Grammar and Identity

I learned recently that a fundamental shift in American thought occurred with the civil war. They started using incorrect grammar.

Before the Civil War, Americans would correctly say, “The United States are…, for example, divided.” After the war “United States” became a singular noun, such as “The United States is unified.” American identity shifted to connect more to the nation than to the state, and so the grammar mistake became the norm.

Another interesting grammar rule in English is our use of capitalization. Generally, proper nouns are capitalized and common nouns are not. However, we have one blantant exception: “I”. Why do we capitalize this singular first-person pronoun regardless of its placement in the sentence? No other language does this, not even closely related languages, such as Dutch, German, or French. When did this happen? (Read a NY Times article here for the answer to this question.) What effects has this had on our society? And on our identity?

When we think of identity, the question that we usually think of is: “Who am I?” It is rarely “Who are we?” It is interesting also how we order our words. For example, we place a our personal name before our family names in contrast to most Asian cultures where the family name goes first. When we write our address we start with specifics and move to the city, state, and country. Chinese, for one, is opposite.

So, what’s the point. It is not that we should change our grammar. And it is not that collectivism is better or worse than individualism.

We are shaped by our histories, and the way we think even is shaped by our language. When you think of yourself and ask, “who are ‘we’?”, what is the primary group you are thinking of?


About Nate Turner

Right now, my primary hope in life is to journey "further up and further in" toward wisdom, wonder and joy. I live with my wife near downtown Fresno. And I try to escape to the mountains any chance I can get.
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4 Responses to Grammar and Identity

  1. Katie says:

    I think my first instinct is to say “we” is all of humanity. Probably more commonly, though, I use “we” to talk about Americans.

    Love these thoughts.

  2. Gary Simmons says:

    Hrmm. Well, often people talk in shorthand. Or, shortmouth. That’s why “[The country of] The United States is where I live” is correct English. It’s similar to how we say “Today is the twelfth [day] of May.” Words get left out whenever they’re strongly implied. This often leads to grammar that seems irregular.

    I always half-assumed that we capitalized “I” so that in writing our readers would know we didn’t say “in” or “it” and leave off the last letter. That may not be the reason, but it is a nice benefit.

    When I think of “we”, I think more often of those trained for/in ministry or Christians in general. In conversation, it’s more usually either “us Americans” [“us” = “accusative of general reference”, a real quirk if there ever was one!] or it’s “me + coworkers”.

  3. Gary Simmons says:

    Side note: contrary to what the article states, the royal “we” is capitalized. In fact, sometimes He or She were capitalized when referring to His/Her Royal Majesty (H.R.M.) or His/Her Royal Highness (H.R.H.). I honestly don’t think the NY Times is the best source for studying historical linguistics.

    Translations of the Koran may use the royal we, odd as that may be. This is in accordance with good English grammar. An example is from 2.23 in this 1983 translation. Naturally, they also capitalize He, Thou, and Who when referencing the Deity.

  4. Josh Anderson says:

    Excellent post! i used a small i to talk about myself in everything but school papers when i was in high school, even at the beginnings of sentences. i never recognized the grammatical ridiculousness of its capitalization. The Civil War example was fascinating, and more proof of my thesis that the country ceased to be a democratic republic in 1861.

    The Civil War is fascinating to me because you can’t agree with either side. You have to hate the big guy crushing the little guy, but that means hating slaveowners crushing slaves AND the Union crushing the Confederacy. Slavery is obviously the greater evil, but in ending that evil with tyrannical, illegitimate, centralized power, we built the foundation for most of our nation’s current problems.

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