with the more prestigious capitals. So titles of books and chapters were written in capitals, as well as proper names. Also the first letter, and sometimes, the first word, or line of a chapter or paragraph. This practice receded with time to using capitals only for the first letter of words of a title, proper names or periods (from a full stop to another).

11 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

I believe that the process of reading is not a pure mechanical digestion of words in a strict linear fashion. I've read that we absorb or "read" words in groups and decipher meaning at "another level". I feel that the capitalisation of letters at the start of sentences (and the use of a full-stop and double space after) help us ingest meaning in the written form in a super useful way. I have an aunt who does not use any capitalisation (and no spaces after full-stops). It drives me crazy trying to read her emails - having to almost read letter by letter. It is stupid. I tiny effort on the part of the message creator to stick to a convention, goes a LONG way for the swift and easy interpretation of a message by all.

11 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Capitalisation is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse, and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

7 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Porsche10x, scrictly speaking, a language does not have to do with its writing system. Languages like Turkish for instance changed their writing system from the Arabic-based Ottoman script to a modified version of the Latin alphabet just recently (1928). So it is correct to say that the modern convention for writing the English language employs in fact capital letters, but it does not mean that if you abolish them you will have a different language.

5 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

At first I thought this was a silly question, but after researching it a bit I found that various languages have made concerted efforts to reduce the amount of capitalization over their histories, including English. Here is from <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitalization" rel="nofollow">Wikipedia</a>:
<blockquote>
In German, all nouns are capitalized. This was also the practice in Danish before a spelling reform in 1948. It was also done in 18th century English (as with Gulliver's Travels and most of the original 1787 United States Constitution). Luxembourgish, a close relative of German and one of the three official languages of Luxembourg, also still uses capitalization of nouns to this day.
</blockquote>
Imagine if we had to capitalize all nouns. That would be a lot of work. Thank God it was changed.

A similar observation is made about the Japanese language by non-native speakers. They cannot understand why Kanji (the complex Chinese characters) has to be used in Japanese because they are actually not necessary. I believe there have been some organized efforts to eliminate or reduce the amount of Kanji. Some believe that it gives the Japanese a disadvantage in global competition because the complexity of Kanji adds to the amount of time spent on writing every piece of communication. The cumulative effect of this inefficiency can easily amount to millions or billions of dollars in loss.

So, in terms of efficiency, I believe English is one of the best.

5 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

In English capital letters (or majuscules) are used at the beginning of sentences and for proper nouns such as a person's name, a country's name or an organisation. In addition, majuscles are often used in headlines and advertising for visual impact. The original Latin alpahabet only used majuscles. Miniscules evolved from hand-writing of letters. The hand written letters were typical rounded and small - uncials, half-uncials and cursive appeared over time.

I think we still use capital letters because we like them. When you read a sentence or a name without capitals it doesn't look right. We also inherited capitals from old English - letters Thorn or þorn (Þ, þ) and Edh (or Eth) (Ð, ð). These letters represented various pronunciations of "th". Basically, English is a living language and customs change or do not change based on style and custom. Currently, most English speakers prefer capital letters. Maybe if people become lazier, they will vanish...

4 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Interesting. Reading these posts, the ones that do not use capital letters in the 'right places, and 'correct' punctuation are very, very hard to read, compared with those that don't.
Actually, as some of the posts have stated, use of initial capitals for start of sentence and proper names actually simplifies the language, as well as making it more legible, and makes it more comprehensible.
I had to read the uncapitalised and unpunctuated ones several times to understand them. Dropping capitalisation and punctuation is appropriate for informal comms such as TXT and some emails, but inappropriate in proper written language. It is sloppiness and laziness, and results in inaccuracies and errors.

4 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Goofy makes a good point. I should have said that the best justification for keeping capital letters is legibility, for easier visual readability and because of the additional information capital letters impart. The reason English has them at all are, as I pointed out, historical.

4 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Carolingian scribe, your post was certainly interesting, except for one thing. Why did you start by saying "English does not have capital letters"? Accurate or not, everything you posted explains why English DOES have capital letters!

3 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Nobody has addressed Sunil Kumar's second question:

"Similarly I find the use of "the" very problematic. Why it can't be reduced to a minimum?"

That the questioner's native language is one without articles may be inferred by the fact of the question itself.

Naturally the existence of articles in a new language would seem problematic for one used to none. But keep in mind the function of the word the: it establishes definiteness in a noun phrase. (For example, "the good book" means the Bible, while "a good book" could be Harry Potter.)

In languages without definite articles, definiteness still exists. However, it is established in other ways, such as by inflecting the noun or by employing an adjective that acts on the noun. Amongst languages with definite articles, English may have the simplest system: many European languages have three or more definite articles, English only one.

So as for reducing the use of "the," it already has been reduced to a minimum. (Prior to Middle English there were three definite articles.) To eliminate it altogether would require structural changes to the language itself.

3 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Whatever the reason we have them I am glad for them and wish we had a way to distinguish between words that appear alike but are much different in meaning and usage. For instance to quickly distinguish between the verb run and the noun Run (as in a dog run.)

Also the word that can be confusing. That that can be a problem is easily demonstrated. It is difficult to tell that that that that comes second is different from that that that comes third. And that's That.

3 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

capital leters are shit they are of no use (); pls remove them

3 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

In short, the reason for the use of capitals in writing English, and other languages, is a tradition with roots on aesthetics, not on linguistics. As for the accuracy of what I said, it is a good idea, for those who may be interested, to study paleography, especially the medieval scripts. I hope I could have shed some light on the matter.

2 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

it's ok , english is universal language !!

2 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

i really wish we didnt have them they're such a hassel!

2 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

i suupose english has to have capital letters beacuse you can clearly distingush and interpret a sentence .during reading there is no question capitals being useful they have a hachtec job in writing. i belive capitals in english are used one for clear interpretation and clear understanding

2 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

I'm not convinced that the reason English has capital letters is for legibility. Most alphabets don't make a distinction between miniscule and capital letters - in fact the only alphabets that do are Roman, Greek, Cyrillic and Armenian. But Hebrew, Arabic and the many alphabets of south and southeast Asia don't make the distinction.

2 votes Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

@Xannatos - you do realise, I hope, that it was The Librarian's joke that was "improper", not his grammar. And as he only wrote one sentence, how can "both sentences" be (I presume you mean grammatically) improper? His sentence did however include two similar "-ing" clauses, neither of which should take a comma:

In the first clause, "your Uncle Jack" is the direct object of "helping" and "off a horse" is a prepositional phrase.

in the second clause, "your uncle" is the direct object of "helping" but also the subject of the phrasal verb "jack off", which has its own direct object, "a horse"

The two parts of a phrasal verb are never separated by a comma, so I can only presume that you are blessed with such a clean mind that you didn't realise that that's what it was, in which case I'd check "jack off" in a good dictionary. The capitalisation of "helping" is neither here nor there, it's the difference between "your Uncle Jack off" and "your uncle jack off" that is crucial.

1 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

I find it funny how the person asking the question so abhors capitals and then writes "THE" in all-caps, to help distinguish the word.

As it so often goes, the answer is in the question!

Redundancy is built into writing to enable quick reading and to ease the amount of work the brain must do. To say otherwise would also be to say that graphic design is not needed. And that would be silly.

1 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

"helping your uncle jack, off a horse" is not proper English. Ever. Commas are only used to connect two independent clauses of a sentence, clauses. "Off a horse" is an incomplete clause.

If you are helping your Uncle Jack, you are helping him do something and, without the comma, it makes sense. I think that sentence is one of the most relevant expositions about the travails of English that there is. English does not clearly identify the object and subject, while some languages have suffixes or rigid syntactic order to avoid confusion. For us, capitalisation is an easy get-out.

I commend to you:
http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm

1 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Search 'Your strawman' and you'll know why CAPITAL LETTERS exist

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

It's spelled 'minuscule'. With a U.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

what will be lost if the english script had only the lower case?

CAPITAL LETTERS ALONE WILL MAKE HANDWRITING DIFFICULT, THOUGH IN TYPING IT WOULD MAKE NO DIFFERENCE.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

The Librarian
Ignoring the fact that both of your "sentences" are improper, which is where most of the confusion stems from, basic punctuation puts the two sentences in perspective.

Example: Using your sentence structure for proper comparison.

Helping your Uncle Jack off a horse.
helping your uncle jack, off a horse.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Written Japanese could not exist without. Chinese characters there are endless possibilities for the sound of a single syllable that otherwise would not be possible to understand for example everyone that would like to write using only hiragana would face the following problem if you see this written somewhere ひ how would you know what they mean if all of these words sound hi and only kanji sets the real meaning via pictograms and ideograms 日 火 比 陽 碑 東 飛 悲

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

"English does not have capital letters. The script it uses has. And the reason is tradition."

There you have it in a nutshell.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

I, for one, am grateful that we still benote capital letters! I hav studied other tungs that hav different alphabets and those without capital letters are harder to read. If I write steven ... I'm mean the word for voice ... She has the steven of an angel. But if I write Steven, then you kno that I mean the name Steven.

Even worse are those that don't benote vowels! They truly drive me nuts.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

The alphabet is made originally capital and lower case from triangle geometry.

I discovery the fact one years ago and the human language is only one originally
all of the world by someone(?)

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

"English does not have capital letters. The script it uses has. And the reason is tradition."

Interesting. A school inspector in 1947 held up a pen and asked the class what it was. They said it was a pen. He said no, it was a noun. My mother was the teacher, by the way, and relates the tale if sufficiently pressed to do so.

The word is a noun, the pen is a pen. That is why he was a school inspector, and not a teacher. Because he was an ass, in brief.

Now, as for your insight, JosephSungBin Im, I fear I am am rendered silent. I could, however, suggest you get in touch with JK Rowling who may have some ideas.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

@aragond - I'm used to grammar lectures on this forum, but for a joke? It's not meant to be proper English. It's a play on words and is totally improper English! See my previous comment.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

@aragond

You are either unfathomably stupid or you are just trolling. The latter is truer. But I'll indulge you.

Let's begin with your errors:

1. Commas are used more the connecting clauses.
2. Commas are not to connect two independent clauses, unless, of course, there is a coordinating conjunctions.
3. "Off a horse" is a prepositional phrase, not a clause.
4. English does clear define the subject and object.
5. English, I believe, does have a rigid syntactic order.

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

*"the" should be "than"

0 vote Vote!  •  Permalink  •  Report Abuse

Your Comment