My Job as the “Inofficial Capitalization Adviser to the President”

Many people have noticed that Donald Trump has a penchant for capitalizing words in his tweets that are not usually capitalized in English. Jacob Levy keeps track of this with his “random capitalization watch.” I think he and others have also wondered whether Donald Trump is under the spell of German spelling.

Could it be that his German heritage seeps through? As is well known, Trump’s grandfather immigrated from Germany and later brought also his wife over. In the early 20th century, they then tried to return, but had to head back to the US under threat of deportation because Friedrich Trump had dodged the draft in his native state of Bavaria (at the time, now the region is part of Rheinland-Pfalz).

Trump’s grandparents did probably speak German at home, so his father would have also picked up some. Generally the rule is that the first generation still clings to their native language, the second generation has a working knowledge which is already limited, and the third generation at best knows a few words. Donald Trump did not get to know his grandfather, but his grandmother lived until he was about twenty I think.

My hunch is that Donald Trump does not understand German. When he stood next to Angela Merkel at this one presser, his face went blank when she spoke. But then who knows? As I have written in my “Preliminary Remarks” I do not have exclusive information. However, here for once I have. My mother once heard from a woman about another woman who had been Donald Trump’s nanny. For his first three children that is, don’t get me wrong! And it seems like he really wanted a German nanny. Or maybe it was Ivana, I don’t know.

One other thing that I find strikingly German: Trump’s ideology — a Darwinian worldview, right of the strongest, continual fight to be a winner, power politics, and nationalism — seems so like how National Liberals in Germany would have seen it in the late 19th and early 20th century. Don’t be fooled by the “Liberal” in “National Liberal,” which was there only for historical reasons (I have started to write about this in my post: “The 19th Century Also Provides Some Lessons”). Such an ideology is also well-known in the US, and I would say originally came from Great Britain. But there is a major difference: National Liberals were no puritans and had little use for religion.

If you want to understand this type of person and their mindset, I recommend Heinrich Mann’s “Der Untertan,” published in 1918, but mostly written before World War I. The protagonist, Diederich Heßling, is an incompetent businessman who has inherited his printing company and keeps it afloat with political and social machinations. He idolizes “the power” (die Macht) in and of itself, is a habitual liar, braggard, and adulterer. But at the same time, he is smug and outraged when others do what he regularly does. I will write more about this book, but you can perhaps see where I see a parallel.

To get back to my main point: Maybe Donald Trump really wants to go German with his spelling? If so, I think he shows potential. However, he still has some way to go and needs counseling. So I have decided to nominate and then inaugurate myself as the “Inofficial Capitalization Adviser to the President.” If that is too unwieldy, we can shorten it to “Capitalization Czar.” Or maybe not, see below.

The rule for capitalization in German is exceedingly simple: all nouns are capitalized, other words are not, or only in some exceptional cases. If you read really old books: that was also common in other languages, in English, too. Apart from the Germans, I think the last were the Danes to use capitalization for nouns. But they dropped it after Word War II because it looked too German.

At first glance, capitalization for all nouns seems weird from the perspective of someone who is used to English spelling. But I think it has its advantages. It visually structures a text. And since nouns are where the action is, more so in German where nominal constructions are popular, you can cut to the chase, skip from one to the next and absorb the rest as you go along. This helps with reading, and I have heard it that those who learn German find it useful for this reason.

There are some tricky points, though, when you have to decide what counts as a noun. Take for example “the rich.” It might be a noun when you think of it as all those who are rich, the whole class. Then you capitalize it in German as “die Reichen.” However, if the context is different, it could also be an adjective. Suppose you were talking about a group of people of different means shortly before, and now you want to narrow it down to those of them who are rich, not the rich in general, then it would be “die reichen” because you mentally add a “people from this group.” In German, you can make clear that you don’t mean “the rich” in general, in English you can’t. But it is often hard to figure out which is which.

Still, there are also major downsides for Donald Trump if he gets serious about German spelling and gets to the bottom of it. The first is that you don’t capitalize “I.” In German, Trump would have to live with a modest “ich” instead. Against the rule and as an exception, however, if you address someone politely, you capitalize the “you” as “Sie” (which is technically third person plural weird as it is). So Trump might be forced into more deference than he can stand.

And then you don’t capitalize adjectives, even if they are for nationalities (some exceptions beyond this explanation here). “American” is therefore “amerikanisch” in German. That’s not directed against Americans in particular, it is also “deutsch” not “German.” But then “buy american” is pretty lame, I would say. And even worse, there is perhaps what kills it for Donald Trump: If you capitalize all nouns, it does not put a special stress on any one them because it is always so. Hence capitalization does not scream at you.

Now, why was I unsure whether I could call myself the “Capitalization Czar?”

Arguably, the Cyrillic alphabet (note: “das kyrillische Alphabet” in German) has only capital letters. You can write them larger or smaller, but they are the same. That’s not true in handwriting, but in print, with a few exceptions. So in Russian, you kind of capitalize EVERYTHING. And so I am afraid the post of “Capitalization Czar” might be taken. Putin seems to be one step ahead of the Germans and already advises Trump.