Translation musings: What’s with all the capital letters? – The mysterious case of the German noun

May 24, 2016 | First Edition Translations, Language, Miscellaneous, Musings

When you look at a German text, one of the first things you might notice is that some words are capitalised in a (seemingly) random fashion. If you don’t know any German, you might think that it is a mistake or some madman just went ahead and capitalised every third or fourth word.

Don’t worry, this is not the case at all. There are no crazies involved and there is actually reason behind this! Capitalisation is not at all random in German, on the other hand, it follows a simple rule: all nouns are to start with a capital letter.

While in English we tend to leave capitalisation to proper nouns, such as people’s names or countries, in German all nouns must start with a capital letter. This is a great help for language learners who can tell if they are dealing with a noun on their first day of learning the language. How handy!

Grimm brothers

The Grimms. (They might be discussing capitalisation.)

The rule is all logical, however, there is one crucial point that is not quite clear: why? Why is it that you have to write all German nouns with an initial capital letter? The answer to this is “no one knows”. The tendency of capitalising the first few letters of words in German started in the 13-14th century, however, at that point there weren’t clear-cut rules for it and not only nouns were capitalised. It was popular especially in religious texts where the word for God, i.e. Gott would begin with a capital letter. Capitalisation became more common in the beginning of the Baroque era, and became standard in the 17th century. Not everyone accepted the rule, for example Jacob Grimm wanted to have a spelling reform and write his nouns in lower case. (Interestingly enough, his brother, Wilhelm didn’t mind the capitals.)

German isn’t the only language that capitalises or had capitalised nouns at some point in the past. In Luxembourgish the same rules apply and until 1948, Danish also used nouns with capital letters. This is not surprising as the language has close connections with German. There was a short period in the 18th century when nouns were written this way even in English, although it wasn’t common practice. If you look at an early edition of Gulliver’s Travels, you can see this!

Image source: Wikimedia Commons