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Ask a linguist Ask a linguist Experts answer your questions “Have nouns in German always been capitalised? If not, when did this originate, and are there other languages that use nominal capitalisation?” T he earliest texts in a European context with capitalised nouns are from the late Middle Ages – in German, they appear in fourteenth century texts. In those days, since there were no general rules concerning how to write words, the author usually capitalised any word that (s)he wanted to give special attention. In particular, Nomina sacra – holy names from the Bible – were capitalised, a tradition that spread beyond Europe through translations of the Bible. In German, however, it soon became standard to capitalise nouns. There is still an academic debate on how and why this happened. The most commonly cited book on the topic today is Rolf Bergmann and Dieter Nerius’s Die Entwicklung der Großschreibung im Deutschen von 1500 bis 1700, which went through 145 texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to describe the norm of that time. Their choice of time period is due to the fact that capitalisation became codified in German no later than the first half of the sixteenth century and went through different stages before becoming more stabilised when the eighteenth century arrived. Nouns beginning with a capital letter became common in several Germanic languages, mainly due to German influence through the Hanseatic League and its trade, but also through the European printing press that spread throughout the continent from Germany and its inventor Johannes Gutenberg. It also spread to other neighbouring languages, such as Czech, in translations of the Bible. Today, German and Luxembourgish still use noun capitalisation, although there was much debate about it in Germany after the spelling reforms of 1996. Just seventy years ago, on 1 st April 1948, a Danish law abolished the use of capitalised nouns; the same happened in the Netherlands after the Second World War (although in the spelling reform of 2006, names for groups of people, like ‘Kelten’ for the Celts, became re-capitalised!). Norwegian abolished the capitalisation of nouns as early as 1869, and it was rarely used in Swedish after the beginning of the nineteenth century (after about 200–300 years of use). In other nations, many have complained about the continuing use of capitalisation for nouns other than Nomina sacra. English had noun capitalisation up until around 1700 (the first Constitution of the United States is written with capital nouns), and it is still used for weekdays, unlike in the Scandinavian languages and Dutch. Today, we still use capital letters if we want to point the reader to something specific, as in ‘Here, look HERE!’, and in American English most words in headlines – apart from the articles, some particles and prepositions – are usually capitalised. In British English, this use has also spread to works of art, like book titles. ¶ Irene Elmerot is a translator and text reviser with an MA in Latin and Dutch from the University of Göteborg, Sweden. She works at a translation cooperative on the rainy west coast of Sweden. Do you have a burning linguistic question, something you’ve always wanted to know about language? Contact us on twitter, facebook or email and we will pose your question to an expert linguist and attempt to answer it in the next issue of Babel. Babel The Language Magazine | February 2017 49