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Review of  Spelling and Society

Reviewer: Lionel Mathieu
Book Title: Spelling and Society
Book Author: Mark Sebba
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Writing Systems
Issue Number: 23.4039

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AUTHOR: Mark Sebba
TITLE: Spelling and Society
SUBTITLE: The culture and politics of orthography around the world
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2012

Lionel Mathieu, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.


‘Spelling and Society’ is a manuscript on the social place, role, and importance
of orthography in our modern times. It seeks to define a new domain of
theoretical inquiry, a ''sociolinguistics of orthography,'' as the author puts it
(or if one dares to be creative, a 'socio-orthographics'). ‘Spelling and
Society’ therefore takes us on the journey to investigate and comprehend the
fascinating -- yet still unexplored -- world of orthography as a social,
synchronic practice.

The introduction of the book opens with a few anecdotal encounters with street
graffiti exhibiting variant spellings: the proper name ‘Kris’ juxtaposed with
the more familiar spelling, ‘Chris,’ on a Lancaster bus shelter; a small text on
a Manchester telephone booth written in a creole variety of British English
where ‘ov,’ ‘woz,’ ‘ere,’ and ‘dredd’ replace the standard forms; and a
subversive Spanish ‘OKUPACIóN’ inscription on a squatted house in Catalonia.
These irreverent orthographic manifestations constitute the starting point of
Mark Sebba's enterprise to reinvigorate the study of orthography within the
field of linguistics (which so often denigrated it), with particular attention
to its social, cultural, political, and ideological underpinnings. As Sebba
writes, ''orthography [...] is a topic of great interest [...] because it is a
point where issues of language as a formal object and of language as a social
and cultural phenomenon intersect'' (6).

The book is organized into the seven chapters summarized below.

Chapter 1: Approaching orthography

In the first section, Sebba discusses the place of orthography in various fields
of linguistics. Of note, he identifies two problematic points regarding the
state of research on orthography; the first, that ''[s]ocial and/or cultural
aspects of orthography are not currently the main focus of any area of
linguistics'', and the second, that ''[t]here has been no serious attempt to
produce a theoretical framework which addresses the social/cultural aspects of
orthography'' (12). The latter point is the crux of the second section, where
Sebba couches his new approach within 'literacy.' Invoking the tenets of ''The
New Literacy Studies'' (Gee 1990), where reading and writing are embedded within
a social fabric operating on a set of practices, Sebba contends that
''orthography, too, needs and deserves a 'practice account''' (13). The third
section makes direct reference to Street's (1984) work, calling an 'autonomous'
model of orthography one that simply views it as an instrument (detached from
social/cultural reality), and a 'sociocultural' model one that acknowledges and
embraces its social/cultural aspect. While only the latter is deserving of
attention in Sebba's endeavor, in the fourth section, he retraces the beliefs
behind the autonomous model of literacy, which inundated 20th century
linguistics, and consequently shaped the view of orthography as primarily a
system of rules. In this view, not all systems are equal. On arguable accounts
of cognitive benefits, evolutionary naturalness, and ethnocentricity, phonetic
systems were/are perceived as 'superior' to others, even serving as rationale
and blueprints for codifying unscripted languages. Sebba argues that the
phonemic principle ideology at the core of such models also receives support
from a learnability perspective. In section five, questions of ease of
acquisition of a writing system are discussed, where matters of orthographic
depth, phonological awareness and reading versus spelling are evoked. The author
counterbalances a number of claims by psycholinguists, ultimately leaving the
question of learnability open for future research. The last section of this
chapter foreshadows the rest of the book by insisting that the purpose of
orthography can only be understood if regarded as a social practice.

Chapter 2: Orthography as social practice

In this chapter, Sebba defends his approach of 'orthography as a social
practice.' In the first section, the author outlines a list of conventional
linguistic features of orthographic systems which, although highly codified,
leave the possibility for licensed (e.g. ‘judgement’ versus ‘judgment’) and
unlicensed (e.g. ‘school’ versus ‘skool’) variation. Section two delves into the
expression of social meaning through the variability offered by flexible
orthographic systems. It proposes a 'zone of social meaning,' where deviant
spellings are recognizable and meaningful due to their constrained
modifications. Hence, social meaning through orthography can only emerge between
two neutral ends: the standard, highly conventionalized (sometimes
institutionalized) forms (e.g. ‘school’) and the unrestrained, free forms (e.g.
‘fkpuut’). The remainder of this section presents, in great detail, the multiple
strategies employed to articulate meaning through non-conformist orthographic
forms as, for instance, ‘wa/oz’ for ‘was,’ ‘ere’ for ‘here,’ ‘m8, 4eva’ for
‘mate, forever,’ etc., all serving various meaningful purposes within a
community of speakers. Section three contextualizes occurrences of these
non-standard orthographic manifestations within ''orthographic regimes of
regulation'' (43), where published texts fall within a 'fully regulated' space
and graffiti within an 'unregulated' space, distanced from one another by
numerous 'partially regulated' subspaces (e.g. emails, SMS, personal and product
names). It is important to note that these degrees of regularization defining
these spaces are far from being clear-cut, but rather constitute a continuum on
which various types of text find their place. The chapter concludes with two
case studies, the first dealing with the Spanish ‘k,’ and the second with
computer-mediated communication about the British persona Ali G.; both
illustrate how orthography can be manipulated to create, express, and claim
specific subcultural identities.

Chapter 3: Language contact, linguists and the emergence of orthographies

This chapter concentrates on 'orthography as a social practice' among bilingual
and biliterate communities. The first section sets the stage by taking as
examples the cases of Estonian and English orthographies colored over time by
German and French spellings, respectively. It discusses the role of 'bilingual
mediators' in the development of these vernacular orthographies; a theme
expatiated upon in the following two sections. In section two, Sebba describes
how a Manx-English biliterate clergy was clearly responsible for introducing
English characteristics into the developing orthography of Manx Gaelic. Such
practice was deeply rooted in the social, cultural, and ideological literacy
context of the community, where the privileged status of English left an
indelible imprint on written Manx. Section three further explains how European
language ideologies, religious, and literacy practices shaped the Sranan
orthography through Dutch conventions. These two cases illustrate how social and
cultural contexts intervene in the formation of a contact-induced orthographic
tradition. In section four, Sebba argues that the role and success of linguist
experts -- often lacking adequate sociolinguistic knowledge in designing 'new'
orthographies -- could be at odds with the goals of the community and their
literacy practices. The last section reinforces this point by asserting that if
transitional orthographies meant to lead to literacy are not ideologically
aligned with community practices, the newly, orthographically-equipped language
could well be in peril.

Chapter 4: 'Postcolonial' Orthographies

This chapter starts out with a section illustrating how orthographies may stand
as iconic symbols of religious and national affiliation, often subject to
rejection by postcolonial populations. The remainder of Chapter 4 presents
relevant case studies. The second section therefore retraces the social and
cultural history behind the adoption of a Haitian orthography, encumbered by
much ideological debate over its national and international significance in
light of Haiti's colonial past and contemporary identity. The third section
revisits the Sranan case, whose second orthographic reform intended to dispose
of remnant signs of Surinam's colonial past by adopting more international
letter-sound conventions. The third section details the numerous changes
introduced in Malaysian and Indonesian orthographies in an attempt to arrive at
a joint orthographic system sensitive to both national and international
demands. These cases reveal how (inter)national and language ideologies
transpire in the definition of a suitable orthographic practice. The last
section looks at the issue of loanword orthographic adaptations within the
context of spelling reforms accompanying changes in cultural identity.

Chapter 5: Between language and dialect: orthography in unstandardised and
standardising vernaculars

In this chapter, Sebba tackles the issues facing unstandardized and
standardizing vernaculars from a sociocultural perspective. He first outlines
five problems for the orthography of such languages: 1) the representation of
'voices' (riddled with potential stigmatization); 2) the transcription (which is
often more phonetic than necessary for readers); 3) the invariance and
optionality of rules (the former being preferred and the latter ill-regarded);
4) standardization and dialect differentiation (often difficult to accommodate
as they go beyond rudimentary questions related to the phonemic principle); and
5) symbolic distance and the Abstand-Ausbau paradox (the struggle between
establishing oneself as an 'independent' orthographic language while
concurrently remaining inspired by existent orthographic models of other,
prestigious languages). The remainder of the chapter looks further into these
issues through two case studies. The first, about Jamaican Creole, details how
in the absence of a standard orthography, a number of 'organic orthographies'
(Faraclas et al., to appear) have been burgeoning within an 'unregulated'
spelling space, where Abstand-Ausbau forces are at play. The second, dealing
with a 'war of orthographies' in Galicia, explains how a heavily charged
political and ideological context informs various orthographic practices, in
turn typifying distinct cultural identities.

Chapter 6: Reform or revolution: where angels fear to tread

This chapter is concerned with spelling reforms and their public reception. The
opening section touches upon cases in Poland, Germany, France, The Netherlands,
and Tatarstan, where spelling reforms were often met with great resistance. It
also references work by Geerts et al. (1977) and Eira (1998) in an attempt to
frame the basic fields within which arguments over orthographic reforms are
carried out. Section two subsequently delves, in great detail, into these
'discourses of reform,' outlining six spheres of contentious dialogue: 1)
modernization, globalization and technology; 2) discourses of belonging, unity
and separation; 3) cultural heritage: creation myths, history, permanence and
decline; 4) economic discourses; 5) pedagogical discourses; and 6) prescription
and optionality: the discourse of conformity. In each of these domains, Sebba
draws on a series of concrete circumstances from the countries mentioned in the
first section (e.g. German and French spelling reforms, Tatar script reform,
etc.), while also making references and ties to previously examined cases and
chapters. All in all, Sebba concludes that ''it seems that successful reforms of
orthographies, whether marginal modifications or total replacements, are rare.
Conservatism is almost always the most attractive option for the majority of
language users, who will be already-literate adults'' (155). The focus on
discourses rather than arguments (for or against orthographic reforms) enables
him to highlight the social, cultural, political, and ideological pressures
impeding such reforms.

Chapter 7: Why do we spell?

This concluding chapter probes the purpose of orthography through four major
recurring themes: identity, iconicity, interlinguality, and authority. In
reviewing these themes, Sebba inventories the numerous situations examined
throughout the book (e.g. Haiti's identity debate, Tatarstan's iconic script
reform, Manx' interlingual history, Corsicans' fight for legitimacy, etc.),
depicting a picture of an interconnected network of motives. He also reiterates
the role of linguists in the development of orthographies, emphasizing the need
to not only recognize, but also plan for social, cultural, political, and
ideological dimensions in their endeavors. The book concludes by advocating for
a more inclusive and multifaceted view of orthography, or one that anchors it
into a sociocultural world.


‘Spelling and Society’ is a well written, researched, and structured book, with
each chapter partitioned into reasonably-sized, subtitled sections, making for
an enjoyable read. While it claims to pursue theoretical goals, its content is
nevertheless relatively accessible to a wide audience of readers interested in
questions of orthography from a social perspective. For neophyte readers, IPA
tables are provided, as well as a brief glossary of key terms. Maps of Europe
and the world, locating the various languages mentioned in the book, are also
available to the reader. Throughout, a few photographs can be seen, offering
ethnographic evidence of various orthographic practices around the world.

However, in an early section of the book, entitled 'Note on transcription,' a
rather staggering phonetic transcription is offered for the English word ‘cat,’
where the voiceless velar plosive appears as [ch] (while the phonemic
transcription appears as /k/). Four pages later, the in-text phonetic
transcription proposed for the proper name 'Chris' makes use of the symbol [k],
while a footnote attached to this transcription again exemplifies the word ‘cat’
phonetically as [chæt], but phonemically as /kæt/. Besides the inconsistency,
the use of [c] for [k] is clearly a typo. Another minor bracket typo can be
spotted on page 92.

In terms of content, Chapters 5 and 6 deserve particular attention because they
highlight the fact that both standardization and reformation efforts are
situations where cultural, political and ideological forces are exceptionally
exacerbated. As it turns out, such efforts are almost never about spelling
concerns themselves, but rather about managing power relations in a communal
sphere. Such contexts reveal how orthography is taken hostage by various
stake-holding entities, who manipulate it to exert even more power. Sebba does a
very good job of outlining the numerous areas in which such power struggles are
carried out. His insights offer readers a renewed perspective on contemporary,
societal dynamics as they apply to orthography.

Notwithstanding, it is not always clear how the distinction is made between
orthography as an instrument/expression/outlet of social practices (through
writing) and as a social practice in and of itself. While it is true that
orthographic systems are rule-based and allow for variation in their expression,
it is not orthographic variations in and of themselves that are 'practices.' On
the contrary, they are reflections of broader social factors. In other words,
orthography allows for and encapsulates social aspects within its flexible
configuration, resulting in a product *out of* social, literary, and ideological
practices. Only as a social product first can orthography then participate in
social practices. The fine line between orthography as materialization of
socioculturally suffused writing practices and 'orthography as a social
practice' in and of itself remains therefore debatable.

Furthermore, a more tangible theoretical framework than what is proposed would
have been welcome. Sebba champions the notion of orthography as a 'social
practice' without thoroughly delineating what 'practice' is (other than ''a
widespread and recurrent activity which involves members of a community in
making meaningful choices'' (31)). What are more specific criteria to infallibly
identify social behaviors as 'practice'? How systematic does a 'practice' need
to be in order to be labeled as such? Are *all* meaningful social interactions
reducible to 'practice'? In short, how do we go about collecting data
corresponding to this notion of 'orthography as a social practice'? These are
some of the more fine-tuned questions that remain partially unanswered in this
book (without prior knowledge of literacy theoretic developments). The reader is
also left with only few discernible guidelines as to what may or may not
constitute a 'social practice.' In addition, there is no discussion of how
Sebba's particular sociolinguistic approach to orthography either incorporates,
departs from, or fits in with other related fields such as language planning and
policy, and paleographic, historical, and ethno-linguistics, etc. It therefore
remains an emergent theoretical framework with vague parameters and margins that
is difficult to deploy with clarity in subsequent studies.

Nevertheless, such shortcomings are not overly detrimental to the genuine
purpose of the book; rather, they invite readers and sociolinguists to further
examine the premise of orthography as a social practice (versus an object or
medium of practice). Sebba's book is therefore commendable for laying down the
groundwork for a novel avenue of scientific inquiry likely to engender fertile
discussions and promising perspectives.


Eira, C. 1998. 'Authority and discourse: Towards a model for orthography
selection,' Written Language and Literacy 1 (2): 171-224.

Faraclas, N., E. Barrows, and M. C. Piñeiro (to appear): 'Orthographies for
Afro-Caribbean English-Lexifier Creoles: The Languages Who Dare Not Write Their
Names.' To appear in Arthur K. Spears (ed.), Black Language in the
English-Speaking Caribbean and the United States: Education, History, Structure,
and Use. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield.

Gee, J.P. 1990. Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses.
London: The Falmer Press.

Geerts, G., Van Den Broeck, J. and Verdoodt, A. 1977. 'Successes and failures in
Dutch Spelling Reform,' in Fishman (ed.), pp. 179-245.

Street, B. 1984. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Lionel Mathieu holds a Masters degree in linguistics from the University of Arizona, where he is currently working on his PhD dissertation. His research interests focus on the phonology-orthography interface, loanword adaptations from a theoretical and experimental perspective, psycholinguistics and second language acquisition.

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