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German is the only widely used language prescribing capitalization of nouns in the written language. I speak English and German fluently myself, but I can read German texts significantly faster than English ones. I also use sometimes speed reading techniques (depending on known/unknown topic, skimming a longer text) and it seems to me that especially here the capitalization of nouns works like syntax-highlighting, which obviously is highly useful. German philologists seem split on the question of whether capitalization has more advantages than disadvantages.

One consideration for me is that we actually seem mainly to focus on the first letters of a word with our eyes to recognize and memorize it (see this question) or skim smaller words in fixed and frequently occurring word groups (e.g. "at the beginning"). Speed reading techniques say you should also focus on words when moving your focus from right to left and so double-scan the text.

So are my assumptions backed by research results? Are there plans to establish capitalization of nouns in any other languages? Are there already languages with non-Roman alphabets using another type of syntax-highlighting?


Edit: As additional hint/proof i want to add that in german forums, you often see people not capitalizing every noun as they cannot tip with 10 fingers or are just used to it in chats. Especially in german Usenet you often see then posts from other users complaining about this style as it makes it significantly harder to read such posts in their opinion.

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    In some of the other Germanic languages including perhaps even English but not so much as some of the others this was also formerly surprisingly common a century or so ago. I'm not sure if it was codified into the standard of any orthography besides German though. – hippietrail Oct 4 '11 at 22:18
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    +1: This is a valuable question! – Daniel Oct 5 '11 at 0:06
  • I think (and this would support your "syntax highlighting" idea) that this is a matter of what you're used to. Maybe as a native German speaker you expect nouns to be capitalized, so it helps when they are. As a native English speaker, I find German writing confusing in part because all the capital letters make it hard for me to find the sentence boundaries. – Anschel Schaffer-Cohen Oct 6 '11 at 3:19
  • @Anschel good point. I think if you know the linguistic typology (SVO, SOV,...) you can pretty fast find relating subject-verb-object syntax in german sentences being usually longer german.stackexchange.com/questions/1832/… But if we memorize words by the first letters and word length (?) (which i gather from my other question here) then i wouldnt think capitalizsation plays a major role to recognize words, as adjectives/nouns start with same morphem (Business vs. busy). – Hauser Oct 6 '11 at 12:15
  • @Anschel there is probably some thrutiness in your "confusing" statement. I know that many english philosophers learn German, as Kant, Hegel, Heidegger are very hard to translate, using very long sentences. Although i have to say the german punctuation seems to me more straightforward than the english, where you have to reason more where a verb/particple construction belongs to. Every subordinate clause in German needs a comma vs. enghlish e.g. that (which you use without comma). The awful german language :) – Hauser Oct 6 '11 at 12:19
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The cognitive psychological fact I remember from ancient papers (1970's?) is that, in order of difficulty of reading:

  • all caps "HOW EASY IS THIS TO READ?"
  • all lower case "how easy is this to read?"
  • title case, all major words capitalized: "How Easy is This to Read?"

And this is done in a (presumably monolingual) English population. I don't remember if this is only for titles of for longer narratives or for any length.

From a cursory web search it seems the trend in culture in English is for headlines to be in sentence case (just the first word capitalized, the rest lower case), with the unsupported justification that sentence case 'is easier to read'. As to individuals writing, any kind of capitalization is more difficult than not, because of the extra finger to use to 'shift'.

It's very difficult to say that in general reading is easier in one language rather than another because of so many confounding variables (translation, culture, education, etc) forgetting all the language specific discrepancies.

But similarly, comparing speed of reading one passage with another modified passage is confounding because the difficulty of the change itself may outweigh the ostensible benefits.

As to your other questions, just because there is an experimental justification of a certain technique (capitalization) doesn't mean the culture is in any way receptive to it. Spelling reform in English, despite its simple engineering basis, is considered close to 'flat-earth' theories in adoptability. I don't know of any other languages where the language leaders are intentionally trying to change capitalization or use some kind of syntax marking.

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  • thx for effort. Basically you say it cannot be measured (based on your subjective reasoning, i would more appreciate a ling. paper.) Also i didnt ask if in general this capitalization makes recognizing words easier (Title was edited by Aaron to "reading"), only if capitalization of first letter serves as a syntax highlighting especially in german sentences, being usually longer. Maybe by recording eye-movements. I just want to know if there is any scientific proof wheron german philologists base their decision. – Hauser Oct 5 '11 at 19:10
  • i have no problem if you think this is off-topic, but then vote down/close or make comment beneath my question eplaining why off-topic, putting this in the first sentence of your post is altering which answer is correct/good and why user vote it like aaron. I dont see this answer currently answering fully my question. So i canceled aaron's upvote temporarily. Also i dont think stating a Q is off-topic will cause many up-voters of the question upvoting your answer ;) human nature ;) – Hauser Oct 5 '11 at 19:18
  • @Hauser: I don't think I said it cannot be measured. I gave a vague hint that there is research where the difference was measured, but I am unfortunate in not being able to remember the authors or title. Also, I distinguish among all the varieties of capitalization explicitly; I'm not sure what you are objecting to. The only relevant ref I can think of is the ancient book: "The Psychology of Reading" by E. Gibson (1975), which might have specific references to papers buried somewhere. – Mitch Oct 5 '11 at 19:19
  • afaik your answer was before the title edit, but relates to reading, you can read or spead read a text. BUT, with syntax-highlighting i can spead read in german without loosing alot comprehension, while i loose much more of it in English as less punctuation and harder detection of nouns, relation of clauses. Thats imho the crucial thing. It not really slows down reading like your good ALL CAPS example, but it improves comprehension, maybe not in languages without SVO structures – Hauser Oct 5 '11 at 19:40
  • @Hauser: I'm plowing through the google books copy of the more recent "The psychology of reading" By Keith Rayner, Alexander Pollatsek, and so far they come close but don't come right out and say things about capitalization. – Mitch Oct 5 '11 at 19:50

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