Tag Archives: first person singular nominative

It is not I, it’s me

There’s an old joke: St. Peter hears a knock at the Pearly Gates. He says, “Who goes there?” A voice replies, “It is I.” St. Peter says, “Go away! We don’t need any more English teachers.”

For who other than a hard-core grammatical prescriptivist would say “It is I?” And would even the driest English teacher (not that that many are that dry anymore), arriving with others (I was about to type “friends,” but it’s hard to think that such a person could have any left), say “It is we”? Or, on the other side, answering the door, say “It is they”? I have seen “It is he,” it’s true, but…

But no one in normal English speaks that way. Not even the well-respected, highly educated people. So we’re all wrong, then? What’s with this, anyway?

This “rule” is obviously not organic to English, since it seems so awkward to pretty much every native English speaker (except the ones who have had “It is I” drummed into them and so accept it – a linguistic perversion that can be accomplished with any irregular usage if you can get people to think it’s more formal, polite, and correct, since English is capricious that way; see An historic(al) usage trend: a historical usage trend (part 1)). The idea behind it is that the is there is a copula: it equates two things. A=B. Identity means identity, so both must be the subjects: “I am he.” (If you recognize that as the first three words of “I Am the Walrus,” remember that the next four are “as you are me.” It’s not a grammar lesson from The Beatles.)

There are some problems with this reasoning. First of all, when you draw up the rules for a language, it helps if they actually describe what the language actually does, as opposed to enforcing practices that are quite different from what established usage is. If you get an idea about language and make a theory and it turns out not to be an accurate description, you shouldn’t bend the subject, you should change the theory. Otherwise you have linguistic phlogiston, a mumpsimus. And something unfortunately all too common.

Second, language is not math. Or, more precisely (since one may construct a mathematical language), English is not math. Why this isn’t incredibly obvious I don’t even know. Try performing a mathematical operation on a sentence. Give me the square root of “To be or not to be.” Language is waaaaay less tidy than math, but it’s a lot of fun. You don’t get to derive new equations and results, but linguists are discovering a lot of really fascinating weirdness. Grammatical prescriptivists, on the other hand, if they applied their thinking to the realm of math, would insist on only using certain equations in certain ways and would argue that some solutions are unacceptable because they involved, for instance, irrational numbers. They would be like the lawmakers who legislated the value of pi to be exactly 3.

And incidentally, even in math, if you establish that in this instance of an equation a=3 and b=3, you don’t necessarily change all b to a. But anyway, syntax is sequence and form; identity is semantics. Two different areas of grammar.

Third, English is not Latin. Many of prescriptivists’ ideas, such as this one, are derived from and/or supported by appeals to Latin grammar. You might as well use a barbecue to bake a cake, or dress patterns to make shoes. Each language has its own set of rules, its own parameters, its own ways of handling this and that. French is descended from Latin but you could never say “C’est je” in French, so why would we insist that English use “It is I” just because Latin, which English is not based on, does similarly?

The real ace in all of this is that “It is I” is supposedly equating “It” and “I”. OK, what’s the “It” here? If I say “I am he,” then there’s a “he” we were talking about who turns out to be me. But where’s this “it”? There’s no object I’m claiming is me. The it is actually empty. The only reason it’s there is because in English we require every finite verb to have something in the subject position. Not every language does. In Chinese you can say you shu, “have book”, to mean “There’s a book”; you can say shi wo, “is I/me”, to mean “It’s me” (or “It is I” if you’re one of those people). But we have to put in these empty its and theres in English for it to be a complete sentence. (We may say, casually, Got it, but even casually we don’t say Is me instead of It’s me.)

So it’s is really an existential predicate. But it’s bootless to argue that since there’s only one real thing there (me), it must be the subject. The point is precisely that it’s not the subject because that’s not how English syntax works. A thing can’t be both subject and predicate. We can’t say I am to mean It’s me, because it means something else, so we have an existential verb and an empty subject, and make me the predicate.

Which leads us to another fact of English syntax: the case filter. Put simply, English nouns and pronouns are by default in the objective (accusative). For each finite (conjugated) verb, there has to be one subject, which means one noun phrase in the subject (nominative) case, and that noun phrase is the one that is specifying the verb – it’s in the “subject” position. We don’t do this with non-finite verbs: I want him to go, I want to see him going. Those hims are the subjects of an infinitive and a participle, but they’re still objective. But if the verb is finite, one noun phrase and one only is treated as its subject: I desire that he go. The one you want is him. (Note that there can be inversions: What fools are we! Sam I am!)

And that is a real rule of English. One that we all use all the time without having someone tell us, one that guides our comprehension and usage. Not phlogiston. There is no cake batter dripping from the grill. So if someone at your door says “It is I,” you’re fully enfranchised to say “Go to hell!” (You probably don’t want them at your party anyway.)

I

Who am I? What is this I that I perceive? The most essential thing in the universe or a pure illusion? Is it as solid as a metal beam or as evanescent as a candle in the wind?

Reflect, Grasshopper. Reflect on yourself, because your self is mere reflection. This shining I is a mere mirror, and even the mirror is not there when you – with your eye, your seeing part, which you may mistake for your I – look for it.

You look in the mirror, and you say, “I see.” And indeed I C spells the source of I: in Old English, I was ic, said sometimes as “eek” and sometimes as “each” – the two sides of the self, one of fear, withdrawing, the other of distribution, sharing, outgoing. It was sometimes after written ich. Make this capital: ICH. In a serif font, the formal way, an I is like a steel beam (an I-beam, in fact), reminiscent of an H on its side. Make it more like an H on its side and you have 工, the Chinese character for gong, “work.” But Chinese for “I” is wo – the self is only half of work, for action is the rest. The character for wo, however, is a slashing pattern of seven strokes, 我, half of which is a spear and the other half of which is said to be a hand, or grain, or another spear: fighting, action.

The self is the ready hand: the letter I began as an arm and hand, Phoenecian yod, which lost first the hand, then the elbow and wrist, and soon became the smallest of letters, a mere stroke, iota, ι, the famed jot of jot and tittle, the small wisp of Hebrew yod, י. You see the strong hand, but when you follow it, it vanishes into smoke, it is the merest small thing.

But I was not I then. In Hebrew, when you speak of yourself, you do not say an I, you say ani. In Greek, like English an Indo-European language, “I” the speaking first person was – is – ego, written in Greek letters εγο; in Latin, it is ego written first EGO (as we ever write our selves in our own minds). These little letters we love, e g o i etc., came about later, as scribes shrank them in brisk writing: the I became a little single stroke, at risk of being taken for one half of an n, one third of an m, so they added a dot, like a finger, a flag… a flame. We are a candle burning down. No, we are not: we are only the flame. We consume the wax, but the matter of the wax passes in other forms into the air; when it is burnt, however, the flame – which was only ever an ongoing reaction, not a discrete object – is gone. Ay, gone.

Ay. This is how we say I. This is not how we always said it. Our long vowels shifted half a millennium ago. Before that, the ich lost the fricative at the end and we said it “ee”: simply the narrowest opening at the tip of the tongue. Tighten the tongue a little more as you say it, and whisper as you do so, and you have German ich. But when “ah” became “ey” and “ey” became “ee” we needed this sound of I to be more distinctive, and so we swooped into it, starting at “ah” and narrowing down, like a hand swinging through the air and pointing at a spot.

In other languages it widens from the spot. In Scandinavian languages, you have jeg – the j a glide, like our y – or similar words. In Slavic languages, you have ja and similar words. In Romance languages, you have Spanish yo, Portuguese eu, Italian io, French je – this last has a fricative, but it was once a glide, too, as its first letter has descended from none other than I. Thereby hangs a tale: what we see now as j was first an ornamental i with a tail; when the glide sound came from the vowel, it was written the same way at first, but when we decided we needed a separate letter for the glide – or for the fricative or affricate it had become – we kept the j for that. If we needed another version still, we used y. And sometimes, in English, where the i seemed too small for the vowel, we wrote y instead. See that y: like an i and a j joined. In Dutch, words once written with y – such as the river Y – are now written with ij (and the river is het IJ). The self plain and the self fancy, extended: together you have branching, division, or you have dowsing, divination, depending on your direction. Widening or narrowing: your self is your choice. Which shall you do?

We aggrandized our little i. When we stopped saying ich we were left with a jot and a dot. It was not big enough; the I does not want to pass unnoticed. So it gained an infusion of capital. In other languages, politeness may dictate the upper case for the formal other person: Sie in German, U in Dutch (which, informally, says je for “you”). Honour may dictate it for royalty and deity: Your Grace, His grace. But we, we who see ourselves as the axis of all, we plant a flagpole at our north pole of the self: I. How we forget that when all rotates around a point, the point around which is rotates has no size, no dimension. It is a perfect nothing. Without it the action could not be happening, but it is only there as a result and part of the action. It itself does not move; it is still, there. And when the action stops it is not still there.

I is not the most common word in English; it sits, according to wordcount.org, at 11th place – ay, ay, 11. The most common pronoun, in eighth place, is it. The most frequent actual noun is in 66th place, after so many function words, pronouns, auxiliaries, and staple verbs. It is what the I exists in: time.

What does the I stand for? among other things, I stands for the heaviest element commonly used by living organisms, an element rare in many places but soluble in water and so concentrated in seawater: iodine. It stains and it stings, but we need it. Without it our thyroids underdevelop, with bad effect; iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation.

But our little candle, the small i, takes us to the root of this all. And if our self is defined in opposition – the spear against spear, the ego that opposes, the reversal seen in reflection, the inevitable entropy of the candle – then our self is a negative one. And the root of negative one is i: an imaginary number, not countable or accountable in the real world, but still usable for describing and calculating things in our lives. The square root of 1 is 1; the square root of –1 is i. One less than nothing, and reduced by one dimension.

This is your I, grasshopper: a useful illusion, a mere effect of and part of action. You see a line between yourself and the world, but I, the line, is all there is, and even that is nothing real.