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An orthography is a set of conventions for writing a language, including norms of spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, word boundaries, emphasis, and punctuation.


Most transnational languages in the modern period have a writing system, [lower-alpha 1] and most of these systems have undergone substantial standardization, thus exhibiting less dialect variation than the spoken language. [1] [2] These processes can fossilize pronunciation patterns that are no longer routinely observed in speech (e.g., "would" and "should"); they can also reflect deliberate efforts to introduce variability for the sake of national identity, as seen in Noah Webster's efforts to introduce easily noticeable differences between American and British spelling (e.g., "honor" and "honour").

Some nations (e.g. France and Spain) have established language academies in an attempt to regulate orthography officially. For most languages (including English), no such authority exists, and a sense of "correct" orthography develops through encounters with print in schooling, workplace, and informal contexts. Some organizations, such as newspapers of record and academic journals, choose greater orthographic homogeneity by enforcing a particular style guide or spelling standard such as Oxford spelling.

Etymology and meaning

The English word orthography dates from the 15th century. It comes from the French : orthographie, from Latin : orthographia, which derives from Ancient Greek : ὀρθός (orthós, 'correct') and γράφειν (gráphein, 'to write'). [3]

Orthography is largely concerned with matters of spelling, and in particular the relationship between phonemes and graphemes in a language. [4] [5] Other elements that may be considered part of orthography include hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks/boundaries, emphasis, and punctuation. [6] Orthography thus describes or defines the set of symbols used in writing a language and the conventions that broadly regulate their use.

Most natural languages developed as oral languages, and writing systems have usually been crafted or adapted as ways of representing the spoken language. The rules for doing this tend to become standardized for a given language, leading to the development of an orthography that is generally considered "correct". In linguistics, the term orthography is often used to refer to any method of writing a language, without judgment as to right and wrong, with a scientific understanding that orthographic standardization exists on a spectrum of strength of convention. The original sense of the word, though, implies a dichotomy of correct and incorrect, and the word is still most often used to refer specifically to a thoroughly standardized, prescriptively correct, way of writing a language. A distinction may be made here between etic and emic viewpoints: the purely descriptive (etic) approach, which simply considers any system that is actually used—and the emic view, which takes account of language users' perceptions of correctness.

Units and notation

Orthographic units, such as letters of an alphabet, are technically called graphemes. These are a type of abstraction, analogous to the phonemes of spoken languages; different physical forms of written symbols are considered to represent the same grapheme if the differences between them are not significant for meaning. Thus, a grapheme can be regarded as an abstraction of a collection of glyphs that are all functionally equivalent. For example, in written English (or other languages using the Latin alphabet), there are two different physical representations (glyphs) of the lowercase Latin letter 'a': a and ɑ. Since, however, the substitution of either of them for the other cannot change the meaning of a word, they are considered to be allographs of the same grapheme, which can be written a. The italic and bold face forms are also allographic.

Graphemes or sequences of them are sometimes placed between angle brackets, as in b or back. This distinguishes them from phonemic transcription, which is placed between slashes (/b/, /bæk/), and from phonetic transcription, which is placed between square brackets ([b], [bæk]).


The writing systems on which orthographies are based can be divided into a number of types, depending on what type of unit each symbol serves to represent. The principal types are logographic (with symbols representing words or morphemes), syllabic (with symbols representing syllables), and alphabetic (with symbols roughly representing phonemes). Many writing systems combine features of more than one of these types, and a number of detailed classifications have been proposed. Japanese is an example of a writing system that can be written using a combination of logographic kanji characters and syllabic hiragana and katakana characters; as with many non-alphabetic languages, alphabetic romaji characters may also be used as needed. [7]

Correspondence with pronunciation

Orthographies that use alphabets and syllabaries are based on the principle that the written symbols (graphemes) correspond to units of sound of the spoken language: phonemes in the former case, and syllables in the latter. However, in virtually all cases, this correspondence is not exact. Different languages' orthographies offer different degrees of correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. English, French, Danish and Thai orthographies, for example, are highly irregular, whereas the orthographies of languages such as Russian, German and Spanish represent pronunciation much more faithfully, although the correspondence between letters and phonemes is still not exact. Finnish, Turkish and Serbo-Croatian orthographies more consistently approximate the principle "one letter per sound."[ citation needed ]

An orthography in which the correspondences between spelling and pronunciation are highly complex or inconsistent is called a deep orthography (or less formally, the language is said to have irregular spelling). An orthography with relatively simple and consistent correspondences is called shallow (and the language has regular spelling).

One of the main reasons why spelling and pronunciation diverge is that sound changes taking place in the spoken language are not always reflected in the orthography, and hence spellings correspond to historical rather than present-day pronunciation. One consequence of this is that many spellings come to reflect a word's morphophonemic structure rather than its purely phonemic structure (for example, the English regular past tense morpheme is consistently spelled -ed in spite of its different pronunciations in various words). This is discussed further at Phonemic orthography § Morphophonemic features.

The syllabary systems of Japanese (hiragana and katakana) are examples of almost perfectly shallow orthographies—the kana correspond with almost perfect consistency to the spoken syllables, although with a few exceptions where symbols reflect historical or morphophonemic features: notably the use of ぢ ji and づ zu (rather than じ ji and ず zu, their pronunciation in standard Tokyo dialect) when the character is a voicing of an underlying ち or つ (see rendaku), and the use of は, を, and へ to represent the sounds わ, お, and え, as relics of historical kana usage.

Korean hangul and Tibetan scripts were also originally extremely shallow orthographies, but as a representation of the modern language those frequently also reflect morphophonemic features.

For full discussion of degrees of correspondence between spelling and pronunciation in alphabetic orthographies, including reasons why such correspondence may break down, see Phonemic orthography.

Defective orthographies

An orthography based on the principle that symbols correspond to phonemes may, in some cases, lack characters to represent all the phonemes or all the phonemic distinctions in the language. This is called a defective orthography. An example in English is the lack of any indication of stress. Another is the digraph th, which represents two different phonemes (as in then and thin) and replaced the old letters ð and þ . A more systematic example is that of abjads like the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets, in which the short vowels are normally left unwritten and must be inferred by the reader.

When an alphabet is borrowed from its original language for use with a new language—as has been done with the Latin alphabet for many languages, or Japanese Katakana for non-Japanese words—it often proves defective in representing the new language's phonemes. Sometimes this problem is addressed by the use of such devices as digraphs (such as sh and ch in English, where pairs of letters represent single sounds), diacritics (like the caron on the letters š and č, which represent those same sounds in Czech), or the addition of completely new symbols (as some languages have introduced the letter w to the Latin alphabet) or of symbols from another alphabet, such as the rune þ in Icelandic.

After the classical period, Greek developed a lowercase letter system that introduced diacritic marks to enable foreigners to learn pronunciation and in some cases, grammatical features. However, as pronunciation of letters changed over time, the diacritic marks were reduced to representing the stressed syllable. In Modern Greek typesetting, this system has been simplified to only have a single accent to indicate which syllable is stressed. [8]

See also


  1. Many local languages have a writing system too, but the majority do not.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alphabet</span> Set of letters used to write a given language

An alphabet is a standard set of letters written to represent particular sounds in a spoken language. Specifically, letters correspond to phonemes, the categories of sounds that can distinguish one word from another in a given language. Not all writing systems represent language in this way: a syllabary assigns symbols to spoken syllables, while logographies assign symbols to words, morphemes, or other semantic units.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Diacritic</span> Modifier mark added to a letter

A diacritic is a glyph added to a letter or to a basic glyph. The term derives from the Ancient Greek διακριτικός, from διακρίνω. The word diacritic is a noun, though it is sometimes used in an attributive sense, whereas diacritical is only an adjective. Some diacritics, such as the acute ⟨á⟩, grave ⟨à⟩, and circumflex ⟨â⟩, are often called accents. Diacritics may appear above or below a letter or in some other position such as within the letter or between two letters.

English orthography is the writing system used to represent spoken English, allowing readers to connect the graphemes to sound and to meaning. It includes English's norms of spelling, hyphenation, capitalisation, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grapheme</span> Smallest functional written unit

In linguistics, a grapheme is the smallest functional unit of a writing system. The word grapheme is derived from Ancient Greek γράφω (gráphō) 'write' and the suffix -eme by analogy with phoneme and other names of emic units. The study of graphemes is called graphemics. The concept of graphemes is abstract and similar to the notion in computing of a character. By comparison, a specific shape that represents any particular grapheme in a given typeface is called a glyph.

Morphophonology is the branch of linguistics that studies the interaction between morphological and phonological or phonetic processes. Its chief focus is the sound changes that take place in morphemes when they combine to form words.

In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme is a set of phones that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sinhala script</span> Abugida writing system

The Sinhala script, also known as Sinhalese script, is a writing system used by the Sinhalese people and most Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka and elsewhere to write the Sinhala language as well as the liturgical languages Pali and Sanskrit. The Sinhalese Akṣara Mālāva, one of the Brahmic scripts, is a descendant of the Ancient Indian Brahmi script. It is also related to the Grantha script.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Schwa</span> Vowel sound

In linguistics, specifically phonetics and phonology, schwa is a vowel sound denoted by the IPA symbol ə, placed in the central position of the vowel chart. In English and some other languages, it usually represents the mid central vowel sound, produced when the lips, tongue, and jaw are completely relaxed, such as the vowel sound of the a in the English word about.

A spelling reform is a deliberate, often authoritatively sanctioned or mandated change to spelling rules. Proposals for such reform are fairly common, and over the years, many languages have undergone such reforms. Recent high-profile examples are the German orthography reform of 1996 and the on-off Portuguese spelling reform of 1990, which is still being ratified.

Spelling is a set of conventions that regulate the way of using graphemes to represent a language in its written form. In other words, spelling is the rendering of speech sound (phoneme) into writing (grapheme). Spelling is one of the elements of orthography, and highly standardized spelling is a prescriptive element.

Phonetic transcription is the visual representation of speech sounds by means of symbols. The most common type of phonetic transcription uses a phonetic alphabet, such as the International Phonetic Alphabet.

A phonemic orthography is an orthography in which the graphemes correspond to the language's phonemes. Natural languages rarely have perfectly phonemic orthographies; a high degree of grapheme–phoneme correspondence can be expected in orthographies based on alphabetic writing systems, but they differ in how complete this correspondence is. English orthography, for example, is alphabetic but highly nonphonemic; it was once mostly phonemic during the Middle English stage, when the modern spellings originated, but spoken English changed rapidly while the orthography was much more stable, resulting in the modern nonphonemic situation. On the contrary the Albanian, Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian/Montenegrin, Romanian, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, Finnish, Czech, Latvian, Esperanto, Korean and Swahili orthographic systems come much closer to being consistent phonemic representations.

A.tong is one of the Garo dialect Sino-Tibetan language which is also related to Koch, Rabha, Bodo other than Garo language. It is spoken in the South Garo Hills and West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya state in Northeast India, southern Kamrup district in Assam, and adjacent areas in Bangladesh. The spelling "A.tong" is based on the way the speakers themselves pronounce the name of their language. There is no glottal stop in the name and it is not a tonal language.

In linguistics, vowel length is the perceived length of a vowel sound: the corresponding physical measurement is duration. In some languages vowel length is an important phonemic factor, meaning vowel length can change the meaning of the word, for example in Arabic, Estonian, Finnish, Fijian, Japanese, Kannada, Kyrgyz, Latin, Malayalam, Old English, Scottish Gaelic, Tamil and Vietnamese.

A defective script is a writing system that does not represent all the phonemic distinctions of a language. This means that the concept is always relative to a given language. Taking the Latin alphabet used in Italian orthography as an example, the Italian language has seven vowels, but the alphabet has only five vowel letters to represent them; in general, the difference between the phonemes close and open is simply ignored, though stress marks, if used, may distinguish them. Among the Italian consonants, both and are written s, and both and are written z; stress and hiatus are also not reliably distinguished.

Czech orthography is a system of rules for proper formal writing (orthography) in Czech. The earliest form of separate Latin script specifically designed to suit Czech was devised by Czech theologian and church reformist Jan Hus, the namesake of the Hussite movement, in one of his seminal works, De orthographia bohemica.

According to the alphabetic principle, letters and combinations of letters are the symbols used to represent the speech sounds of a language based on systematic and predictable relationships between written letters, symbols, and spoken words. The alphabetic principle is the foundation of any alphabetic writing system. In the education field, it is known as the alphabetic code.

Dyslexia is a complex, lifelong disorder involving difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols. Dyslexia does not affect general intelligence, but is often co-diagnosed with ADHD. There are at least three sub-types of dyslexia that have been recognized by researchers: orthographic, or surface dyslexia, phonological dyslexia and mixed dyslexia where individuals exhibit symptoms of both orthographic and phonological dyslexia. Studies have shown that dyslexia is genetic and can be passed down through families, but it is important to note that, although a genetic disorder, there is no specific locus in the brain for reading and writing. The human brain does have language centers, but written language is a cultural artifact, and a very complex one requiring brain regions designed to recognize and interpret written symbols as representations of language in rapid synchronization. The complexity of the system and the lack of genetic predisposition for it is one possible explanation for the difficulty in acquiring and understanding written language.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Writing system</span> Convention of symbols representing language

A writing system comprises a particular set of symbols, called a script, as well as the rules by which the script represents a particular language. Writing systems can generally be classified according to how symbols function according to these rules, with the most common types being alphabets, syllabaries, and logographies. Alphabets use symbols called letters that correspond to spoken phonemes. Abjads generally only have letters for consonants, while pure alphabets have letters for both consonants and vowels. Abugidas use characters that correspond to consonant–vowel pairs. Syllabaries use symbols called syllabograms to represent syllables or moras. Logographies use characters that represent semantic units, such as words or morphemes.

The orthographic depth of an alphabetic orthography indicates the degree to which a written language deviates from simple one-to-one letter–phoneme correspondence. It depends on how easy it is to predict the pronunciation of a word based on its spelling: shallow orthographies are easy to pronounce based on the written word, and deep orthographies are difficult to pronounce based on how they are written.


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  2. Coulmas, Florian; Guerini, Federica (2012), "Literacy and Writing Reform", in Spolsky, Bernard (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy, Cambridge University Press, p. 454f
  3. "orthography". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  4. Seidenberg, Mark S. 1992. "Beyond Orthographic Depth in Reading: Equitable Division of Labor." In: Ram Frost & Leonard Katz (eds.). Ortho545fgraphy, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning, pp. 85–118. Amsterdam: Elsevier, p. 93.
  5. Donohue, Mark. 2007. "Lexicography for Your Friends." In Terry Crowley, Jeff Siegel, & Diana Eades (eds.). Language Description, History and Development: Linguistic Indulgence in Memory of Terry Crowley. pp. 395–406. Amsterdam: Benjamins, p. 396.
  6. Coulmas, Florian. 1996. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 379.
  7. Koda, Keiko; Zehler, Annette M. (Mar 3, 2008). Learning to Read Across Languages. Routledge. p. 17.
  8. Bulley, Michael (2011). "Spelling Reform: A Lesson from the Greeks". English Today. 27 (4): 71. doi:10.1017/S0266078411000575. S2CID   146449153.

Further reading