What is the origin of the rules about the capitalization of the first letter of each noun?

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To my knowledge, German is the only language which capitalize the first letter of each of its nouns. Why is there such a rule?


Meines Wissens ist Deutsch die einzige Sprache, in der der erste Buchstabe eines Nomens groß geschrieben wird. Woher kommt diese Regel?

Eldros

Posted 2011-05-25T08:21:34.253

Reputation: 810

@ApoY2k: Yeah for example the capitalization of Sie or the pronoun Ihr when one is being polite to someone else. But I was interested in the rules about the nouns. – Eldros – 2011-05-25T08:43:26.660

I cant see a link to edit your post. "Zu meine Wissens" is not correct German. You may want to consider alternatives like "Meines Wissens ist Deutsch ..." or "Soweit ich weiss ist Deutsch...". Also, some corrections to the rest of the sentence: "Soweit ich weiss, ist Deutsch die einzige Sprache, in der der erste Buchstabe des Nomens gross geschrieben sein muss." I'm a bit shaky with the "Neue Deutsche Rechtschreibung", since I left the country before it took hold, so some of the ss may need to be ß, but the rest of the corrections stand. – teylyn – 2011-05-25T08:51:49.510

1It was the practice in English for a while too, in the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries. – Ornello – 2015-04-02T14:52:14.473

1english used to capitalise nouns too.... – None – 2011-09-21T04:47:47.910

I think (not entirely sure) the Sorbian language also used capitalization like the German until it was adapted to Czech orthography in the late 19th century. – tofro – 2017-02-21T19:08:54.397

1It's interesting to ponder the ambiguities that would be removed in English if we did it there too: The famed "British Left Waffles on Falklands" could be rendered as "British Left waffles on Falklands" vs. "British left Waffles on Falklands", removing the possibility of misreading the headline. – Kyralessa – 2017-07-31T09:28:05.460

Answers

33

Capitalization of nouns was introduced in Late Middleages (14th century). The first letter(s) of single words (especially religious terms like "GOtt", but not just nouns) were set in majuscules in order to emphasize these words.

Today's capitalization of all nouns was officially introduced in 17th century German. The literary critic und translator Walter Benjamin:

“Das Barock hat in die deutsche Rechtschreibung die Majuskel eingebürgert.”

Though even centuries later capitalization has not been endorsed by everybody. Jacob Grimm commented in 1854:

“den gleichverwerflichen misbrauch groszer buchstaben für das substantivum, der unserer pedantischen unart gipfel heißsen kann, habe ich […] abgeschüttelt.”

See also:

splattne

Posted 2011-05-25T08:21:34.253

Reputation: 32 543

5

I found this article, maybe it can be interesting/useful (it's in German): Die auch für das Deutsche neue Großschreibung war ein Produkt demonstrativer Gottesfurcht

– Alenanno – 2011-05-25T08:36:56.110

@Alenanno That's a good article. Thank you! – splattne – 2011-05-25T08:42:29.543

7Nice tidbit about Jacob Grimm. – Eldros – 2011-05-25T08:44:54.443

@splattne: Glad to be helpful! :D My level of German denies me from understanding it completely, but I could see it was related to your answer, because I found some "GOtt"-related info too. :D – Alenanno – 2011-05-25T08:45:11.200

1Ist Deutsch tatsächlich die einzie Sprache, in der es üblich ist, Substantive großzuschreiben? – Tomalak – 2011-05-25T10:03:13.687

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@Tomalak "Das Deutsche ist im lateinischen Alphabet zusammen mit dem Luxemburgischen die einzige Sprache, welche eine generelle Substantiv-Großschreibung kennt," http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gro%C3%9Fschreibung

– splattne – 2011-05-25T10:21:29.483

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@Tomalak Nachtrag: und LOLCAT: http://speaklolcat.com/ ;)

– splattne – 2011-05-25T10:27:02.267

Love the Grimm citation :) – Deve – 2011-05-25T14:11:32.250

@poke Probably just a thing of habit though. You're used to seeing nouns capitalized, so you automatically perceive the non-capitalized words as non-nouns. You don't have this issue in other languages, where you don't have such a habit. – JI Xiang – 2016-09-24T13:26:11.597

3Am I the only one that has real difficulties reading that last quote? o.O Good that we do capitalize those words… – poke – 2011-05-27T11:16:42.477

12

You are correct in observing that German is probably the only language to still capitalise common nouns. (Note the emphasis)

First of all, this is because capitalisation can only happen in scripts such as Cyrillic, Greek or Latin which distinguish between capital and lower-case letters. Why they do that can probably be traced back to Charlemagne who allegedly let lowercase letters be invented — but that’s a story on its own (and for a different Stack Exchange). Point being that the vast majority of languages out there use an entirely different script and thus cannot capitalise anything.

Sometime during the Middle Ages to Renaissance, capitalisation of some nouns, later more, became popular across many European languages. At some point in time, most of them would capitalise at least some common nouns.

In the following centuries, it became fashionable to drop capitalisation again. I think Danish was the final language to drop common noun capitalisation in 1948.

But of course, the English capitalisation rules (English, Queen Elizabeth, Wednesday, cf French anglais, la reine Elizabeth, mercredi and German englisch, Königin Elisabeth, Mittwoch) also warrant discussion.

Jan

Posted 2011-05-25T08:21:34.253

Reputation: 30 542

1

" Charlemagne who let lowercase letters be invented" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_minuscule

– Mawg – 2015-04-17T08:43:40.057

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This rule helps to distinguish between sentences like this:

  1. Er verweigerte Speise und Trank.
    Er verweigerte Speise und trank.

    He refused food and drinks.
    He refused food and drank.

  2. Der Junge sieht dir ungeheuer ähnlich.
    Der Junge sieht dir Ungeheuer ähnlich.

    The boy looks a lot like you.
    The boy looks like you monster.

  3. Wäre er doch nur Dichter.
    Wäre er doch nur dichter.

    If only he were a poet.
    If only it were more dense.

  4. Vor dem Fenster sah sie den geliebten Rasen.
    Vor dem Fenster sah sie den Geliebten rasen.

    In front of the window she saw the beloved lawn.
    In front of the window she saw the lover raging.

  5. Er hat in Berlin liebe Genossen.
    Er hat in Berlin Liebe genossen.

    He has dear comrades in Berlin.
    He enjoyed love in Berlin.

Not realy always complete sentence, but still good examples:

  1. Warme Speisen im Keller
    Warme speisen im Keller.

    Hot dishes in the cellar
    Gays dine in the cellar.

  2. Die Spinnen
    Die spinnen.

    The spiders
    They are crazy.

  3. Beschädigte Liegen in meiner Filiale
    Beschädigte liegen in meiner Filiale.

    Damaged beach chairs in my branch
    The damaged lie in my branch.

  4. Die nackte Sucht zu quälen
    Die Nackte sucht zu quälen.

    The pure addiction to torment
    The naked tries to torture.

  5. Der Gefangene floh.
    Der gefangene Floh

    The prisoner fled.
    The caught flea

Hubert Schölnast

Posted 2011-05-25T08:21:34.253

Reputation: 59 260

2Well done. Funny examples. – Marty Green – 2017-02-22T04:25:14.767

Mildly funny, but useless. You might as well construct similar examples where capitalization does not help at all. – mach – 2017-05-21T13:12:45.083

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Kürzlich habe ich auf Belles Lettres in einem Video-Tutorial* gehört, dass es damit zu tun hat, dass im Deutschen die Wortreihenfolge viel freier ist als in vielen anderen Sprachen. Dadurch hilft die Großschreibung von Substantiven der Orientierung beim Lesen.

Welches genau kann ich leider nicht sagen, sonst würde ich es verlinken.

user unknown

Posted 2011-05-25T08:21:34.253

Reputation: 16 094

2

Capitalisation of some (not all!) words makes sentences easier to read quickly, for much the same reason that ascenders (as e.g. in t, l, h, k) and descenders (as e.g. in g, p, q, y) do the same. Capitalising all nouns leads to a nice percentage of capitalised words and therefore aids reading.

I am not claiming that this is the reason we are doing this, but it's certainly a disincentive to changing it.

There was a time when capitalisation was pretty much random in most European languages. Then systematic rules developed out of the chaos. Capitalising all nouns would be more tricky or less consistent in English than it is in German, where adjectives or nouns preceding a noun are typically spelled together with the noun in a single word that can then be capitalised.

Hans Adler

Posted 2011-05-25T08:21:34.253

Reputation: 8 310