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In orthography and typography, letter case (or just case) is the distinction between majuscule (capital or upper-case) and minuscule (lower-case) letters. Most Occidental languages (certainly those based on the Latin, Cyrillic, Greek and Armenian alphabets) use multiple letter cases in their written form as an aid to clarity. In addition, some computer programming languages use letter case to distinguish between special words, while others ignore case altogether.
In English, capital letters are used as the first letter of a sentence or a proper noun and for initials or acronyms. The first person pronoun I is also capitalised. Lower-case letters are normally used for all other purposes. There are however situations where further capitalisation may be used to give added emphasis, for example in headings and titles or to PICK OUT certain words. Other languages vary in their use of capitals. For example, in German the first letter of all nouns is capitalised.
If an alphabet has case, all or nearly all letters have both a majuscule and minuscule form. Both forms in each pair are considered to be the same letter: they have the same name, same pronunciation, and will be treated identically when sorting in alphabetical order. Languages have capitalisation rules to determine whether majuscules or minuscules are to be used in a given context.
An example of a letter without both forms is the German ß (ess-tsett), which exists only in minuscule. When capitalised it normally becomes two letters, "SS" (although use of ß as a capital has been deemed permissible according to the recent spelling reform). This is because ß was originally a ligature of the two letters "ſs" (a long s and an s), both of which become "S" when capitalized. It later evolved into a letter in its own right. (ß is also occasionally referred to as a ligature of "sz", which recalls the way this consonant was pronounced in some medieval German dialects. The original spelling "sz" is preserved in Hungarian, which is pronounced as [s].)
Here is a comparison of the minuscule and majuscule versions of each letter used in the English language. The exact representation will vary according to the font used.
Origins of the term
The terms upper case and lower case come from the early days of mechanical printing. The individual type blocks used in hand typesetting were stored in wooden or metal cases, sorted by letter, with a separate box for each typeface (with majuscules and minuscules being stored separately). Historically the two cases were placed one above the other on a rack on the typesetter's desk and, by convention, the case containing the capitals would be above the box with the small letters, hence upper and lower case.
Other forms of case
The distinction between hiragana and katakana in Japanese is similar to, but not the same as, case. While each sound has both a hiragana and katakana, any given word will use only one of the two scripts normally. If a word is written with hiragana, it is not normally considered correct to write it with katakana, and vice versa. However, katakana may be substituted for hiragana or kanji to add emphasis or make them stand out, similar to the use of capitalisation or italics in English.
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