Some interesting findings about Capitalization

Source: BBC

This is Benjamin Kennicott (1718-1783), a biblical scholar, who took it upon himself in the 1760s to collate Hebrew manuscripts that were written prior to the invention of printing. For this purpose, the sum of £10,000 (around £750,000 in modern currency) was gathered from subscriptions paid by scholars world-wide, who were in possession of the manuscripts to be collated. Maybe we can call this an early version of crowd-funding?

Around the same time, Kennicott was editing a Hebrew Bible. For his edition of the Hebrew Bible, he wanted to borrow an ancient manuscript, the Pentateuch in Hebrew, which was in the possession of Jan Jacob Schultens (1716-1788), the rector of Leiden University. Part of the correspondence between the two men is in the possession of the Leiden University Library.

Source: Wikipedia

Kennicott wrote to Professor Schultens asking if it were possible to borrow this ancient manuscript. In his letter, he gave Schultens assurances that he had been entrusted with ancient manuscripts before, and that all these treasures found their way back to the rightful owners in one piece.

Which leads me to the subject of this post: Capitalization.

While transcribing this particular letter, I noticed that Kennicott alternates between You and you when addressing Professor Schultens, and that there might be a pattern to it. This will become clearer from some examples. In the introduction of the letter, as well as in the closing formula, Kennicott uses a capital letter for the pronoun you:

  •   “… Mr. Durele … who lately had the pleasure of conversing with You at Leyden”    (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763).
  •   “Sir, Your most obedient humble Servant” (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763)

This is not surprising: it is Kennicott’s way of showing respect. However, the body of the letter (the request for the manuscript) presents alternations between You and you, often depending on whether or not the clause refers to a positive outcome for Kennicott:

  • “If therefore, Sir, You shall shew me the same Kindness [of sending the manuscript]”
    (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763)
  • “If you do not approve of this; then I shall be obliged to you for permitting it to be
    collated at Leyden” (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763)
  • “I beg the favour of a Letter soon, that I may know, whether You will oblige me, by transmitting Your MS for a few months to me; and, if not, whether it may be collated (under your Care)” (Kennicott to Schultens 29 June 1763)

Having Professor Schultens send the manuscript would have been a very desirable outcome for Kennicott. He would be able to insert into his Hebrew Bible the desired sections, and in collating the manuscript (I assume) obtain the subscription fee, and his desired printing style (which turned out to be a failure, but more about that here).

Although it appears that in the late modern English period capitalization and spelling were unregulated, scholars like Fitzmaurice (2008) believe that certain words were capitalized to show emphasis. Could this then be manipulation by capitalization? It might be. Schultens did lend Kennicott the desired manuscript, as a subsequent letter dated 9 April 1764 shows.

Another possibility is that Kennicott unconsciously showed his respect and disrespect while writing his letter and thinking of the possible outcome of his request. But it would take some time after the writing of this letter before the Freudian slip was invented.


Fitzmaurice, Susan M. (2008). “Epistolary Identity: Convention and Idiosyncrasy
in Late Modern English Letters” in Studies in Late Modern English Correspondence (eds. Marina Dossena & Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade). Peter Lang. Berlin. 77-112.

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