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Why does German Capitalize everything?

ABC abc in Fraktur - German font

Well, not everything, but why does German use Capitalization for some many Words? If you look at much German, you start to notice- they use a Lot of Capitalization. Not just for names or the start of sentences- every single noun gets capitalized. What’s with that?

In ancient times, majuscule (big, capitalized) was moreso how you chiseled letters into stone, with straight lines, and minuscule (small, lowercase). was moreso the flowing round forms that came with ink. The emperor Charlemagne circa 800 AD helped revive literacy, at which point the upper-case/lower-case distinction started to gel

Capitalization doesn’t particularly reflect anything in the spoken language, it’s just intended to help the reader. And one of the main uses of majuscule was for emphasis, so religious terms tended to get capitalized: o Lord, o You who help us Clemencie, etc. English still uses it for that and for certain formal emphasis: “greetings, Your Majesty”.

The English terms uppercase and lowercase don’t actually refer to the size- it was just the convention in print shops that the majuscules were put in boxes up top- the upper case. And miniscule in the lower case.

Capital letters just lend themselves to enthusiasm, and in the 1600’s and 1700’s, people got enthusiastic about Capitalizing! Often, almost every noun would get capitalized, like in this opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

WHEN in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

This ebbed away in English usage by 1800 (later in Scandinavia), but has remained in force in German. Particularly in the 1600’s, you’ll find Germans capitalizing the first two letters of especially important words, thus DErr HERR ‘THe LOrd’ or simply insert blanks between the letters: der Herr G O T T.

Mind you, German does not automatically capitalize the prepositions von and zu - while we think of Baron von Richthofen as a name, it literally does mean ‘the baron who is from (von) Richthofen.’

P.S. The Declaration of Independence was published in German for the Pennsylvania Dutch Germans, and yes, it’s chock full of uppercase as well. Actually, there is a tall tale that the United States almost declared German to be the new national language to break more completely with Britain. The remotely closest that ever came to the truth was that the Declaration of Independence was translated into German within the week. A full third of Pennsylvanians in 1776 had German as their first and often only language- the Pennsylvania Dutch- and they wanted to read for themselves what the Congressional Congress had declared.

All images either from or created by Unlock Your History.


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1 Comment

Very interesting. Thank

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