[Humanist] 22.623 lowercase man

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 17 07:29:41 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 623.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 16 Mar 2009 14:28:09 -0700
        From: "W. Keith Percival" <percival at ku.edu>
        Subject: Online seminar for digital humanities; Humanist Discussion Group,Vol. 22, No. 598


Thanks for your interesting message. I never ran into FIELDDATA although 
I got started in word-processing at about the same time as you did.

As far as I’m able to judge, things seem to be going the other way, 
namely away from the exclusive use of lower-case letters: nowadays 
capitals are more popular in e-mail messages, particularly in usernames 
and e-addresses. However, you say that you might make an exception in 
the case of US and URL, but I’ve just got the following cryptic message 
from the University server here in which to my astonishment url appears 
entirely in lower case: ‘If you fall out of the offcampus proxy space, 
and no longer see the special url or the "Off-Campus Access Granted" 
message, then ...’

When I first used electronic mail, which was about 1990, all the 
material in the headings had to be put in lower case. Now with the 
advent of desktop email programs proper names are usually capitalized, 
and so is the “Subject” and so forth. I’m not quite sure why that is. 
Perhaps it’s just part of the process of switching from digital UNIX 
programs to other e-mail programs, such as Outlook Express and 
Thunderbird. Here at the University of Washington, we all used to use a 
wonderful digital UNIX email program called the Pine Mailer. However, 
I’ve just noticed that the University server has just introduced a new 
digital e-mail program called Alpine, but to this user at least there’s 
no visible difference between Pine and Alpine: the headings are still 
entirely in lower case.

It doesn’t bother me personally either way. Of course, whether you use 
capitalization in messages themselves has always been entirely up to 
you. Actually, I generally find I use capitalization in more or less the 
traditional way, although I don’t think I’m terribly consistent. One 
problem I have in that whole area is that I still vacillate between 
British and American usage, which given my life history is 
understandable. Also, as you well know, there have been gradual changes 
in both British and American usage over the past few decades, also 
understandable. I once in a while look at old articles I published in 
journals years ago and am quite amazed at what I see. But to me even 
more dramatic is the contrast between the orthography I followed in an 
old diary I kept in long hand in 1947 and my present habits. One of the 
strangest spellings I spot in that diary is “havnt.” I’m not sure where 
I got that one from; possibly Bernard Shaw, who was my idol when I was 
in school.

I’m amused by the way the Germans have been agonizing over their recent 
spelling reform. I still get letters from German friends and colleagues, 
and what I notice is they don’t follow the revised orthography at all 
consistently. In particular, they fail to follow it when it seems to me 
that its innovations are quite sensible. In the new system, for 
instance, you’re supposed to write ß or ss strictly according to the 
length of the preceding vowel. So you write bloß because the vowel is 
long, but Schloss because the vowel is short. Before the present system 
came in you wrote ß or ss in word-final position regardless of the 
length of the preceding vowel, so there was no way a foreigner knew that 
the vowel in Fluß was short while the vowel of Fuß was long. Now you’re 
supposed to write Fuß but Fluss. I think that’s rather a good rule, very 
neat and logical, but in spite of that even now (after an entire 
decade!) not all Germans follow it. (And we persist in thinking of the 
Germans as typically rather docile people!) On top of that, of course, 
there were other logically possible innovations that the people in 
charge of the new spelling system didn’t have the courage to require, 
like ending the obligatory capitalization of nouns, which I think most 
people agree is a dispensable convention. But perhaps that’s a hopeless 
cause anyway!

But the most puzzling thing to me is that German isn’t even a world 
language like English. You would think they would have no trouble 
whatever getting just a few million people living in Germany, Austria 
and German-speaking Switzerland to go along with the changes, but 
nevertheless people didn’t just fall in line like slaves or indentured 
servants. With English, on the other hand, any sweeping changes would 
stand even less chance of being adopted, because there are too many 
people in too many different countries involved. English is not our 
language anymore; it now belongs to the entire world. Perhaps this is a 
pity, but there it is!

Here’s a funny example of the world we live in. On a recent visit to 
China, a sister-in-law of mine saw the following sign:


This admittedly involves nothing more serious than hyphenation, but 
isn’t hyphenation just another completely arbitrary graphic feature of 
English and of all languages that use the Roman alphabet? More than once 
I have, for example, had to submit articles written in English to 
Italian publishers, and they would send back galley-proofs in which it 
was obvious that they had redone all my hyphenation following the 
Italian hyphenation rules, with hilarious results at times. Actually, 
the Italian hyphenation rules are perfectly logical (any self-respecting 
logician would approve of them whole-heartedly); the only problem is 
that they don’t happen to apply to English.

As you may recall, I worked for many years on an Indonesian language, 
and nowadays all Indonesian languages are written in the Roman alphabet. 
Some of them, including my own language, Batak, used to use their own 
scripts, but these have been abandoned. In those earlier native scripts 
it was customary to use the number 2 to indicate doubling. So if you had 
a word like tulangtulang you would write tulang2. This use of the number 
2 in writing, you may recall, is a feature of Devanagari, the script in 
which Sanskrit and many other languages spoken in India are normally 
written. Centuries ago the whole of Southeast Asia was a giant Indic 
empire or to be more precise a set of Hinduized kingdoms, a fact that I 
think very few people in the West are aware of.

Even the Batak, who lived in the inaccessible highlands of northern 
Sumatra and were regarded as uncivilized by the other tribes of Sumatra, 
not to speak of Java, and they are still regarded with suspicion by many 
present-day Indonesians!) developed a perfectly decent writing system, 
one feature of which was the use of the number 2 to indicate doubling, 
which is an absolutely fundamental feature of Batak morphology, as it is 
of most Austronesian languages as far away from Sumatra as Madagascar, 
Fiji and Hawaii. To this day, when Indonesians write, whether it’s 
Bahasa Indonesia or one of their native languages, they still use that 
number 2 wherever necessary.

I’ve been reflecting on how successful we would be in persuading 
Indonesians to abandon that practical feature, on the grounds that it is 
not used in English or Dutch. Conversely, could English-speakers be 
successfully persuaded to adopt what is after all a perfectly logical 
graphic device? (Morphological doubling does occur in English and other 
languages, though to a limited extent, of course.) But I think you’ll 
agree that in all likelihood such reforms wouldn’t be very feasible. 
People would just not fall in line. This is maybe unfortunate, but such 
is life!

I’m reminded of a fellow student of mine at Yale who used his own 
completely phonetic spelling system for English; for years he would 
religiously use that spelling system in all his letters and e-messages 
to us all. I can assure you that it really was a splendid system from a 
purely phonetic point of view, although I must say he made the mistake 
of basing it on his own pronunciation of English. That was back in the 
fifties, and he continued to use that system for decades, but half a 
millennium later I see no signs at all that the system is gaining 

How do you feel about that sort of project in general?



W. Keith Percival
Professor Emeritus of Linguistics
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
3815 N.E. 89th Street
Seattle, WA 98115-3742
Ph: (206) 522-4347
E-address: <percival at ku.edu>
Website:  http://people.ku.edu/~percival/ 


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