Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lowercase This

The first thing I learned about German language was that all nouns in German are written with a capital letter. This rule puzzled me a lot, but nobody could tell me why is that. Probably, old Germans respected objects more than actions and attributes for some reason. The difference in capitalization between English and Russian languages was not so obvious, so I noticed it relatively late, only when I started corresponding with native speakers via email a lot. Here are some examples when English requires a capital letter, but Russian doesn't.

1. I = я. I don't like any speculations about whether it is good or bad to put “I” in the first place and thus always capitalize this pronoun. That is not a question of linguistics, after all. I feel quite comfortable writing “I”, however, writing “я” with the capital letter in Russian would disturb me. I would feel like I'm trying to attract too much attention to myself.
Please note, that in Russian, when (officially) writing to a person who you don't know well enough, or who is (significantly) older than you, or who is at a higher position than you, write “you” from the capital letter – “Вы”.

2. Names of the months are written with a lower-case letter in Russian. “January”, but “январь”. I find it is more convenient to write months with a capital letter, but in Russian you have to use lower-case.

3. Names of days of the week are lowercase as well. "Sunday" is "воскресенье", even if it is a special Sunday.

4. In titles, only the first word is written with a capital letter. English/American Titles Look Too Dramatic To Russian Eye.

5. In names of organizations consisting of more than one word, only the first word is capitalized. For example: “Altai State University” in Russian is “Алтайский государственный университет”, “Ministry of Truth” is “Министерство правды”.

6. Nations and languages in Russian are also written in lowercase. “Russia” is “Россия”, but “Russian” is “русский”. “Europe” is “Европа”, but “European” is “европейский”. The logic is that a name is a name, it is unique, but the words derived from the name are not unique and they refer to many things. There is one and the only Russia, but a lot of things that are Russian, so Russian is not about a unique object. The same is true for possessive words: Sasha (Саша) is a name, it is unique, while Sasha's (сашин) refers to a bunch of objects, so it is lowercase.

At school, I was taught to write the word “motherland” with a capital letter (Родина). I don't know if the tradition to of capitalizing this word is still alive. Do you write “motherland” with a capital letter?

Capitalization Rules
Photo by Thomas R. Stegelmann