Me, Myself and the Capital I

Mark Johnston, Connections Pastor

A while back, my youngest daughter asked me why i don’t capitalize my i’s in e-mails.

It’s basic grammar, and being the guy who gets called on to spell check e-mails and letters at the church office, and goes so far as to use proper punctuation in text messages, you’d think i’d follow the rules.

i use them at the beginning of sentences, ‘cause let’s face it, that just looked weird.

I use them in formal letters, that i print on nice stationery, although i have to check everything twice, since i’ve taught my word processing software my quirk and it recognizes a lower case i as a real word. I really don’t want some esteemed recipient, a prospective church member/ banker/ lawyer/ businessman or possible future employer (in case this pastor gig doesn’t work out) thinking i’m a total doofus, so i will conform to the odd whims of society on occasion. E-mails are less formal, so, to me they’re fair game, although in text messages i refuse to abbreviate ‘thanks’ to ‘thx’ and ‘okay’ to just ‘k.’ I do have my standards.

Admittedly, this is not some original thought that just came to me one day. It goes back years—thirty to be exact. In those days, i was really into a Christian musician named Mark Heard, who never sold many records, but had what we refer to as a nice little ‘cult following,’ which means he probably didn’t make very much money.

In the song The Golden Age he wrote:

No one cares about no one else

We’re so used to the capital “I”

That got me thinking—why do we capitalize the “I” in English? I mean, i know it’s a rule. We have rules in place for using capital letters but ‘I’ doesn’t really follow them. We use a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, for proper nouns and for names. ‘I’ isn’t any of those, though– ‘I’ is a pronoun, like ‘me’ or ‘you.’ So, why don’t ‘me’ or ‘you’ need capital letters?1

What is so important about me, that i capitalize, the same way i pay my respects toward God if i’m referring to him, or Him, if i’m being super respectful. Well, the short answer is that nobody really knows. Even etymologists (people who study the history of words) don’t know for sure. There are theories about the original German origins of the word, the fact that the lowercase looks funny on paper or on screen, or is harder to read in a sentence…bottom line is that no one knows why we do it.

In Spanish, yo is just ‘yo.’ (“Yo” is the Spanish word for i, not just dialogue from Breaking Bad.) Other languages, like Hebrew and Arabic 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.”2

Although the rules were set down long ago, i think as a reflection on society today, Mark Heard nailed it. We have elevated self to a place of supreme importance. What (capitalized) I want is what matters in this world. My wants. My needs. Me, above all else. I sit on the throne of my life. I star in my own movie, and everyone else is just a bit player, and as the casting director, I assign them their parts, choose when they make their entrances and exits, and allow them to stay in the film as long as they suit Me. Capital Me, on the same plane as capital God.

So what do we do? Am i suggesting that we as Stonepoint Church, do away with the rules of our native tongue and lowercase all of our personal pronouns? No. I do, however, think we should heed the words of the Apostle Paul:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus – Philippians 2:3-5 ESV

Did you catch that? “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” That means we can’t do it under our own power. We can’t will ourselves to be humble, putting other’s desires in front of our own. We are powerless to change. But God, through His Holy Spirit can change us. It starts with simple acts of service to others. Look for them. Pray that God will put them in your path this week.

So this isn’t really about English, or language, at all. Deep down, we all know our hearts are corrupt. We know we need to change. Maybe we start by simply being aware of our own selfishness, as we say in re:generation, ‘one day at a time, one moment at a time.’

As a church, i pray that we will be a group of lower case i’s, serving uppercase “Yous” and “Theys” whenever we cross paths, to give the ultimate uppercase “He” all the glory and honor that He deserves.

1 http://www.englishtown.com/blog/english-mysteries-use-capital/

2 Caroline Winter, The New York Times Magazine, Me, Myself and I, August 3, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03wwln-guestsafire-t.html?_r=0

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