LINGUIST List 23.4039

Sat Sep 29 2012

Review: Sociolinguistics; Writing Systems: Sebba (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 29-Sep-2012
From: Lionel Mathieu <>
Subject: Spelling and Society
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at

AUTHOR: Mark SebbaTITLE: Spelling and SocietySUBTITLE: The culture and politics of orthography around the worldPUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 2012

Lionel Mathieu, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.


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

The introduction of the book opens with a few anecdotal encounters with streetgraffiti exhibiting variant spellings: the proper name 'Kris' juxtaposed withthe more familiar spelling, 'Chris,' on a Lancaster bus shelter; a small text ona Manchester telephone booth written in a creole variety of British Englishwhere 'ov,' 'woz,' 'ere,' and 'dredd' replace the standard forms; and asubversive Spanish 'OKUPACIóN' inscription on a squatted house in Catalonia.These irreverent orthographic manifestations constitute the starting point ofMark Sebba's enterprise to reinvigorate the study of orthography within thefield of linguistics (which so often denigrated it), with particular attentionto its social, cultural, political, and ideological underpinnings. As Sebbawrites, ''orthography [...] is a topic of great interest [...] because it is apoint where issues of language as a formal object and of language as a socialand 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 fieldsof linguistics. Of note, he identifies two problematic points regarding thestate of research on orthography; the first, that ''[s]ocial and/or culturalaspects of orthography are not currently the main focus of any area oflinguistics'', and the second, that ''[t]here has been no serious attempt toproduce a theoretical framework which addresses the social/cultural aspects oforthography'' (12). The latter point is the crux of the second section, whereSebba couches his new approach within 'literacy.' Invoking the tenets of ''TheNew Literacy Studies'' (Gee 1990), where reading and writing are embedded withina social fabric operating on a set of practices, Sebba contends that''orthography, too, needs and deserves a 'practice account''' (13). The thirdsection makes direct reference to Street's (1984) work, calling an 'autonomous'model of orthography one that simply views it as an instrument (detached fromsocial/cultural reality), and a 'sociocultural' model one that acknowledges andembraces its social/cultural aspect. While only the latter is deserving ofattention in Sebba's endeavor, in the fourth section, he retraces the beliefsbehind the autonomous model of literacy, which inundated 20th centurylinguistics, and consequently shaped the view of orthography as primarily asystem of rules. In this view, not all systems are equal. On arguable accountsof cognitive benefits, evolutionary naturalness, and ethnocentricity, phoneticsystems were/are perceived as 'superior' to others, even serving as rationaleand blueprints for codifying unscripted languages. Sebba argues that thephonemic principle ideology at the core of such models also receives supportfrom a learnability perspective. In section five, questions of ease ofacquisition of a writing system are discussed, where matters of orthographicdepth, phonological awareness and reading versus spelling are evoked. The authorcounterbalances a number of claims by psycholinguists, ultimately leaving thequestion of learnability open for future research. The last section of thischapter foreshadows the rest of the book by insisting that the purpose oforthography 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 socialpractice.' In the first section, the author outlines a list of conventionallinguistic features of orthographic systems which, although highly codified,leave the possibility for licensed (e.g. 'judgement' versus 'judgment') andunlicensed (e.g. 'school' versus 'skool') variation. Section two delves into theexpression of social meaning through the variability offered by flexibleorthographic systems. It proposes a 'zone of social meaning,' where deviantspellings are recognizable and meaningful due to their constrainedmodifications. Hence, social meaning through orthography can only emerge betweentwo neutral ends: the standard, highly conventionalized (sometimesinstitutionalized) forms (e.g. 'school') and the unrestrained, free forms (e.g.'fkpuut'). The remainder of this section presents, in great detail, the multiplestrategies employed to articulate meaning through non-conformist orthographicforms as, for instance, 'wa/oz' for 'was,' 'ere' for 'here,' 'm8, 4eva' for'mate, forever,' etc., all serving various meaningful purposes within acommunity of speakers. Section three contextualizes occurrences of thesenon-standard orthographic manifestations within ''orthographic regimes ofregulation'' (43), where published texts fall within a 'fully regulated' spaceand graffiti within an 'unregulated' space, distanced from one another bynumerous 'partially regulated' subspaces (e.g. emails, SMS, personal and productnames). It is important to note that these degrees of regularization definingthese spaces are far from being clear-cut, but rather constitute a continuum onwhich various types of text find their place. The chapter concludes with twocase studies, the first dealing with the Spanish 'k,' and the second withcomputer-mediated communication about the British persona Ali G.; bothillustrate how orthography can be manipulated to create, express, and claimspecific subcultural identities.

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

This chapter concentrates on 'orthography as a social practice' among bilingualand biliterate communities. The first section sets the stage by taking asexamples the cases of Estonian and English orthographies colored over time byGerman and French spellings, respectively. It discusses the role of 'bilingualmediators' in the development of these vernacular orthographies; a themeexpatiated upon in the following two sections. In section two, Sebba describeshow a Manx-English biliterate clergy was clearly responsible for introducingEnglish characteristics into the developing orthography of Manx Gaelic. Suchpractice was deeply rooted in the social, cultural, and ideological literacycontext of the community, where the privileged status of English left anindelible imprint on written Manx. Section three further explains how Europeanlanguage ideologies, religious, and literacy practices shaped the Srananorthography through Dutch conventions. These two cases illustrate how social andcultural contexts intervene in the formation of a contact-induced orthographictradition. In section four, Sebba argues that the role and success of linguistexperts -- often lacking adequate sociolinguistic knowledge in designing 'new'orthographies -- could be at odds with the goals of the community and theirliteracy practices. The last section reinforces this point by asserting that iftransitional orthographies meant to lead to literacy are not ideologicallyaligned with community practices, the newly, orthographically-equipped languagecould well be in peril.

Chapter 4: 'Postcolonial' Orthographies

This chapter starts out with a section illustrating how orthographies may standas iconic symbols of religious and national affiliation, often subject torejection by postcolonial populations. The remainder of Chapter 4 presentsrelevant case studies. The second section therefore retraces the social andcultural history behind the adoption of a Haitian orthography, encumbered bymuch ideological debate over its national and international significance inlight of Haiti's colonial past and contemporary identity. The third sectionrevisits the Sranan case, whose second orthographic reform intended to disposeof remnant signs of Surinam's colonial past by adopting more internationalletter-sound conventions. The third section details the numerous changesintroduced in Malaysian and Indonesian orthographies in an attempt to arrive ata joint orthographic system sensitive to both national and internationaldemands. These cases reveal how (inter)national and language ideologiestranspire in the definition of a suitable orthographic practice. The lastsection looks at the issue of loanword orthographic adaptations within thecontext of spelling reforms accompanying changes in cultural identity.

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

In this chapter, Sebba tackles the issues facing unstandardized andstandardizing vernaculars from a sociocultural perspective. He first outlinesfive problems for the orthography of such languages: 1) the representation of'voices' (riddled with potential stigmatization); 2) the transcription (which isoften more phonetic than necessary for readers); 3) the invariance andoptionality of rules (the former being preferred and the latter ill-regarded);4) standardization and dialect differentiation (often difficult to accommodateas they go beyond rudimentary questions related to the phonemic principle); and5) symbolic distance and the Abstand-Ausbau paradox (the struggle betweenestablishing oneself as an 'independent' orthographic language whileconcurrently remaining inspired by existent orthographic models of other,prestigious languages). The remainder of the chapter looks further into theseissues through two case studies. The first, about Jamaican Creole, details howin 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, dealingwith a 'war of orthographies' in Galicia, explains how a heavily chargedpolitical and ideological context informs various orthographic practices, inturn 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. Theopening section touches upon cases in Poland, Germany, France, The Netherlands,and Tatarstan, where spelling reforms were often met with great resistance. Italso references work by Geerts et al. (1977) and Eira (1998) in an attempt toframe the basic fields within which arguments over orthographic reforms arecarried 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, unityand separation; 3) cultural heritage: creation myths, history, permanence anddecline; 4) economic discourses; 5) pedagogical discourses; and 6) prescriptionand optionality: the discourse of conformity. In each of these domains, Sebbadraws on a series of concrete circumstances from the countries mentioned in thefirst section (e.g. German and French spelling reforms, Tatar script reform,etc.), while also making references and ties to previously examined cases andchapters. All in all, Sebba concludes that ''it seems that successful reforms oforthographies, whether marginal modifications or total replacements, are rare.Conservatism is almost always the most attractive option for the majority oflanguage users, who will be already-literate adults'' (155). The focus ondiscourses rather than arguments (for or against orthographic reforms) enableshim to highlight the social, cultural, political, and ideological pressuresimpeding such reforms.

Chapter 7: Why do we spell?

This concluding chapter probes the purpose of orthography through four majorrecurring themes: identity, iconicity, interlinguality, and authority. Inreviewing these themes, Sebba inventories the numerous situations examinedthroughout the book (e.g. Haiti's identity debate, Tatarstan's iconic scriptreform, Manx' interlingual history, Corsicans' fight for legitimacy, etc.),depicting a picture of an interconnected network of motives. He also reiteratesthe role of linguists in the development of orthographies, emphasizing the needto not only recognize, but also plan for social, cultural, political, andideological dimensions in their endeavors. The book concludes by advocating fora more inclusive and multifaceted view of orthography, or one that anchors itinto a sociocultural world.


'Spelling and Society' is a well written, researched, and structured book, witheach chapter partitioned into reasonably-sized, subtitled sections, making foran enjoyable read. While it claims to pursue theoretical goals, its content isnevertheless relatively accessible to a wide audience of readers interested inquestions of orthography from a social perspective. For neophyte readers, IPAtables are provided, as well as a brief glossary of key terms. Maps of Europeand the world, locating the various languages mentioned in the book, are alsoavailable to the reader. Throughout, a few photographs can be seen, offeringethnographic evidence of various orthographic practices around the world.

However, in an early section of the book, entitled 'Note on transcription,' arather staggering phonetic transcription is offered for the English word 'cat,'where the voiceless velar plosive appears as aspirated [c] (while the phonemictranscription appears as /k/). Four pages later, the in-text phonetictranscription 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 [cæt] (again, with aspirated [c]), but phonemically as /kæt/. Besidesthe inconsistency,the use of [c] for [k] is clearly a typo. Another minor bracket typocan be spotted on page 92.

In terms of content, Chapters 5 and 6 deserve particular attention because theyhighlight the fact that both standardization and reformation efforts aresituations where cultural, political and ideological forces are exceptionallyexacerbated. As it turns out, such efforts are almost never about spellingconcerns themselves, but rather about managing power relations in a communalsphere. Such contexts reveal how orthography is taken hostage by variousstake-holding entities, who manipulate it to exert even more power. Sebba does avery good job of outlining the numerous areas in which such power struggles arecarried 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 betweenorthography as an instrument/expression/outlet of social practices (throughwriting) and as a social practice in and of itself. While it is true thatorthographic systems are rule-based and allow for variation in their expression,it is not orthographic variations in and of themselves that are 'practices.' Onthe contrary, they are reflections of broader social factors. In other words,orthography allows for and encapsulates social aspects within its flexibleconfiguration, resulting in a product *out of* social, literary, and ideologicalpractices. Only as a social product first can orthography then participate insocial practices. The fine line between orthography as materialization ofsocioculturally suffused writing practices and 'orthography as a socialpractice' in and of itself remains therefore debatable.

Furthermore, a more tangible theoretical framework than what is proposed wouldhave been welcome. Sebba champions the notion of orthography as a 'socialpractice' without thoroughly delineating what 'practice' is (other than ''awidespread and recurrent activity which involves members of a community inmaking meaningful choices'' (31)). What are more specific criteria to infalliblyidentify social behaviors as 'practice'? How systematic does a 'practice' needto be in order to be labeled as such? Are *all* meaningful social interactionsreducible to 'practice'? In short, how do we go about collecting datacorresponding to this notion of 'orthography as a social practice'? These aresome of the more fine-tuned questions that remain partially unanswered in thisbook (without prior knowledge of literacy theoretic developments). The reader isalso left with only few discernible guidelines as to what may or may notconstitute a 'social practice.' In addition, there is no discussion of howSebba's particular sociolinguistic approach to orthography either incorporates,departs from, or fits in with other related fields such as language planning andpolicy, and paleographic, historical, and ethno-linguistics, etc. It thereforeremains an emergent theoretical framework with vague parameters and margins thatis difficult to deploy with clarity in subsequent studies.

Nevertheless, such shortcomings are not overly detrimental to the genuinepurpose of the book; rather, they invite readers and sociolinguists to furtherexamine the premise of orthography as a social practice (versus an object ormedium of practice). Sebba's book is therefore commendable for laying down thegroundwork for a novel avenue of scientific inquiry likely to engender fertilediscussions and promising perspectives.


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

Faraclas, N., E. Barrows, and M. C. Piñeiro (to appear): 'Orthographies forAfro-Caribbean English-Lexifier Creoles: The Languages Who Dare Not Write TheirNames.' To appear in Arthur K. Spears (ed.), Black Language in theEnglish-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 inDutch Spelling Reform,' in Fishman (ed.), pp. 179-245.

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


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

Page Updated: 29-Sep-2012