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Capitalisation Is A Political Act

June 16, 2010

So! The capital letter. Let us talk about it. More specifically, let us talk about the capital letter in modern English, because that is the field with which I am acquainted. (Despite being used for much the same set of things in languages that have them, usage can still vary quite distinctively. German, for example, uses more capitals than English, French fewer, and Latin fewer still.)

Sometimes it seems that in modern times we have been subjected to something of a plague of the things, an infestation of Biblical proportions – because when you have WikiWording (where capitals end up in the middle of words for practical, usually progamming-related, purposes), and CamelCase (where it’s an artistic decision) and so on proliferating madly all over the Internet it can seem like they are everywhere.

Handily, I have covered two main reasons for capital letters in the first paragraph alone: when computer coding makes them necessary, and for purely aesthetic typographical reasons. Both of these are reasonably common, but it is also usually pretty obvious what is happening when one of those needs is in play.

All the other uses of capitals are covered by the big umbrella term of Adding Emphasis. Two forms of this seem to be Internet-peculiar: the tongue-in-cheek use of capitals to designate Important Words, and the net convention whereby going into all caps = shouting. (Given the general lack of tone markers in text as opposed to speech, I think any typographical tricks that help do the work elsewhere done by body language, pitch, tone, speed, etc., such as caps, markups and emoticons, is a good thing.)

Capitalisation that does not fall under any of these categories is almost entirely confined to proper nouns (people, places, corporate and other legal entities) and their derivatives (e.g. America -> American -> Americanise) and titles of media works. That association of capitals with the name of something is the primary one at work in the English language, and it is a very powerful one. When those capitals carry over into words that are not naming something, you know you’re looking at an exceptional case.

The exclusivity of the capitalised pronouns accorded to the Christian God is a case in point: nobody else is conventionally accorded those capitals – not even, crucially, other divine figures. It’s not a generalised gesture of respect to figures considered divine, but a specifically Christian one.*

That exclusivity means that stripping the Christian God’s pronouns of their capitals is a political statement: what does that say about the writer’s belief or lack of it? Are they an atheist who does not believe in giving gods special marks of respect? A pantheist who does not believe in privileging this particular god over others? Or a member of some liberal Christian church who wishes to address their God as an equal and friend, rather than a superior? I’ve seen the first and last in use, and the second is so plausible I’d be surprised if it isn’t done here and there.

The reverse process – according the capitalised pronouns traditionally the preserve of the Christian God to other deities as well – is just as much of a statement, and again, one that could be made from multiple motives. Perhaps most often it’s used by believers as a way of declaring a specific deity to be on the same level as the Christian God, equally worthy of respect: there’s little doubt that when a writer like Starhawk refers to her Goddess with a capitalised ‘She’, it’s intended in that spirit.

Such use of divine pronouns is, essentially, borrowing the naming power of the capital letter for every reference to the deity under discussion; it’s as if their name is implicit every time they are mentioned, identifying them without the possibility of confusion. It’s playing off the impression created in English is that named things (people, countries, corporations) are accorded greater emphasis than generalities, and therefore gain an aura of greater importance.

Whether named entities deserve this sort of subliminal emphasis is a matter for argument; there is undoubtedly a case to be made that names should not take priority over neighbouring words merely for being names, as in the case of bell hooks, who decapitalised her name to focus the attention of her readers on the “substance of books, not who I am”.

The number of household names who are generally spelt without capitals is few enough, though, that the decapitalisation itself becomes unusual and noteworthy, which might somewhat negate an effort at de-emphasis. I still think hooks’ is an important statement, and a novel way of attempting to counter excessive focus on the author rather than the work, but hooks’ decapitalised name is still one of the first things that comes to (my) mind when she is mentioned. A similar effect is in play with ee cummings** and k.d. lang – both are well-known for their lack of capitals.

By association with proper names, the humble English capital confers a magical aura of realness and importance on the words it begins. As well as serving purely practical purposes, like marking sentence openings, it has become a silent but extremely powerful ideological marker: as with pronouns, the use of caps on usually uncapitalised adjectives can tell us something – potentially a lot – about the attitude of the writer to the group to which they refer. Have a look at the following example sentences which I made up:

“A prominent black politician said yesterday that …”

“A prominent Black politician said yesterday that …”

“I went to dinner with some pagan friends of ours, and …”

“I went to dinner with some Pagan friends of ours, and …”

“My sister-in-law is deaf, and she was telling me how …”

“My sister-in-law is Deaf, and she was telling me how …

They do ring very slightly differently, don’t they? It’s all in the magic capital, which gives an ordinary descriptive word the weight of a name. That weight, to extend the metaphor, shifts the balance of the whole sentence. If I encountered any of those capitalised usages in a text for analysis, I’d be inclined to guess that

  • either the writer themselves identifies with the term in question,
  • or has had close contact with people who do,
  • and is probably aware of at least some of the issues particular to those people’s experience,
  • and is probably coming from some kind of activist viewpoint, even if their focus isn’t the community in question.

Why? Because capitalisation is a political act. Because putting in the magic capital can state that Black or Deaf or Pagan is a communal identity, a nameable identity, on the same level as American or Christian or any conventionally capitalised group, and that, in today’s political climates, is an inflammatory statement if ever there was one.

The flipside to this is the same thing that happens with identities that are already mostly capitalised (nationality, religion, etc.): once you give any shared characteristic the status of an identity, it becomes prone to massive overgeneralisation – the tendency of people to assume that there’s a common Black experience, or a single Christian experience, or whatever, when in reality there are billions of people in each group, and the shared factor may be the only thing they have in common.

To take an eighteenth-century example, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman makes ‘Woman’ into a real, capitalisable identity, all members of which are assumed to have shared experiences of certain kinds of oppression. It’s an extremely powerful text, remarkably forward-looking for one written in 1792, and also an act of supreme courage when one considers what Wollstonecraft was up against (this was the era when it was radical to suggest that women could be educated, let alone that they could be so without permanently damaging their already menstruation-weakened brains.) In Wollstonecraft’s hands the capitalised ‘Woman’ is a powerful statement of womanhood as being an identity with equal value to that of ‘Man’.

The same universalised, capitalised ‘Woman’, though, is found throughout history used in the service of the particular kind of misogyny that idealises and idolises an allegorical Woman and then lambasts real women for failing to attain the unattainable. In such cases, including all women in one grand, universal Woman becomes a means of erasing individual women’s experiences and declaring that they must share particular experiences/qualities.

These two ways of interpreting a capitalised identity are essentially the same technique seen from opposite sides. Wollstonecraft believes that all women share a certain experience, that is, oppression; those she wrote against (Talleyrand, Rousseau, Burke, Maudsley, Ruskin; do not seek out any of these men’s writings on the female role unless you’re feeling strong) also believe that all women share certain things.

You even get cases where exactly the same thing is being done by movements diametrically opposed. The only places I’ve seen the capitalised use of ‘White’ are a) from anti-racist activists and b) from frothing neo-Nazis in comment sections. And yet generally it’s used in exactly the same sense – to designate Whiteness as a concrete identity based on a common experience of white privilege.

It comes down, as so often with these things, to one’s personal politics. I dislike the allegorical, idealised use of ‘Woman’ because it usually goes hand-in-hand with various oppressive demands, but respect Wollstonecraft’s use as a powerful proto-feminist gesture of solidarity. I loathe racists’ use of ‘White’ as a common identity because I don’t want to be in the same group as them, but when an anti-racist activist uses the capitalised version it reminds me that my whiteness is not value-neutral, and that I benefit from systems emplaced and maintained by racism.

What those responses have in common, though, is a degree of reaction to a capitalised form that doesn’t happen nearly as much (to me, at least) with the uncapitalised version. Encountering a cannily placed capital will stop me in my metaphorical tracks – in my case, it’s almost literal: I read (clearly printed, large enough) text very fast indeed, and my eye can’t skim over unexpected capitals but has to stop and focus.

Looked at under the magnifying glass, it’s amazing what a simple capital letter can do – what associations it can make, what connotations it can hold, what attitudes it can convey. For all that the rhetorical potential of capital letters tends to be ignored or undervalued, they remain a powerful weapon in the writer’s arsenal. Long may they endure.

*

*Curiously, Christian texts that capitalise divine pronouns don’t usually also capitalise relative pronouns. In the opening of the Lord’s Prayer, for example – “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” – you’ll often see the ‘thy’ capitalised, but very rarely the ‘who’.

**Cummings, it should be noted, used both capitalised and uncapitalised versions, and scholars are unsure whether it was his preferred orthography or an individual “gesture of humility” not intended as a guide.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010 6:22 pm

    Yet again, I am in awe of your words and wit. Thank you.

  2. Paul Skinner permalink
    June 17, 2010 1:36 pm

    Heh. Like the capitalisation of Party in 1984 and in that letter from my MP.

  3. June 21, 2010 2:18 pm

    Or one can be a pantheist who doesn’t actually believe in any gods as real beings and hence uses small letters for everything except proper names. This is part of why I call the Christian god by his name: El or YHWH. Because it puts him on the same level with the other named gods, Thor and Anubis and Vishnu. It gives them all the same reality, which is that of a metaphor or simile.

    Interesting points. As long as you aren’t suggesting abolishing them as a political act, I’m good. I’m relentless conventional in my reading formats.

  4. wickedday permalink
    June 21, 2010 3:16 pm

    @Bellatrix: Thank you very much 😀 I hope you continue to enjoy reading here.

    @Paul: slightly different, but on the same sort of scale. It’s not just a political party, it’s the political Party. I’m not sure anyone’s falling for that particular we-are-more-legitimate-look-at-our-capitals trick, though, especially given its usage in 1984.

    @Angelia: Thanks for pointing that out! I see what you mean, and it does tie in rather interestingly to the question of the naming of gods. It’d crossed my mind once or twice how strange it is that only the Christian God gets referred to by job description (as it were) rather than name, but now I think about it is massively Christocentric. Another instance of the dominant culture centering itself through language, I guess: the default person is ‘man’, the default god is ‘God’.

    Christocentrism is not something I want to reinforce, but now I think about it (I appear to have had a small epiphany … thanks!) Christian and Christian-centred language is incredibly deeply ingrained. I’ll have to think what to do about that.

    And no, I’m not suggesting we abolish anything. I think a gesture like bell hooks’ is a powerful one, but it’s also a trade-off, gaining memorability and a space to make a statement but losing readability and, potentially, credibility – people tend to roll their eyes at unconventional typography/punctuation. (Oh my. This could be a post on its own, how we discriminate on perceived class/age/etc. grounds in text as well as spoken word.) I don’t think very many people will ever want to make that trade individually, and it’s very unlikely to happen society-wide given just how useful capitals are.

    … bah. Totally went into too much depth there. Oh well. But thank you very much for an extremely thought-provoking comment!

  5. Paul Skinner permalink
    June 22, 2010 10:03 am

    @wickedday Well one reason for God with a capital in Christianity is because they took his name out of the Bible and replaced it with either of God or Lord, treating that as his name in place of what was originally there. I believe his name (in translated form rather than YHWH) is in the King James edition only 7 times and not at all in any more recent bibles.

  6. wickedday permalink
    June 22, 2010 12:17 pm

    @Paul: Yes, I know that – it undoubtedly helps that Christianity and Judaism have certain prohibitions around saying/writing the name of God. (I’ve run into observant Jews on- and offline who prefer to type/write G-d or G*d for this reason.) It’s a mark of respect: us lowly humans are not supposed to be on first-name terms with the dude, I guess.

  7. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    June 22, 2010 3:10 pm

    Is it bad that I’m now very tempted to start quoting the Life of Brian?

    “Jehova, Jehova!”

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