Why Do We Use Capital Letters?

You could say that uppercase letters were…a capital idea.
July 10, 2020
Why Do We Use Capital Letters?

It’s easy to think about the written and spoken word as being the same thing. They are both crucial parts of human communication, but there are important differences between them. Most important is that speech came first, and writing tried to copy speech to the best of its ability. The Latin alphabet, for example, attempted to capture human speech sounds with its symbols (though we should note not every writing system works the same way). But there is at least one feature of written language that has seemingly nothing to do with spoken language: capital letters.

Capital letters might seem like an integral part of the language. But if you think about it, they’re not exactly “necessary.” As it turns out, they come from an old style quirk that has managed to survive thousands of years to become the capital letters we know today. And when you look beyond English and other European languages, you might not even find capital letters at all.

The First Capital Letters

To look at where capital letters come from, you have to go way back to when there was no upper or lower case at all. If you think back to reading about old Greek and Latin writing, you might remember that it looks like it’s written in all caps. Julius Caesar, for example, would be written as IVLIVS CAESAR (U was written as V, and J was written as I). This isn’t because Romans wanted to yell all the time; it’s because the earliest writing was entirely in majuscule.

Majuscule is a type of writing that today we would call capital letters, and it was the dominant form of writing in the Greek and Roman empires. During the early centuries of writing with the Latin alphabet, scribes would use Trajan and, later, Rustic, which were essentially ancient fonts. These early forms of writing were limited by the material that was being written on. Older writing systems tended to have straight lines and sharp edges because if you’re writing in stone, it’s pretty hard to carve consistent curves. 

As writing shifted more toward parchment, the style changed with it. By the third century CE, a popular writing style for scribes was uncial, which takes its name from a story in the Bible. Uncial started as a majuscule script not too different from Rustic, and thus it was entirely majuscule. But as the centuries progressed, scribes started mixing in smaller, non-majuscule letters. These smaller letters eventually gave rise to Carolingian minuscule in the eighth century CE, which were symbols that were smaller and more rounded than their precursors. The name Carolingian comes from Charlemagne, King of the Franks, who was ruler during the time that this particular writing form appeared and who helped make it the standard for writing across Europe.

The phrase “capital letter,” though, didn’t appear until the 14th century CE. This might be a sign that the concept didn’t become commonplace until around then. The term itself comes from the Latin capit, meaning “head,” because the capital letter came at the “head” of the sentence. On another etymological note, “uppercase” is used because in the days of typesetting when books had to be laid out with metal pieces for each letter, capital letters were kept in their own “case,” which was usually the one on top.

Why Do We Use Capitals Like We Do?

This is a tough question because there’s not really an exact answer to it. As writing on the internet has proven, abandoning uppercase letters in your writing doesn’t really harm your understanding of the language. Thus, capital letters are decided by norms, not any logically consistent rules.

Let’s go back to the Romans. When scribes first started alternating between majuscule and minuscule, they did so for entirely stylistic reasons. Within a single word, there might have been both upper- and lower-case letters, entirely at the discretion of the scribe. During a time when books were rare and most people were illiterate, there really wasn’t much demand for a standard. 

As time went on and writing spread, standards started to form. In the same way that writers established rules for spelling and grammar, they also made rules for capitalization. We don’t really need to go through the ones for English because you’ve likely had them drilled into you.

To see how capitalization rules are pretty arbitrary, you only need to look at German and English. These languages come from the same root — Proto-Germanic — and so at one point were very similar. And even today, their capitalization rules are the same except for one important difference: nouns. German capitalizes all nouns, whereas English capitalizes only proper nouns, like names and places. If you look back far enough, you can see that English also used to capitalize far more nouns. Looking through a text like the 16th century English epic poem The Faerie Queene, you see that words including “Dragon,” “Asse” and “Muse” are all capitalized, though they wouldn’t be today. English abandoned capitalizing nouns for some reason, and there’s really no way to know why.

In the 21st century, there are long-established rules about what should be capitalized, even though those rules are different in every language. You might know that in English you capitalize book titles, whereas you don’t in most other European languages, like French or Spanish. It might seem unsatisfying, but the true reason certain things are capitalized today is just a very old style decision that got cemented forever.

It’s worth noting, though, that capitalization has become a valuable tool in writing. The difference between writing “God” and “god,” for example, is important, especially if you’re highly religious. And there are style decisions being made about what to capitalize all the time. The AP Stylebook made news in 2016 when it stopped capitalizing “internet” because people thought the capital-I “Internet” seemed too stuffy and official-sounding. And very recently, publications including the New York Times and the Associated Press started capitalizing “Black” when referring to a person’s ethnicity. It might seem like a small change, but activists have pushed for it for years because, to some degree, capitalization today is a marker of respect for an idea.

There are countless instances where using a capital letter (or not) carries weight in writing. So while it may not be strictly necessary for a language to have an upper case, it has become hard to think of how writing would exist without them.

Are There Languages Without Capital Letters?

With all that said about the importance of capital letters, you might think pretty much every language has something similar. But no!

Writing systems that do have two different cases are known as “bicameral scripts,” and these include all the languages that use Latin, Greek, Cyrillic and Armenian scripts, among others. Because of the Latin alphabet’s huge influence on Western culture, it only seems like bicameral scripts are the norm. Yet there are plenty of unicameral alphabets, including Georgian, Telugu, Hebrew and Iberian. There is no “deficiency” in these languages for not having capital letters, and they seem to get along just fine. A number of languages that use other writing systems also have no concept of capital letters. This includes Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and Hindi.

If minuscule had never been invented by scribes looking for quicker ways to write letters, it’s hard to imagine it would feel like anything would be missing from language today. It’s a linguistic quirk that happened to catch on. But like all the other quirks English has inherited from decisions made centuries ago — like our weird, confusing spelling — it’s something people have learned to live with and use to their benefit. 

Header Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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