In History, Literature, Words

Finger painting a letter I

Last week I shared my excitement at learning that you can make a sentence using only the word ‘buffalo‘ eight times in a row. No sooner had I discovered that revelation than it was trumped by Radio 2 playing I Should Have Known Better by Jim Diamond, in which he proves that you can make a sentence using the word ‘I’ 10 times consecutively.

And who can blame him? If ever there was a word worth repeating, it’s ‘I’. Anyone with a strong track record of getting past the first paragraph of this blog will be aware that an inordinate number of words in the English language seem to stem from some 14th century French import, and you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking: there must be some words that are older than that, otherwise how did the Anglo Saxons manage to get themselves so well organised?

It turns out there are a lot of words older than that, and one of the oldest of all is ‘I’. It’s also one of the easiest to spell.

Fifteen years ago, scientists at Reading University built a computer that could track the evolution of words and discovered that┬áthe words ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘who’ and the numbers 1, 2 and 3 are among the oldest words, not only in English but across all Indo-European languages. Apparently the word ‘I’ could be more than 10,000 years old.

10,000 years and 50% of the English speaking world still don’t know when to use it instead of ‘me’.

This is all speculation, of course. A bit of computer logic isn’t the same as finding the word ‘I’ carved on a prehistoric cave wall. And if you did find such a thing, how could you be sure that it wasn’t a rudimentary drawing of a stick or an accidental scrape with a spear point? I inadvertently carved the word ‘I’ into the dining table once by moving a vase that had a bit of grit on the bottom of it.

Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that ‘I’ would have been one of the first words in existence, due its pure simplicity. If you were inventing language from scratch, you wouldn’t start with ‘ug’, would you? You’d draw a straight line pointing to yourself.

It’s also very easy to say. All you really have to do is open your mouth and breathe out. A person could do it with their dying breath. It’s much easier than “Kiss me, Hardy” or “Bugger Bognor” or “Either that wallpaper goes or I do” or any of those other alleged famous last words. Mind you, just saying ‘I’ with your last gasp would probably raise more questions than it answered.

So anyway, it’s not surprising that this most simple of all words was a founder member of what would one day become the English language. There was a dark period in history when we were distracted by the Romans and the Franks and the Normans with their overcomplicated ‘ego’s and ‘ich’s and ‘je’s, and for a while we said ‘ik’ instead of I, but by the 12th century we’d seen sense and stripped it back to basics again.

So why do we capitalise ‘I’ but not ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘we’ or ‘they’? For the answer to that I’m afraid we have to go back to the Middle Ages again. Scribes scraping their quills across the parchment would pen an ‘i’ on its own and think, “Hmm, that looks a bit insignificant,” so they would enhance it by writing it as ‘I’ or ‘j’ to make it more obvious. There was no such need with the other pronouns. Over time it just became the custom.

And there was I hoping there might be a more quirky explanation that would lend itself to an amusing pay-off. I I I I I I I I I I should have known better.

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