Where Did “I” Come From?

What is I? I is a letter. I is a word. Letters and words carry with them traces of their history, tracks that lead back in time.

The symbol “J” was split from “I” in the 1600s, originally the two were used interchangeably for both the consonant and vowel sounds, as in “Alle loued salamon for his Iustise.” After the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th century (a major vowel movement), the symbol came to represent both the long I, as in Identity, and the short i, as in individual.  The expression, “Don’t forget to dot your i’s (and cross your t’s),” expresses a similar idea to the older phrase, “every jot and tittle.” The tittle is the dot over the “i,” sometimes prosaically called the i-dot.

The English got the letter from the Romans, who used it to represent the y-sound, as in yes, and the long e, as Louisa and casino, as it is still used in most European languages. The Romans also used it for the numeral I, which was not originally the same as the letter, but a simple line meaning one unit (perhaps the oldest written symbol). This gives the pronoun “I” the ancient, mystical meaning of 1, an individual who cannot be divided up into smaller parts.

The Romans adopted the letter from the Greek Iota or Ιώτα:

Iota uc lc.svg

The name of the Greek letter is used in the English expression, “not one iota,” referring to a clause in the New Testament: “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law” (Mathew 5:18), so “i” has been associated with exactness for a long time! The letter was a reduced form of a more complex Early Greek letter: {egiota}.

This symbol came from the Phoenician letter Yodh: PhoenicianI-01.png

Variations of Yodh — Yod, Yud, Ye or Jodh — can be found as the tenth letter in most Semitic alphabets, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Persian and Arabic. In Hebrew, two Yuds in a row represent Adonai, a name of God. Mystical, kabbalistic significance is attached to it because it is the smallest letter. So no matter how small I am, I still have mystical power.

Phoenicians got Yodh from the proto-Semitic Yad: Proto-semiticI-02.png

Probably a pictogram for an arm with hand, it was reassigned to y-sound by Semites, because their word for “arm” began with that sound. The letter probably evolved out of the Egyptian hieroglyphic of a forearm and a hand, which produced a long A sound:

D36

Wherever it came from, I find it a handy letter. I couldn’t talk about myself without it.

What about the word? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “I” is the “subjective case of the first person singular pronoun,” or in simpler terms, it is “used by the speaker or writer to refer to himself or herself.” (Even this definition is not so simple, as we shall see in my next post, “I am the One the Speaker of This Sentence is Referring to.”) “I” is usually capitalized, although other pronouns — he, she, it — are not. Does this suggest a proper name?

It is a “Cognate with . . . Old Saxon ik, (rarely) ek, ec (Middle Low German ik), Old High German ih (Middle High German ich, German ich)” and so on. Not that these forms of the personal pronoun are icky, but I prefer the simple, monolithic, singular I. The word has “ultimately the same Indo-European base as ancient Greek {elenis}{gamma}{gwacu} . . . , classical Latin ego, Sanskrit aham.” Does this etymology, however, really tell us where the word came from? Does this tell us where the concept of self came from or how it developed?

(To learn more about the artificial “I,” read my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon, or you may read my posts “The Artificial I” and “I am the One the Writer of This Sentence is Referring To.”)

Works Cited

“I The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 19 May 2010/

“I, pron. and n.2The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 19 May. 2010.

Wikipedia contributors. “I.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 May. 2010. Web. 20 May. 2010.

Wikipedia contributors. “I (pronoun).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 May. 2010.

Wikipedia contributors. “Yodh.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 May. 2010.

3 thoughts on “Where Did “I” Come From?”

  1. So do you think George Lucas get Yoda from Yodh? Small, but powerful?

    This is interesting stuff. The respected psychologist William James talked about the I-self (the thinker) and the me-self (the thought about) around the turn of the last century. More toward the fringes, an occult philosopher around the same time (a predecessor of the modern pop psych craze around “The Secret” and “The Law of Attraction”) indicated that gaining an awareness of the true “I” was a key to power.

    1. Well, I will have to check out Mr. James’ writing on the subject, obviously an interesting one for me!

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