“The historical development of sentence-internal capitalization of words in German”

The topic of my talk is the development of sentence-internal capitalization of words (SIC) in German. I will report from our project, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

From earlier studies (among others Weber 1958, Kämpfert 1980, Risse 1980, Moulin 1990, Bergmann/Nerius 1998) we know that the decisive period for the increase in the use of capital letters falls into Early New High German (ENHG) from the 14th to the 17th century. In our project, we explain this phenomenon by the interaction of cognitive-semantic and syntactic factors. The goal of the project is to show that the increased use of capital letters was motivated by cognitive-semantic categories such as animacy and individualization and was sensitive to semantic roles (degree of agentivity) and syntactic functions (subject, object, etc.). For example, we hypothesize that a specific animate noun in subject position is more likely to be written with a capital letter than the same noun in object function. Although the development of SIC took place in different areas at different times, we assume that the same cognitive-semantic and syntactic principles were at work, implying that the order of extensional phases is roughly the same. Hence, our approach does not necessarily rely on the standardizing role of individual chanceries, but rather foregrounds cognitive factors. We thus interpret the SIC as a process of a grammaticalization. More specifically, we assume that initially capitalization has the pragmatic function of emphasizing relevant information. It spreads over scalar semantic categories including animacy (animated > unanimated), individuation (definite > indefinite; singular > plural), agentivity (agent > patient), and syntactic categories (subject > object > adverbial). In the course of time, these factors grammaticalize, i.e., the syntactic head of the noun phrase is capitalized irrespective of its meaning. Our analysis is based on ENHG protocols of interrogation of witches dating from 1570 to 1665 (edited by Macha et al. 2005).



Bergmann, R./Nerius, D. (1998): Die Entwicklung der Großschreibung im Deutschen von 1500-1700. 2 Bde. Heidelberg: Winter.

Kämpfert, M. (1980): „Motive der Substantivgroßschreibung. Beobachtungen an Drucken des 16. Jahrhunderts.“ In: Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 99, 72-98.

Macha, J. et al. (Hgg.) (2005): Deu­tsche Kanz­leisprache in Hexenverhörprotokollen der Frühen Neuzeit. 2 Bde. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.

Moulin, C. (1990): Der Majuskelgebrauch in Luthers deutschen Briefen (1517- 1546). Heidelberg: Winter.

Risse, U. (1980): Untersuchungen zum Gebrauch der Majuskel in deutschsprachigen Bibeln des 16. Jahrhunderts. Ein historischer Beitrag zur Diskussion um die Substantivgroßschreibung. Heidelberg: Winter.

Weber, W. R. (1958): Das Aufkommen der Substantivgroßschreibung im Deutschen. Ein historisch-kritischer Versuch. München.


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