After waking up, I cleaned my room (and bathroom!) before going to Starbucks to study. For my history class, I need to conduct a “source analysis” on a letter written from an estate manager to his Duke in 1769.
I spent three hours analyzing 3 lines.
It’s amazing how much I don’t know about Scotland. What’s a Duke? What does unproper mean? What could unproper have meant in 1769? What are certain words capitlized? What is the quality of soil like in Scotland? Some of these questions had easy answers, but actually finding out why certain words were capitalized was the most interesting discovery of the day.
A lazy answer is to say that English comes from German, and carried over German’s capitalization rules (every noun is capitalized). But, closer inspection 1 reveals that the practice of capitalizing every noun didn’t start until the 17th century, after English already began to exist! After some more searching, I found a post 2 on a forum asking about word capitalization in the 1700’s.
Hart recommended his readers to use a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence, proper name, and important common noun. By the 17th century, the practice had extended to titles (Sir, Lady), forms of address (Father, Mistris), and personified nouns (Nature). Emphasized words and phrases would also attract a capital. By the beginning of the 18th century, the influence of Continental books had caused this practice to be extended still further (e.g. to the names of the branches of knowledge), and it was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important. Books appeared in which all or most nouns were given an initial capital (as is done systematically in modern German) - perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps because printers were uncertain about which nouns to capitalize, and so capitalized them all.
The fashion was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of Butler, Traherne, Swift, and Pope are full of initial capitals. However, the later 18th-century grammarians were not amused by this apparent lack of discipline in the written language. In their view, the proliferation of capitals was unnecessary, and causing the loss of a useful potential distinction. Their rules brought a dramatic reduction in the types of noun permitted to take a capital letter.
Aha! “It was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important.” Now as I read the rest of the document I’ll pay attention to which words are capitalized to help me understand the subtext of what the estate manager is communicating.
As interesting as this is, it might bore a few of you. Here are some (much more interesting) pictures of a walk I took today: