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I'm no expert on linguistics. In fact I'm no even a proper amateur but please, bear with me on this: Are there any languages where a word would change its meaning depending on the casing of one or more of its letters?

In German for example I can turn a word from being a verb into being a noun by flipping the first character from lowercase to uppercase. For example "essen" (to eat, verb) vs. "Essen" (the meal, noun). In this case and even without any further context you can tell whether the noun or the verb is meant.

My question is, are there other languages where this is the case? Or where a change of casing could lead to even more radical changes of the meaning of a word?

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    @AlexB. And they make lots of china in China. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 20 at 20:00
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    But try not to get shanghaied on your way to Shanghai to buy these china from China with champagne from Champagne. – jick May 20 at 20:42
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    In linguistics, you have to start with the sound. Writing is technology, and recent at at that, and it's silent. Plus you can write any language any way at all, if you're used to it; there isn't anything about writing that affects real languages -- only printing. – jlawler May 20 at 23:20
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    In American English it can make a big difference. Go and help your Uncle Jack off that horse is parsed and interpreted very differently if you change it to all lower case. – jez May 21 at 3:19
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    @jick If the Poland decided to shanghai Shanghai, then you could polish Polish China china. – Chronocidal May 21 at 10:59
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It’s worth pointing out that uppercase and lowercase characters are mostly a quirk of the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets.[1] While these alphabets probably make up a plurality of written texts,[2] many languages especially in Asia do not use these, and thus have no such uppercase/lowercase distinction.

Second, some languages may use symbols that resemble what in other languages might be uppercase/lowercase letters, but in this language actually represent different sounds or concepts altogether. Take, for example, Cyrillic В and Ь, which visually resemble Latin uppercase and lowercase B/b, but are two distinct letters with distinct and different pronunciations – and each have a distinct uppercase and lowercase form themselves. A similar example that has been pointed out in another answer is Klingon, where no uppercase/lowercase distinction is made (although the writing system is based on the Latin alphabet), and where q and Q are distinct letters.

After considering these two, the only languages to which such written ambiguities may apply are those which have rules for capitalising some words mid-sentence. As far as I am aware, this includes most if not all real-world languages that have adopted one of the scripts mentioned above. Thus, at least a vast majority of these languages should have at least one pair of words where capitalisation really matters.

  • German is especially rich in these, as it is a language that capitalises even common nouns – leading to cases such as der gefangene floh, which can give either der Gefangene floh (the prisoner escaped) or der gefangene Floh (the captured flea).

  • Many English examples have been given in various comments, of which I find helping your Uncle Jack off that horse the most amusing.

  • In French, it took me two seconds to come up with il est allé vers le nord/Nord; uncapitalised this is a cardinal direction, but capitalised it refers to the département du Nord including the city of Lille.

  • In Finnish, the town of Lahti corresponds exactly to the word for bay, lahti, except for capitalisation.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak any other languages sufficiently but I’m sure you can find examples in most as stated above.

Notes:

[1]: There are more such writing systems in minor use, of which Armenian probably deserves an honorary mention.

[2]: Greek to a lesser extent, but since Greek is the ancestor of both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, it deserves a mention here. CJK ideographs will easily surpass Greek and might even surpass Cyrillic in written usage, especially given the long history and archives of CJK ideographs. Arabic will also surpass Greek easily but might not reach Cyrillic.

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  • The French example is correct, but as a native speaker I would have never thought about "Nord". OTOH Il est allé vers l'Aquitaine sounds right (Aquitaine is another département but there is no ambiguity, aquitaine is an adjective) – WoJ May 21 at 14:01
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    I wonder if examples of proper names that happen to be homonyms of common words really count. They're not really linguistically significant. – Barmar May 21 at 14:37
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    @Barmar The linguistic significance of proper names occurs only when these alter the language’s fundamental grammar—that is, its syntax, morphology, or both—not merely its written form. A proper name for a specific individual has definiteness baked right in, which in English blocks most determiners, especially articles. Then the baker gave the bush a firm shake is full of obligatory articles, but when referring to American president George Bush and his secretrary of state, James Baker, we strip those articles, saying Then Baker gave Bush a firm shake. The syntax differs. – tchrist May 21 at 15:32
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    @tchrist Good point, but there are counter-examples: I went to the apple store versus I went to the Apple Store – Barmar May 21 at 16:49
  • The example from English has be shook. I never realised capitalisation could be semantic like in German 😳 – gen-ℤ ready to perish May 21 at 17:52
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It's possible, but actual ambiguity is rare—because character casing generally doesn't correspond to any property of the spoken language, and languages are spoken more often than they're written. (A famous exception to this maxim, noted by arp in the comments, is polish versus Polish. The capitalization there does reflect a difference in pronunciation, due to the strange history of English.)

For an English example, there's a gymnasium near where I live called the Activities and Recreation Center, or the ARC for short. So depending on casing, the word "arc" can mean "a segment of a circle" or "a particular gymnasium". But it's hard to think of sentences where this would actually be ambiguous.

Alternately, some languages don't use case the same way English does. Klingon (a constructed language) uses the letters q and Q for two different sounds, so swapping one for the other can create a different word. In Cherokee, the letters and are similarly unrelated. And the IPA distinguishes r from ʀ, among others (and so do systems based on it, like the standard transliteration of Old Norse). But none of these systems really has casing the way English and German do: there's no systematic correspondence between "uppercase" and "lowercase" letters in any of them, just symbols that happen to resemble English "uppercase" and "lowercase" for historical reasons.

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    A classic example is Polish versus polish. – arp May 21 at 5:21
  • Your example demonstrates another ambiguity: Activities and Recreation Center could mean two different things, while Activities And Recreation Center couldn't. (I've never understood why people don't capitalise every word in names and titles: it's simpler to write, arguably easier to read, and removes a host of potential ambiguities, with no apparent drawbacks.) – gidds May 21 at 8:55
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    @gidds An arbitrary convention, really. Some places do capitalize prepositions and conjunctions in titles; it's just a historical accident that English doesn't. – Draconis May 21 at 17:38
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The Japanese Kana alphabets, Hiragana and Katakana, also have a similar distinction of their letters, big vs. small, but in Kana this distinction is used for quite a different purpose than marking the beginning of some words or forming acronyms, and it is kind of reversed – the majority of the characters in the text are big, only some are small. While the European-style capitalization doesn't influence the pronunciation of the word (one can well write in all-caps), in the Japanese Kana the small letters are pronounced differently than their big counterparts. In fact, the small letters are used to form digraphs with the big ones, such digraphs are called yō-on. Apart from the yō-on there are other digraphs that also involve small Kana letters. All this means that changing the size of a Kana letter does inevitably change not only the meaning, but also the pronunciation of the word, or it can just turn a word into mere nonsense.
For example:

kyō, "today", is written きょう [kʲoo], using a small version of the yo kana, よ. Contrast this with kiyō, "skillful", which is written きよう [kʲijoo], with a full-sized yo kana

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It's plausible, as a means of indicating distinct sounds without using di- and tri-graphs or special symbols. For example many languages have a vowel distinction similar to English "pit" versus "peat", spelled in IPA [pɪt] vs. [pit]. Non-linguists generally don't want a bunch of weird letters in their writing systems, so rather than use such letters, they might write pIt vs. pit. Off hand, I can't think of a language that actually does this, but there are thousands of languages that I don't know anything about.

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