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Review of  Orthographies in Early Modern Europe

Reviewer: Sarah Hart
Book Title: Orthographies in Early Modern Europe
Book Author: Susan Baddeley Anja Voeste
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Writing Systems
Book Announcement: 24.1637

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‘Orthographies in Early Modern Europe’ is a comparative view of Early Modern orthography in eleven European languages spanning four language families: Romance, Germanic, Slavic and Finno-Ugrian. Each paper discusses not only the orthography of a language but also the socio-historical situation of the area during the Early Modern period. Each paper has a different author, two of which edited the volume and wrote an introduction as well.

Susan Baddeley and Anja Voeste, “Orthographies in Early Modern Europe: A Comparative View” (p. 1-14)

This introductory paper explains the layout of the chapters, which are grouped according to language family. The editors discuss the surprising parallelism between the orthographic systems of all eleven languages, despite spanning four language families and thousands of miles. These parallelisms include: the importance of religion and translating the Bible to orthography; the desire for one-to-one correspondences between letters and sounds; and oscillation between innovative and etymological orthography.

Elena Llamas Pombo, “Variation and Standardization in the History of Spanish Spelling” (p. 16-62)

This paper focuses on several distinct types of variation within Spanish orthography during Early Modern times. Pombo mentions not only diachronic variation, as is expected in such a long time period, but also ‘diastratic’ and ‘diaphasic’ variation, where the former refers to variation among distinct styles or registers of writing, and the latter refers to variation within a single text. She also provides explanations of extralinguistic factors affecting orthography such as the ‘Reconquista’ and the great standardizing king, Alfonso X the Wise. Throughout the chapter, the author reminds the readers of Spanish orthography’s strong correspondences between letters and sounds. However, at the end, she lists the several exceptions to this pattern and an explanation for why these certain graphemes survived in Modern Spanish.

Andreas Michel, “Italian Orthographies in Early Modern Times” (p. 63-96)

This paper offers a chronological review of Italian orthography. The author first mentions the historic-cultural factors affecting language and writing during Early Modern times such as the popularity of regional dialects and lack of a standard Italian language until the 20th century. Michel then demonstrates developments in Italian orthography through the use of images of texts; these images are beneficial, as they show the language as it was truly written. Finally, Michel offers a discussion of orthographic problems faced in Italy, especially those faced by the Accademia della Crusca, as both conservative and innovative trends in spelling reform appeared.

Susan Baddeley, “French Orthography in the 16th Century” (p. 97-126)

This paper is a mixture of linguistic and historical description, for example, Baddeley explains how the printing press and the Protestant Reformation affected French orthography. This article also offers a very in-depth description of the orthographic system of the 16th century, including the use of <&> to mean “and” and a mute ‘s’ to denote long vowels. Baddeley also examines something that many other articles ignore: the introduction and use of accent marks, beginning with the use of an acute accent mark to differentiate masculine <e> from mute <e> (/ə/). The author then offers an analysis of traditional and innovative forces in orthographic reform, including a section on several key members of the movement such as Sylvius and Meigret.

Terttu Nevalainen, “Variable Focusing in English Spelling between 1400 and 1600” (p. 127-166)

The author of this paper considers the level of tolerance speakers have for variation in the spelling of English and the process of codifying it during the Middle Ages. Following Auer’s (2005) model of standardization, the author shows that English was an indigenous language which had been replaced in many contexts by French and Latin. She describes the role of English, French and Latin within the linguistic system of England from 1400-1600, especially in relation to the Norman Invasion of 1066 and the use of English in royal offices after Henry V. The author then describes the codification of English as it progressed from a mainly spoken language to a written language.

Anja Voeste, “The Emergence of Suprasegmental Spellings in German” (p. 167-192)

This paper considers various changes in German spelling, especially in the 16th century. Specifically, this paper describes the establishment of spelling principles which turn away from segmental phonographic practice and lead to a suprasegmental approach. That is to say that features other than the realized phonemes became important to the spelling of words. For example, etymological spelling became important so that the roots and relatedness of words remained clear. In addition, certain practices came about to increase syllabic spelling, for example, adding “h” to show a lengthened syllable. These factors differentiate German from those languages that have a preference toward one-to-one correspondences between letters and sounds. Finally, the author mentions socio-historical constraints that helped to bring about the current mixture of phonographic, graphotactic, etymological and syllabic systems.

Alexander Zheltukhin, “Variable Norms in the 16th-Century Swedish Orthography” (p. 193-218)

The author of this paper critically examines the variation of certain spelling sequences in 16th century Swedish, for example, the variation between th/dh/d and the sequences V/VV/Vh/hV, where ‘V’ stands for any vowel and ‘h’ only means the letter h. In his analysis, Zheltukhin separates the corpus into two categories: Chanceries and printed literature. Within those two groups, he further separates each into four subgroups: for the Chanceries, the four subgroups are called Royal Chancery from 1521-1588, Royal Chancery from 1588-1599, Duke Charles from 1571-1588 and Duke Charles from 1588-1599; for printed literature, the four subgroups are called religious from 1541-1588, religious from 1588-1599, secular from 1541-1588 and secular from 1588-1599. The author mentions several socio-historical factors which affected orthography in the 16th century, including the Civil War between King Sigismund and Duke Charles , as well as the fact that education increased contact with German and Dutch.

Daniel Bunčić, “The Standardization of Polish Orthography in the 16th Century” (p. 219-254)

The author of this paper takes readers through a history of Polish orthography changes which occurred mainly in the 16th century. This time period was extremely important, as it was the end of Old Polish and the beginning of Middle Polish and a literary tradition. The Latin alphabet was adapted for writing Polish, but it was not sufficient to represent its 35 consonants and 10 vowels. In particular for consonants, there was no way to make the three way distinction between dental, postalveolar and palatal affricates and sibilants. This paper traces the changes made to the writing system in order to better represent the complex phonemic inventory of Polish. A previous system included many graphemes which correlated to more than one sound sequence. Thus, in an effort toward “single representations”, writers began using dots (single and double) above letters, before subsequently transitioning to further diacritics such as acute accent marks. The author finishes with a brief discussion of post-16th century changes to orthography and extralinguistic factors affecting them.

Tilman Berger, “Religion and Diacritics: The Case of Czech Orthography” (p. 255-268)

This paper outlines the history of how Modern Czech came to have the extensive system of diacritics that is has today. Like other Slavic languages, Czech’s complex phonemic inventory proved difficult to represent with the Latin alphabet. Berger takes us through several stages of orthographic reforms. The first reforms introduced digraphs to express sounds which did not exist in Latin; they also showed palatalized consonants by following them with an ‘i’ and used geminate vowels to show length. The next reform brought Czech much closer to its modern form. A treatise attributed to Jan Hus introduced the use of diacritics in lieu of digraphs. This proved to be a more desirable system; even as the printing press came to the area, many of Hus’ innovations survived. This paper concludes with a note about how Hus’ habit of delivering sermons in the vernacular aided in the orthographic reform which brought about Modern Czech orthography.

Roland Marti, “On the Creation of Croatian: The Development of Croatian Latin Orthography in the 16th Century” (p. 269-320)

This paper outlines the situation of Croatian orthography mainly in the 16th century. Croatian is unique in this volume, as it is the only language which has not always used a Latin alphabet. Marti describes two other alphabets used in the area we now call Croatia (i.e. Cyrillic and Glagolitic) but notes that neither affected Latin orthography. Like other Slavic languages, Croatian has a colorful inventory of fricatives and affricates. While pre-16th century Croatian used a system in which one grapheme could represent many phonemes and one phoneme could be represented by many graphemes, 16th century Croatian reduced the number of representations through the use of digraphs and several diacritics.

During this time period, 4 distinct orthographic traditions existed: two similar to Italian and two similar to Hungarian. Croatian orthography was not standardized until the 19th century, which is late compared to other European languages.

Klára Korompay, “16th-Century Hungarian Orthography” (pg. 321-350)

The main focus of this paper is the complex system of orthography in 16th century Hungarian. Various systems existed, all of which attempted to effectively represent Old Hungarian’s 35 sounds. While Chancery orthography used a system without a one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes, Hussite orthography used diacritics to eliminate digraphs and ensure a one-to-one correspondence. Thus, while in Chancery orthography <z> represented both /s/ and /z/, Hussite orthography used <z> and <ź>. Later, a third system emerged which reintroduced digraphs but maintained diacritics. Each of the three systems existed in the 16th century and were used at the discretion of each scribe. Eventually, Hungarian was standardized to reach the one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes that it contains today.

Taru Nordlund, “Standardization of Finnish Orthography: From Reformists to National Awakeners ” (p. 351-372)

This paper explores variation and standardization of Finnish orthography in both the 16th and 19th centuries. Finnish was not a written language until the 16th century, when its closest models were Swedish, Latin and German, none of which are closely related to Finnish. The task of molding an alphabet to Finnish without nearby models proved difficult, and as such, the first system of orthography showed extensive variation. However much of this was eradicated in the first translation of the Bible. Later, in the 19th century, Finnish was further standardized and “purified”, as Swedish loanwords and grammatical constructions were removed. The modern system of Finnish orthography shows a nearly one-to-one correlation between graphemes and phonemes.


This volume explores orthographic variation and standardization in Early Modern Europe. Many of the papers analyze the 16th century, while others consider a longer time period ranging from as early as 1400 to as late as the 19th century. Certainly, each language is unique and has its own pivotal time period for orthography.

This volume is aimed toward Indo-European linguists; indeed, all of the articles require a fairly in depth knowledge of phonology and historical and comparative linguistics, especially in regard to Indo-European languages. Each paper makes reference to certain socio-historical factors that affected languages, for example, the Reconquista in Spain, the Cinquecento in Italy, the Protestant reformation across Europe and the Hussite movement in Bohemia. Any reader without a fairly clear understanding of these events will not understand their importance to orthography. Some papers give a brief explanation of events of this type for the benefit of the reader, while others assume that the reader has prior knowledge. It is my belief that this volume could reach a much wider audience if each paper contained a more detailed description of the socio-historical situation during the Early Modern period.

The organization of the papers in this volume is very deliberate. The eleven papers are arranged by language family: three Romance languages are followed by three Germanic languages, then three Slavic languages, and finally, two Finno-Ugrian languages. I am not sure how the editors decided the order of the language families, although it appears they come in order from westernmost to easternmost. Each of these languages currently uses the Latin alphabet, which is why other major European languages, such as Russian and Greek, are not included in this volume. One comment I will make on the organization is that many papers mention the influence of Jan Hus, a reformer who introduced diacritics to Czech, although Tilman Berger’s paper on Czech does so with the most detail. Placing this paper before Daniel Bunčić’s paper, which mentions the influence of Hus on Polish orthography, would make the latter more comprehensible.

I appreciate the neutral (and sometimes even positive tone) toward variation in this volume. While many authors have called orthography in Early Modern times “erratic”, “arbitrary” and even “chaotic”, none of the authors in this volume have such a negative view of variation. I also appreciate the inclusion of pictures of original text of the time in many papers. It is beneficial to see what the characters actually looked like in order to fully understand what complications they might have caused.

While I believe the volume reached what I perceived to be its goal, to give an overview of various phases and developments in Early Modern orthography, I found that the papers ranged greatly in character. Some were very short (13 pages), while others were extremely long (51 pages). I found some papers to be easily comprehensible without much prior knowledge of the orthography of that language, while others required quite a bit of research on my part. I specifically found the chapter titled “Italian Orthographies in Early Modern Times” difficult to read. I feel that this paper is more suited for Italian linguists. One paper that I found particularly well written was that on French, by Susan Baddeley. Baddeley’s description of the chronology of French orthography was very clearly written and easy to follow. She also provides a very detailed and comprehensive description of the orthographic system of the 16th century: not only of the phonemic inventory, but also of specific uses of letters, for example, using the mute ‘s’ to show long vowels. This paper was both very detailed, yet very clear and coherent.

Finally, I did encounter one typo. The name of the author of the paper titled “Variation and Standardization in the History of Spanish Spelling” was written once as Elena Lamas Pombo (in the table of contents) and once as Elena Llamas Pombo (on the first page of her paper).


Auer, Peter. 2005. Europe’s Sociolinguistic Unity, or: A Typology of European Dialect/Standard Constellations. In Perspectives on Variation, Nicole Delbecque, Johan van der Auwera, and Dirk Geeraerts (eds.), 7-42. (Trends in Linguistics 163.) Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter
Sarah Hart is a PhD student in Spanish linguistics at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her research interests include comparative and historical Romance linguistics, especially concerning Spanish of the 13th century. She is currently working on her dissertation on the loss of the Old Spanish –udo participle in addition to teaching Spanish language courses.

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