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Review of  The Tyranny of Writing

Reviewer: Katharina Klara Tyran
Book Title: The Tyranny of Writing
Book Author: Constanze Weth Kasper Juffermans
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 29.4397

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The edited volume “The tyranny of writing. Ideologies of the written word” brings together 12 researchers exploring written language forms in diverse temporal, regional and, of course, tyrannical settings. The book title obviously is inspired by Ferdinand de Saussure’s well known, often cited but also increasingly critically examined and contradicted argument of ‘la tyrannie de la lettre’, determining the dichotomy of literacy and orality, clearly giving priority to the latter and setting it as a focal point in modern linguistics .

In their introduction Constanze Weth and Kasper Juffermans discuss the “The Tyranny of Writing in Language and Society”, examining the metaphor expressed in the title in sociolinguistics as well as the potentials and risks of writing. The authors therefore present various arguments on writing, orthography, and literacy in modern linguistics. Furthermore, they highlight visual and social aspects of writing systems, written language, and literacy, importantly identifying them as always being embedded in historical, social and cultural contexts and practices, of course not operating autonomously, but ideologically. With the following contributions in this book, the editors’ interest “(…) is with the indexicalities of writing, in particular social and political contexts and with questioning the circumstances under which writing can be tyrannical.” (p. 8)

In Chapter 1, Florian Coulmas is “Revisiting the ‘Tyranny of Writing’” and starts with Saussure’s critique on writing and orthography, pointing out the relevance of discussing this argument in the context of linguistics as well as the importance of the contradiction inherent in Saussure’s elaborations, that we actually cannot do linguistics without writing. Coulmas argues, that Saussure’s repression of writing actually is grounded in the alphabetic western tradition. Here, letters are considered nothing more than mere substitutes for sounds, whereas a perspective beyond alphabetocentrism offers explanations for writing opening up new modes of human communication besides speech. Importantly, Coulmas questions the stance of writing being only a secondary system, a supplement for speech, as well as being tyrannical in Saussure’s means.

Daniel Bunčić guides us in Chapter 2 back to medieval times, tracing vernacular orthographies and biscriptality in the ancient Rus’. The article “How to Write a Birch-Bark Letter: Vernacular Orthography in Medieval Novgorod” examines orthographic characteristics of the famous archeological find dated back to the mid-eleventh to mid-fifteenth centuries, namely strips of birch bark as a medium for written mundane messages. Interestingly, most of those letters were written with specific spelling peculiarities besides the standard orthography used in monasteries and chancelleries. The author argues that this development of a vernacular orthography, although a result of incomplete spelling instructions, gained the status of an in-group writing in opposition to the ruling standard, which is identified as the tyrannical momentum in this case study.

The following section (Chapter 3) offers a summary article of Joop van der Horst’s book “Het Einde van de Standaardtaal”, published in 2008 in Dutch. Here, the title is translated into “The End of the Standard Language: The Rise and Fall of a European Language Culture”. The text is dealing with the all-European phenomenon of these days, namely concerns about standard language culture with a focus on spelling and orthography. Van der Horst emphasizes the ‘created-ness’ of language norms, with standardization processes not describing an existing reality, but creating a new reality. In opposition to a considerable number of scholars highlighting the nineteenth century as the crucial time scoop for the rising of national standard languages, van der Horst traces this process even back to the Renaissance, when vernaculars became written languages and gained rules and norms. As for the future, the author sees language culture moving away from this concept of national standard languages turning to variation, multiplicity and continuum, entailing a loosening of the tyranny of language purism and correctness.

Manuela Böhm examines in Chapter 4 the linguistic homogenization of multilingual France in the nineteenth century. Already the articles title reveals the tyrannical element of focus, namely “The Tyranny of Orthography: Multilingualism and Frenchification at Primary Schools in Late-Nineteenth-Century France”. Analyzing the correlation of alphabetization in written French and nation building processes the article shows that the Frenchification of linguistically heterogeneous territories in France was not only a story of success but also problematic and complicated. Therefore, the author argues for an additional multilingual perspective in the supposedly successful story of Francophonie and Francographie, exemplifying the argument with a case study from Brittany, a territory of typical diglossia with French as the written and high variety and Breton as the spoken and low variety.

Chapter 5 by Ulrich Mehlem, “Ideologies of Language and Literacy in the German Educational Reform Movement at the End of the Long Nineteenth Century”, is also focusing on the nexus of language teaching and national ideology, focusing on the concept of reform pedagogy in Germany at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. This education approach labelled written standard language, orthography and grammar and also classical languages as violent and suppressive, thus tyrannical. Protagonists of reform pedagogy, such as Rudolf Hildebrant and Berthold Otto advocated for spoken varieties to be allowed and used in school, arguing in favor of a primacy of oral language. This reformist discourse though went hand in hand with national and even nationalistic movements, accepting only spoken varieties of German but not minority languages. Therefore, pedagogical reformers prepared the ground for the harsh tyranny of speech community based on orality and national community.

The following joint Chapter 6 by Ashraf Abdelhay, Busi Makoni and Sinfree Makoni takes us to writing in a colonial context. In “When God is a Linguist: Missionary Orthographies as a Site of Social Differentiation and the Technology of Location”, the authors focus on the Rejaf (South Sudan) Language Conference of 1928 as a key colonial language-making event, of course also debating script use. With their Eurocentric approach, a number of conference participants suggested unified orthographies for African languages based on the Roman alphabets, also opting in favor of the usage of this writing system for the teaching of Arabic. What languages counted as worth writing, though, was strongly influenced by the work of missionaries and their practice of ‘discovering languages’, despite actually inventing them. In this chapter, the authors also highlight how script and orthography choice function as statements and constructing elements of spatial and cultural identities, and therefore are socio-politically driven.

The following article, Harshana Rambukwella’s Chapter 7 “Standard English, Cricket, Nationalism and Tyrannies of Writing in Sri Lanka” brings us to present times in a post-colonial setting. The author investigates the public speeches of two popular cricket players with differing educational and societal background, also expressed in their linguistic performance and language use, as well corresponding reactions. While one used a quite elaborated formal register of English, the other switched from English to Sinhala, which was perceived as a weakness. The case study is based on the dichotomy of English as a marker of social, cultural and economic privilege, cosmopolitan lifestyle, versus Sinhala and Tamil being marginalized by these elite discourses as well as the bifurcation of Standard Sri Lankan English and non-Standard Sri Lankan English. Therefore, the author follows the argument that codified standard written language forms can impress tyrannically even upon the spoken word.

Friederike Lüpke explores in Chapter 8 multilingual and multigraphic practices in southern Senegal. In the article “Escaping the Tyranny of Writing: West African Regimes of Writing as a Model for Multilingual Literacy”, the author argues that standard language culture and corresponding ideologies are an European approach not satisfying the linguistic diversity in West Africa. In this context we may rather see how local writing practices do not follow principles of standardized orthographies, rejecting strict spelling rules. If anything, these standard concepts prove not to be applicable in multilingual settings with no strict language boundaries. Furthermore, Lüpke highlights how foreign actors and agencies misinterpreted the interaction of language and script usage, thus using in posters or leaflets for example either the wrong language or the wrong script, undermining successful communication.

David C. S. Li addresses in “Writing Chinese: A Challenge for Cantonese-L1 and South Asian Hongkongers” (Chapter 9) language acquisition and literacy in standard written Chinese. The author follows the argument that Chinese with its hanzi characters being non-alphabetic and morphosyllabic needs more effort for gaining reading and writing skills in comparison with alphabetic languages respectively orthographies. The study, thus presenting the writing system itself as tyrannical, is based on questionnaires and interviews with South Asian Hongkongers aged 17 – 19, and explores the very nature of standard written Chinese being of a non-alphabetic system as a primary source of learning difficulties. Therefore, the majority of respondents even resisted learning SWC.

Chapter 10 stays in the context of writing Chinese, although in a quite different setting. In the article “Fangyan and The Linguistic Landscapes of Authenticity: Normativity and Innovativity of Writing in Globalizing China” Xuan Wang approaches writing as a set of social practices, tracing sociolinguistic conditions reframing the regime of writing Chinese. Within the theoretical background of linguistic landscaping studies, the author traces public signage in Enshi Tuija written in ‘fangyan’, local speech or dialect. Here, non-standard writing practices are used in the context of heritage tourism in order to create a tradition of authenticity and local identity. Although products of these processes are not always intelligible or meaningful, it is rather their visuality that is as important as indexical and symbolic, simultaneously resisting the centralized standard Chinese language policy with its national discourses and marginalizing linguistic forms such as ‘fangyan’.

With the focus returning to Europe, Chapter 11 by Jos Swanenberg addresses “Dialect Authenticity Upside Down: Brabantish Writing Practices of a Black Comedian on Twitter”. Here, the author examines modern digital writing practices such as writing in dialect on social media by Braboneger, a Black comedian from Tilburg. This case study is thus questioning and challenging the tyranny of traditional dichotomies such as orality versus literacy as well as dialect versus standard language. The author argues that new digital media changes writing and language generally, opening up now modes of expressions for vernaculars and dialects, which came to the fore in recent times as markers for local cultural identity gaining a higher importance in times of globalization. Furthermore, it shows how the comedian Braboneger is employing and undermining racial stereotypes tied to language use in his written performance.

In the last Chapter 12, Lucas Duane examines “Salty Politics and Linguistics in the Balearic Islands: Tracing a Non-Standard Iconization in Metalinguistic Facebook Communities”. The author traces a discourse of particularization, as we may not only explore language-ideological debates concerning Castilian and Catalan in the described setting, but also the emergence of a linguistic label of ‘Balearic’ for local varieties, respectively Majorcan, Minorcan, Eivissan and Formenteran vernaculars. Within these discourses, it is the attention to a small iconic feature, namely the use of the s-article (article salat, salty article), in claiming and marking a specific regional linguistic identity against Catalan. The tyranny of standard and standardization processes may be reproduced endlessly, as shown in this case study, where setting boundaries between closely related linguistic forms is highly linked with the semiotic process of iconization of certain linguistic features. In this context, public space orthography became highly indexical.


This edited volume covers a wide scope with regard to time, place, and focus, offering interesting case studies and taking its readers from medieval Russia to nineteenth century Western Europe and further to present settings in Africa, Asia and Europe. The connecting link, though, is a the engagement of the “metaphor of tyranny as a heuristic for ideologies of language and literacy in society, exploring practices and ideologies of writing that exercise, are affected by, or escape from an exercise of power or authority of writing.” (p. 10) Tyranny is, already in the introduction, alluded to in many contexts and theories of various scholars, not only concerning writing and orthography: the tyranny of nature, the tyranny of the present, the tyranny of the author, and even writing as a tool against tyranny.

As for the contributions in the book we may identify various ‘tyrannical’ features, that may be connected with writing and literacy: tyrannical standard language ideology entailing purism and correctness, often associated with written language forms and struggles over orthography, preceding standardization processes and tyrannical settings against multilingualism striving for linguistically and further nationally homogenous entities, tyrannous implementations of western ideologies concerning (written) language, and, last but not least, the tyranny of Saussure’s dichotomy inconsistently opposing orality and literacy. Consequently, the question remains, why linguistics is still stuck in this established, but old dichotomy of written and spoken language, of oral and literate as two separated linguistic systems, either one supposedly ruling the other or being primary, thus determining writing as tyrannical. Following this argument, it is not writing, orthography, literacy, standard language itself that is tyrannical, but the ideologies referring to these aspects of language and especially people and societies acting according to such ideologies and deploying them.

This edited volume is an interesting and valuable publication for researchers and scholars dealing with (standard) language ideologies especially in bi- or multilingual settings as well as researchers interested in language standardization processes and the power of writing and writing systems within this context. The case studies collected in this book may deal with quite diverse settings; nevertheless they all offer approaches to “questioning the circumstances under which writing can be tyrannical” (p.8). Here, the term ‘writing’ is used in a broad sense covering a wide scope, not only referring to letters and graphemes, and therefore going beyond Saussure’s critique of the tyranny of writing.
Katharina Tyran is a university assistant at the Institute for Slavic Studies at the University of Vienna. Her research interests include script linguistics, minority languages, language history, standardization processes, Linguistic Landscape research and Border studies with a focus on South Slavic languages.

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