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Review of  The Relation of Writing to Spoken Language

Reviewer: Tobias Thelen
Book Title: The Relation of Writing to Spoken Language
Book Author: Martin Neef Richard W Sproat Anneke Neijt
Publisher: Max Niemeyer Verlag
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Writing Systems
Issue Number: 14.2983

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Date: Thu, 30 Oct 2003 16:46:22 +0100
From: Tobias Thelen
Subject: The Relation of Writing to Spoken Language

Neef, Martin, Anneke Neijt and Richard Sproat, eds. (2002) The Relation
of Writing to Spoken Language, Niemeyer, Linguistische Arbeiten 460.

Tobias Thelen, University of Osnabrueck


Neef, Neijt and Sproat present a volume that consists of ten papers which
mostly grew out of talks given at the international workshop Writing
Language in Nijmegen on August 28-30 2000. In their introduction they
identify a set of general questions that are covered in the papers from
different perspectives. The main questions concerns the relation of
writing and spoken language, more specifically the questions of how
natural writing is, the notion of orthographic depth, the relation between
orthography as an object of research for theoretical linguistics and the
psycholinguistic investigation of its use and the processes involved. In
their introduction, the editors raise the question of what kind of
constraints are involved in reading and writing and if non-local
constraints are necessary to adequately describe spelling and reading. The
status of orthography and writing is addressed in asking whether writing
is derived from spoken language or if it follows autonomous rules.
Finally, they give attention to the balance between reading and writing
and state that reader- and reading-oriented models of orthography might be
more suitable than writer- or writing-oriented ones.

The papers are organized in four sections. Each of them investigates one
phenomenon or theoretical question from different point of views and
different research backgrounds.


Section 1: Consistency

Anneke Neijt - The Interfaces of Writing and Grammar

Neijt addresses Sproat's consistency hypothesis (Sproat 2000) and applies
it to Dutch spelling. Dutch has a deep orthography, e.g. final devoicing,
it shows differences between native and non-native words, and is best
described by a two-step derivation: phoneme-to-grapheme conversion of
morphemes are followed by graphotactic rules. Neijt tries to show that
phoneme-to-grapheme rules are based on information from different levels.
She demonstrates that the Orthographically Relevant Level (ORL) is
different for native and non-native words. For phoneme-to-grapheme rules
she argues that some morphemes are spelled according to an underlying
phonemic form while some require a more superficial level. This can be
seen as contradicting the consistency hypothesis. Graphotactic rules as
presented by Nunn are not autonomous but need orthographical and
phonological information as shown for diaeresis placement, syllabification
degemination and stress representation. Neijt concludes that Dutch
orthography cannot easily be described by the consistency hypothesis.
Information from different levels of language processing is involved.

Richard Sproat - The Consistency of the Orthographically Relevant Layer in

Sproat directly replies to the aforementioned article and tries to show
that the examples given by Neijt do not violate the Consistency
Hypothesis. The devoicing examples given might stem from two different
processes, one applied before, the other applied after the ORL. Stress
information might be encoded by diacritics that don't show up in surface
orthography - Sproat argues that this solution is not worse than looking
at phonology and orthography simultaneously. The different rules for
different parts of orthography (Latinate vs. native part) observed by
Neijt are categorized differently by Sproat: one is an obligatory
morpho-phonological alternation, the other one an optional phonetic
alternation. In other cases, etymological information is needed to decide
which set of rules is to be taken. This information must somehow be
encoded in the representation. For the need of information from different
levels, such as syntax or semantics, Sproat states that "level" means
"stage in derivational process", not "level in some hierarchy". So, all
information accessible at a given stage of the derivational process is
present in the ORL, too. Sproat finally asks why we should expect that
consistency holds. He argues that orthography should be as natural as
possible to be usable. If orthography was not, two things could happen to
re-establish consistency: spelling changes and spelling pronunciations.

Section 2: Cross-linguistic studies

Susanne R. Borgwaldt & Annette M.B. de Groot: Bevond Rime: Measuring the
complexity of Monosyllabic and Polysyllabic Words

The authors propose a new methodology for measuring bidirectional
consistency of spelling-sound correspondences in psycholinguistic
research. In contrast to other methods, the proposed one would be suitable
for both monosyllabic and polysyllabic words. They state that the findings
about the consistency of a spelling system vary on the size of units
(letter, rhymes, sliding windows, sublexical linguistic units). Thus, a
flexible methodology is necessary for several application domains (speech
synthesis, machine learning). Their new method splits written and spoken
words in units like onset, nucleus and coda. Then, body (onset + nucleus)
and rime (nucleus + coda) are compared with respect to consistency of
mapping. For polysyllabic words, ambisyllabic segments and variable
syllable boundaries may impose problems, so coda and following onset are
treated as one unit. In the next step overlapping sublexical units (OSLUs)
are constructed as pairs, triples, or quadruples etc. of adjacent
sublexical units. Each of these patterns is compared to estimate
consistency. The result is a list of consistency scores for each OSLU and
a combined consistency score for the entire word. The authors show that
their method is more accurate than other methods as it is able to
disambiguate a lot of otherwise inconsistent spellings or pronunciations.
They claim that the proposed method is language independent as well as
easy to compute. Finally, the results of a sample analysis are presented
for Dutch and German.

Dorit Ravid & Steven Gillis: Teachers' Perception of Spelling Patterns and
Children's Spelling Errors: A Cross-linguistic perspective

Ravid and Gillis present the results of studies on teachers' knowledge
about morphological and morpho-phonological cues in spelling homophonous
graphemes in Hebrew and Dutch. They ask two questions: Is children's
knowledge and use of morphology matched by their teachers' ability to
explain spellings and what differences exist between Belgian and Israeli
teachers' ability to explain spellings. In a first study children were
given a spelling test with 4 sets of 8 homophonous items, with different
status of recoverability. For Hebrew the predictions were matched: fewer
errors for words with more cues, more errors for words with fewer cues.
For Dutch speaking children, the predictions were not met as they scored
relatively low on morphologically motivated sets and relatively high on
morphologically unmotivated sets. The author present a possible
explanation: Growing up with a morphologically complex language like
Hebrew makes it easier to use morphological clues. Alternative explanation
could concern the teachers' knowledge about spelling rules.
In a second study the items from the children's test were randomized and
presented to teachers in a pairing task and a motivation of choice task.
In the pairing task, the expectations from the children's experiments were
not matched. Belgian teachers have been able to identify the pairs, Hebrew
teachers had greater difficulties. In the motivation task, Belgian
teachers scored better than Hebrew. For all Hebrew results, students of
teachers training colleges scored lower than university students, for the
Dutch results both groups had comparable results. The result of this study
is that the teachers' metalinguistic knowledge of spelling patterns is a
mirror image of children's performance. A possible explanation could be
that the acquisition of language patterns and rules is implicit and
natural. Metalinguistic explanation has to be learned and is difficult.
Teachers have to find simple rules to teach for complex rules. This is
easier for Dutch than for Hebrew. A list of the test items used concludes
the article.

Section 3: Diacritics and Punctuation

Vincent J. van Heuven: Effects of Diaeresis on Visual Word Recognition in

Van Heuven presents a study on the effects of diaeresis in Dutch spelling
on the recognition of words. As Dutch words can contain long sequences of
vowel letters, the diaeresis is used to indicate beginning of syllable.
The guiding question for the study was how the diaeresis affects the
visual word recognition process, and whether the proper use of diaeresis
enables adult Dutch readers to recognize words more efficiently. The
experimental setting was to present words with correct use of diaeresis
and three types of diaeresis errors: omission, addition and transposition.
Subjects were asked to decide whether a string presented is a Dutch word
or not. The stimulus material consisted of 240 letter strings, 120 of
which were existing Dutch words (40 filler, 80 crucial words), 120
orthographically and phonologically legal Dutch nonsense strings. Three
versions of the crucial words have been used: the correct spelling, a
spelling with diaeresis error, and a spelling with a minimal spelling
error. These versions have been presented in an evenly mixed way for each
of 120 students.
The results of the experiment show a clear effect of error type: the
correct versions and the versions with diaeresis errors do not differ
whereas misspelling score significantly lower. The length of the vowel
sequence has a small effect, but has no interaction with the error type,
i.e. both diaeresis errors (omission and transposition) have no effect.
For the insertion of illegal diaeresis the correct acceptance rate drops
significantly. The addition of diaeresis detracts from the recognizability
of the word form but the elimination of diaeresis does not create problems
for the experienced adult reader. The author concludes that it is possible
that the diaeresis, however, is of considerable help for inexperienced
readers and learners of Dutch orthography.

Jochen Geilfu��-Wolfgang: Optimal Hyphenation

The author presents a constraint based modelling of German hyphenation in
an optimality-theoretic framework. He gives structural well-formedness
constraints for orthographic syllables that to not refer to phonological
syllables. For his investigation he uses data from the 2000 edition of
Duden Rechtschreibung. The author shows that eight properly ranked
constraints yield correct results for all the cases in question:
- Ons: orthographic syllables begin with a consonant grapheme
- Nuc: orthographic syllables have a vowel grapheme
- *ComplexOns: orthographic syllables have at most one consonant grapheme
at their left edge
- *ComplexNuc: orthographic syllables have at most one vowel grapheme
- AlignL: Left edges of stems and morphological words coincide with left
edges of orthographic syllables
- RecoverGrapheme: graphemes cannot be split
- Margins: Every margin of an orthographic syllable is a possible margin
of an orthographic word
The author states that with this modelling orthographic syllables are
defined and related to the question of complex or noncomplex graphemes,
graphotactical constraints and morphological information, but not
phonological information. He concludes that word splitting in German is
based on orthographic syllables.

Ursula Bredel: The Dash in German

In contrast to the usual characterization of the dash (Gedankenstrich) in
German orthography as a polyfunctional mark, the author suggests a uniform
characterization. She motivates this approach by the observation that both
syntactical and intonational explanations of punctuation omit the aspect
of linking as a medium-specific property. The dash has earlier been
characterized as a polyfunctional punctuation mark, that functions on a
grammatical level, on a text organizational level or on a pragmatic level.
Attempts to characterize the dash uniformly compromise the notions of
"interrupting" and "changing". Bredel gives an overview of development of
the dash in German writing. Historically, it had two different functions:
marking omissions, marking end of lines. The modern uses of dash have in
common a certain change of focus. Bredel shows this notion for
parantheses, change of speaker/topic and announcements. She concludes the
dash prepares the reader to perceive subsequent material under changed

4. Sharpening in German

Christina Noack: Regularities in German Orthography: A Computer-Based
Comparison of Different Approaches to Sharpening

Noack uses a computational modelling of orthographic rules to determine
consistency of German orthography, namely the phenomenon of sharpening
(consonant letter doubling). Three different rule proposals are
investigated: a morpho-phonological approach proposed by Adelung in 1788,
a syllable-based approach proposed by Maas in 1997 and a segment-based
approach from the official rules in 1902. A word list, taken from
Adelung's "Kleines W��rterbuch" was taken as a corpus for a simulation of
the three rules. The rule-based data processing system ortho 3.0 takes
phonological, morphological and lexical information about words as input
and generates a spelling using a dynamic rule apparatus. The results of
the experiment show that the three rules yield different kinds of
mistakes. The morpho-phonological and the syllable-based approaches proved
superior to the segment based approach. The author states that sharpening
in German not simply marks shortness but marks units which embrace several
phonemes, namely syllables.

Martin Neef: The Reader's View: Sharpening in German

Neef presents a way to describe writing systems from a reader's
perspective. He describes reader-based orthography as output-oriented, as
it asks for constraints on written forms. The "recoding principle" is
central to this approach: The written form has to make possible an
unambigiguous recoding of the spoken form. Neef summarizes writer-based
analyses of sharpening and especially addresses the problem of
prosodically determined explicit forms which sometimes are marginal and
sometimes do not exist at all. A reader-based sharpening constraint is
proposed: "If in a word less than two consonant letters follow adjacently
a simple vowel graph, this vowel graph must not correspond to a
centralized vowel". Neef demonstrates that this constraint covers large
parts of German orthography and systematically lists exceptions. German
Orthography is highly inconsistent in the marking of vowel quality if the
vowel grapheme is followed by more than one consonant letter. Neef calls
this orthographic underspecification. Examining the question whether
stress influences the marking of sharpening, Neef modifies his sharpening
constraint to allow readings as centralized vowels in unstressed
vord-final syllables. Neef concludes that "writing systems aim at being
consistent not for the writer but for the reader."

Thomas Lindauer: How Syllable Structure affects Spelling: A Case Study in
Swiss German Syllabification

Lindauer investigates the question how writers make use of their implicit
phonological knowledge. He describes the two main explanations for
sharpening (see Noack and Neef) and then focuses on two phenomena in Swiss
German: spelling of ss and a common misspelling of unnecessary doubling of
fricative consonants after long vowels. Swiss German permits light
stressed syllables in contrast to standard German, but this vanishes when
speakers speak Swiss Standard German. There are true geminates in Swiss
German and Swiss Standard German which are best audible with fricatives.
Because these geminates also occur after long vowels, a syllable based
rule for sharpening leads to mistakes. According to Lindauer, a stem based
rule is much more suitable for teaching marking of sharpening to Swiss
German speaking learners. This leads to the conclusion that it is
appropriate to teach different spelling rules for different regions that
show different phonological phenomena.


The papers in this volume cover a wide range of current research topics
and offer various linguistic approaches to analyse writing systems and
their use. However, three limitations to this broad coverage apply: (1)
The workshop on which most of the papers have been presented was
especially rewarding because it brought together researchers and research
results from both theoretical linguistics and psycholinguistics. Most of
the psycholinguistic papers have been published separately in a special
issue of Journal of Written Language and Literacy. So the volume is more
focussed on theoretical linguistics than the workshop was. On the other
hand this circumstance made it possible to present a more coherent set of
papers that relate to other in many points. (2) Most of the papers deal
with data and questions from German and Dutch, two relatively similar
writing systems. This leads to a good overview of current research on
these two writing systems and makes the volume especially interesting for
linguists interested in German and Dutch and delivers detailed analyses of
some core phenomena from these orthographies. As a drawback, the papers
and thus the entire volume lacks a bit of a cross-linguistic perspective.
Some interesting insights into comparative research of very different
writing systems are given by the paper from Ravid and Gillis and Ravid,
for example. (3) The questions raised in the introduction are mostly not
addressed directly in the papers. From a more general point of view, the
three papers contributed by the editors are the most interesting. Most of
the other papers deal with relatively specific questions and make it
sometimes difficult to relate them to the guiding questions of the book.
This, of course, is inevitable given the nature of the volume as a
collection of workshop contributions.

All in all, Neef, Neijt and Sproat present an up-to-date collection of
papers that diverge in methodology, background and generality. The book is
especially interesting for linguists interested in current discussions of
German and Dutch orthography but also shows fields of future research on
the more general question of the relation of writing and spoken language.


Sproat, Richard. 2000. A Computational Theory of Writing Systems.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tobias Thelen is a Ph.D. student at the University of Osnabrück, Germany.
He works on computational models of German orthography and the automatic
analysis of children's spellings.