KODIAK — To help figure just what in the world we are going to do with the Permanent Fund Dividend this year, and perhaps for years to come, the Legislature formed a working group this week to do — I don’t know — something to make sure we pass a state budget this year.

If the Governor doesn’t sign off on the Legislature’s budget, thereby relieving the state of the PFD hostage situation, the state government will shut down in a little over two weeks.

In the first meeting of the workgroup this week, Senator Click Bishop said something that I appreciate: “This is our committee. It’s we. There’s no I at the table.” So I figured that this is a great opportunity to look at these words we use all of the time: pronouns.

Let’s start with the big one: I.

English speakers have been using the first person “I” since about the 1100s, right at the beginning of the Middle English period. I is actually a shortened version of the Old English pronoun ic, the Anglicized version of the Proto-Germanic ek. We can trace ek back to its Proto-Indo-European root—eg—also meaning the first person pronoun, and seen in various languages like the Russian ja, the Greek ego, and the Norwegian eg.

But by the middle of the 12th century, those living in northern England, in what was called Northumbria before the Norman Invasion, started shortening the word to “i”, and over the following decades, it was adopted by monks transcribing books. However, you’ll still find it pronounced as ich or ik up until the 1800s in southern England, or memorialized by JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” sentiment in 1963.

You might be wondering when the first person i began to be capitalized. Well, copywriters soon noticed after the great shortening of ic that the first person “i” could be confused with the numeral (which today we call the Roman numeral) of one, the lower-case i. So they began to capitalize it.

Of course, what happens when you capitalize the i is you lose the little dot at the top. That dot hasn’t always been there. In fact, it didn’t start showing up in manuscripts until the 11th century and was adopted, again, to avoid confusion with other letters. 

Follow me here: everything back then was reproduced by hand, and the medieval calligraphic style (difficult to reproduce here in newspaper print) of the Latin letters m, n, and i used identical downstrokes of the quill. One downstroke for i, two downstrokes, for n, and three downstrokes for m.

So a modern English word like animal would have six downstrokes all in a row, n-i-m, and could be very difficult to read. Scribes added a dot to the i, then, to distinguish it from the consonants. And this wasn’t an odd thing to do: Old English monks often dotted their y’s to distinguish it from their letter Þ, called thorn and used for the th-sound. The letter thorn died out in the 1300s, replaced by the digraph th, but still lives on in a revised form thanks to a 15th century writer: William Caxton.

Caxton used the thorn with the letter e as an abbreviation for the word the. And because the letter y appeared similar to thorn in print, the was soon shortened to ye. Which is why we have “Ye Old Curiosity Shop” and “Ye Olde English Pub.” Ye isn’t the formal English pronoun you in this context (from the Old English ge); it actually means the.

For as much change as the letter i endured, another pronoun emphasized by Senator Bishop was we. 

Also an Old English pronoun of, remarkably, the same spelling, we is a shortened version of the Proto-Germanic wejes, although the PIE root is, simply, we. 

In British English, we often make fun of what is called the royal we, when someone uses the plural pronoun “we” to refer to him or herself, to suggest some kind of authority or impersonal consensus. The earliest written form of the royal we occurs in “Beowulf” in the 8th century, and was used by monarchs here and there, but became extremely popular in the 19th century when magazines and newspapers flourished in an explosion of literacy. 

The royal we was used often by editors in their columns to suggest that staff agreed with their opinions. Believe me, I have fantastic editors—no complaints here.

But it’s important that Sen. Bishop’s “we” remains a simple democratic one, unconfused with “I.”

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