A bilingual writer struggles with whether or not to capitalize prose, discovers the origins of the English alphabet and what monks did to capitals centuries ago.
Pianissimo – writing it whisper soft
For weeks now, you have been consumed with a vague hankering to write whisper soft. You are eaten up with a niggling resentment of the towering capitals standing guard over each sentence, shouting down the words that follow them. A capital is an invitation to emphasis, however unconscious, however muted. It is a break, a parting of the waters for howsoever brief a moment. You are writing in English but irrationally, you want to write it seamless, with the evenness of your mother tongue, which is Bengali. It has no fussy requirement of initial capitalization. There is no separate sentence case in your mother tongue – Bengali is a unicameral language, there is only one form of each alphabet. You have been writing in both these languages since you were tiny, but this epiphanic awareness has struck only now.
Living in the Middle East, you have absorbed enough Arabic by osmosis to be thankful that there are only two cases in English. Arabic is an IMFI language – it has four forms for each letter of their alphabet – initial, medial and final, depending on where the letter fits into the word, and isolated when it stands alone. There is no upper case. Arabic written down looks different but evenly modulated, dignified and fluid. Breathtakingly beautiful sometimes when incorporated into those flourishes of calligraphy, delicately fashioned with extra meaningfulness imbued by the artist.
But the writings that occupy your head space right now – such a different picture! Each sentence starting off with a shouty capital and falling rapidly away and then rising…falling…rising again. Makes your head spin. How to carry over the practices of one language to the other? You don’t know what to do with this strangely shaped bee in your bonnet that has come buzzing out of the blue – it is driving you crazy.
You are quite aware there are several award winning writers who have ignored punctuation rules – James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Junot Diaz. But dropping capitals? That’s a no-go zone. You know of only two people who have written without capitals, e. e. cummings and rupi kaur. Both are poets.
Now poetry is a law unto itself, more flexible, less forced into the strait jackets of grammar and punctuation. Everyone knows that poets are allowed greater licence than other writers. But in reality, that too is a relatively recent phenomenon. Poetry followed all kinds of rigid capitalization rules till about sixty years ago. Even T.S Eliot and Yeats, two of the greats of the 20th century, used capital letters. Before them, the father of the free verse, Walt Whitman, still capitalized all starting letters of each line of his ground breaking poetry in the 19th. In fact, capitalization was not dropped till the 1960s, when the Beat poets started to experiment with unfettered poetry, drawing inspiration from the exploration of sexual freedom, hallucinogenic drugs, Eastern spirituality and generally a wild disregard for the conventional.
First language interference – the mother tongue always speaks first!
Be that as it may, that is not what irks. The thing you want is to write prose, but without capitals – is that even a permissible thought? You mention this to a friend, hoping that she will put you out of your misery.
Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written by: Nilanjana Bose [Author; Chartered Institute of Marketing, UK; Mathematics]
‘CAPS LOCK – Struggles of Bilingual Writer’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on August 24, 2023