I is also one of our shortest words (only the indefinite article, a, and the vocative interjection, O, are as short). English, moreover, is the only language that capitalizes its first-person singular pronoun. Other languages (e.g., German, Italian, Spanish) bestow this nicety on the polite forms of the second-person, but not English. No, in English, it is I who is most important; it is my perspective that matters more than any other. The I of the beholder, you might say. The first Roman numeral, I, coming before all others, putting the I in veni, vidi, vici. Try to demote the letter into lower-case and you get an imaginary quantity. We simply cannot conceive of diminished personal primacy, can we? Id pro quo? No, rather, ego vincit omnia. No need to dot this I. But underline it? Aye.
What was it that started me eyeing this pronoun, you might ask? Some of you who know me might say I’ve been I-obsessed for years, but there was something else — a recent piece in the Times Online, which claimed:
A “time traveller’s phrasebook” that could allow basic communication between modern English speakers and Stone Age cavemen is being compiled by scientists studying the evolution of language. Research has identified a handful of modern words that have changed so little in tens of thousands of years that ancient hunter-gatherers would probably have been able to understand them. Anybody who was catapulted back in time to Ice Age Europe would stand a good chance of being intelligible to the locals by using words such as “I”, “who” and “thou” and the numbers “two”, “three” and “five”, the work suggests.Three pronouns and three numbers — not much of a phrasebook, is it? I guess it might work for the Neolithic dating scene. More to the point, what of the suggestion that the pronoun, I (as opposed to the Jason, I), “would stand a good chance of being intelligible”? I don’t think so. Aren’t these scientists forgetting something rather important, namely a little thing we like to call the Great Vowel Shift? As pronounced today, I bears little resemblance to its earlier forms. Compare the sound of English I to PIE *(h)eĝ. Hmm, in the words of Struther Martin, “what we’ve got here is ... failure to communicate.” Ironically, (h)eĝ sounds more like the stereo-typical grunts of early hominids than I ever could.
Now let me be clear: to a philologist’s eye, there is indeed a likeness between I and *(h)eĝ — just as there is between I and Sanskrit अहम्, Hittite ūk, Greek ἐγώ, Latin ego, Umbrian eho, Gothic, Old Saxon, and Old Frisian ik, Old Norse ek, Old High German ih, Old and Middle Danish iak, æk, Old Swedish iak, iæk, and so on and so forth — especially when one compares them to the Old English ic (and Middle English ich). Likewise, there’s a philological resemblance between Modern English I and the same pronoun in other modern languages, e.g., Italian io, Spanish yo, Swedish jag, Czech já, Russian я — just to give a more or less random assortment.
But to a speaker or a listener — that is to say, to the ear, not the eye — there is a great gulf between the sound of Modern English I, as it has been pronounced for the last several hundred years, and any of the earlier forms of the pronoun, let alone the earliest. It’s yet one more way in which English has differentiated — even canonized — its pronoun. Even Modern Frisian and Dutch, two languages arguably the closest to English, retain ik(ke) and ik, respectively. Dutch does have mijn “my”, pronounced just like English “mine” — that’s pretty close. If the nominative first-person pronoun had become *Ij in Modern Dutch, we might have had some company up here atop this I-ful tower, but alas, no.
It’s just English. And considering all the foregoing, I don’t think I should feel too bad about having rather a big ego. All English speakers are pretty full of themselves — aren’t they? — whether backed by the erstwhile imperialism of England, the rugged individualism of Australia, or the Manifest Destiny of America. Big egos — the Big I under a Big Sky — are built right into our language. Remember: you can spell solipsisme without je, but you can’t spell solipsism without I.