An orthography is a set of conventions for writing a language. It
includes norms of spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks,
emphasis, and punctuation.
Most significant languages in the modern era are written down, and for
most such languages a standard orthography has been developed, often
based on a standard variety of the language, and thus exhibiting less
dialect variation than the spoken language. Sometimes there may be
variation in a language's orthography, as between American and British
spelling in the case of English orthography. In some languages
orthography is regulated by language academies, although for many
languages (including English) there are no such authorities, and
orthography develops in a more organic way. Even in the latter
languages, a significant amount of consensus arises naturally,
although a maximum of consistency or standardization occurs only when
prescriptively imposed according to style guides.
Etymology and meaning
2 Units and notation
4 Correspondence with pronunciation
4.1 Defective orthographies
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Etymology and meaning
The English word orthography dates from the 15th century. It comes
from the French orthographie, from Latin orthographia, which derives
from Greek ὀρθός orthós, "correct", and γράφειν
gráphein, "to write".
Orthography is largely concerned with matters of spelling, and in
particular the relationship between phonemes and graphemes in a
language. Other elements that may be considered part of
orthography include hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks,
emphasis, and punctuation.
Orthography thus describes or defines
the set of symbols used in writing a language, and the rules regarding
how to use those symbols.
Most natural languages developed as oral languages, and writing
systems have usually been crafted or adapted as ways of representing
the spoken language. The rules for doing this tend to become
standardized for a given language, leading to the development of an
orthography that is generally considered "correct". In linguistics the
term orthography is often used to refer to any method of writing a
language, without judgment as to right and wrong, with a scientific
understanding that orthographic standardization exists on a spectrum
of strength of convention. The original sense of the word, though,
implies a dichotomy of correct and incorrect, and the word is still
most often used to refer specifically to a thoroughly standardized,
prescriptively correct, way of writing a language. A distinction may
be made here between etic and emic viewpoints: the purely descriptive
(etic) approach, which simply considers any system that is actually
used—and the emic view, which takes account of language users'
perceptions of correctness.
Units and notation
Orthographic units, such as letters of an alphabet, are technically
called graphemes. These are a type of abstraction, analogous to the
phonemes of spoken languages; different physical forms of written
symbols are considered to represent the same grapheme if the
differences between them are not significant for meaning. For example,
different forms of the letter "b" are all considered to represent a
single grapheme in the orthography of, say, English.
Graphemes or sequences of them are sometimes placed between angle
brackets, as in ⟨b⟩ or ⟨back⟩. This distinguishes them from
phonemic transcription, which is placed between slashes (/b/, /bæk/),
and from phonetic transcription, which is placed between square
brackets ([b], [bæk]).
The writing systems on which orthographies are based can be divided
into a number of types, depending on what type of unit each symbol
serves to represent. The principal types are logographic (with symbols
representing words or morphemes), syllabic (with symbols representing
syllables), and alphabetic (with symbols roughly representing
phonemes). Many writing systems combine features of more than one of
these types, and a number of detailed classifications have been
proposed. Japanese is an example of a language that can be written in
all three: logographic kanji, syllabic hiragana and katakana, and
Correspondence with pronunciation
Orthographies that use alphabets and syllabaries are based on the
principle that the written symbols (graphemes) correspond to units of
sound of the spoken language: phonemes in the former case, and
syllables in the latter. However, in virtually all cases, this
correspondence is not exact. Different languages' orthographies offer
different degrees of correspondence between spelling and
pronunciation. English orthography, for example, is highly irregular,
whereas the orthographies of languages such as Russian, Spanish and
Finnish represent pronunciation much more faithfully, although the
correspondence between letters and phonemes is still not exact.
Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian orthographies are remarkably consistent:
approximation of the principle "one letter per sound".
An orthography in which the correspondences between spelling and
pronunciation are highly complex or inconsistent is called a deep
orthography (or less formally, the language is said to have irregular
spelling). An orthography with relatively simple and consistent
correspondences is called shallow (and the language has regular
One of the main reasons for which spelling and pronunciation deviate
is that sound changes taking place in the spoken language are not
always reflected in the orthography, and hence spellings correspond to
historical rather than present-day pronunciation. One consequence of
this is that many spellings come to reflect a word's morphophonemic
structure rather than its purely phonemic structure (for example, the
English regular past tense morpheme is consistently spelled -ed in
spite of its different pronunciations in various words). This is
discussed further at
Phonemic orthography § Morphophonemic
The syllabary systems of Japanese (hiragana and katakana) are examples
of almost perfectly shallow orthographies – the kana correspond with
almost perfect consistency to the spoken syllables, although with a
few exceptions where symbols reflect historical or morphophonemic
features: notably the use of ぢ ji and づ zu (rather than じ ji and
ず zu, their pronunciation in standard Tokyo dialect) when the
character is a voicing of an underlying ち or つ (see rendaku), and
the use of は, を, and へ to represent the sounds わ, お, and
え, as relics of historical kana usage.
The Korean hangul system was also originally an extremely shallow
orthography, but as a representation of the modern language it
frequently also reflects morphophonemic features.
For full discussion of degrees of correspondence between spelling and
pronunciation in alphabetic orthographies, including reasons why such
correspondence may break down, see Phonemic orthography.
An orthography based on the principle that symbols correspond to
phonemes may, in some cases, lack characters to represent all the
phonemes or all the phonemic distinctions in the language. This is
called a defective orthography. An example in English is the lack of
any indication of stress. Another is the digraph th, which represents
two different phonemes (as in then and thin). A more systematic
example is that of abjads like the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets, in
which the short vowels are normally left unwritten and must be
inferred by the reader.
When an alphabet is borrowed from its original language for use with a
new language—as has been done with the
Latin alphabet for many
languages, or Japanese
Katakana for non-Japanese words—it often
proves defective in representing the new language's phonemes.
Sometimes this problem is addressed by the use of such devices as
digraphs (such as sh and ch in English, where pairs of letters
represent single sounds), diacritics (like the caron on the letters š
and č, which represent those same sounds in Czech), or the addition
of completely new symbols (as some languages have introduced the
letter w to the Latin alphabet) or of symbols from another alphabet,
such as the rune þ in Icelandic.
After the classical period, Greek developed a lowercase letter system
that introduced diacritic marks to enable foreigners to learn
pronunciation and in some cases, grammatical features. However, as
pronunciation of letters changed over time, the diacritic marks were
reduced to representing the stressed syllable. In Modern Greek
typesetting, this system has been simplified to only have a single
accent to indicate which syllable is stressed.
List of language disorders
Prescription and description
^ orthography, Online
^ Seidenberg, Mark S. 1992. "Beyond Orthographic Depth in Reading:
Equitable Division of Labor." In: Ram Frost & Leonard Katz (eds.).
Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning, pp. 85–118.
Amsterdam: Elsevier, p. 93.
^ Donohue, Mark. 2007. "Lexicography for Your Friends." In Terry
Crowley, Jeff Siegel, & Diana Eades (eds.).
History and Development: Linguistic Indulgence in Memory of Terry
Crowley. pp. 395–406. Amsterdam: Benjamins, p. 396.
^ Coulmas, Florian. 1996. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing
Systems. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 379.
^ Koda, Keiko; Zehler, Annette M. (Mar 3, 2008). Learning to Read
Across Languages. Routledge. p. 17.
^ Bulley, Michael. 2011.
Spelling Reform: A Lesson from the Greeks.
English today, 24(7), p. 71.
Cahill, Michael; Rice, Keren (2014). Developing Orthographies for
Unwritten Languages. Dallas, Tx: SIL International.
Smalley, W. A. (ed.) 1964.
Orthography studies: articles on new
writing systems (United Bible Society, London).
Venezky, Richard L.; Trabasso, Tom (2005). From orthography to
pedagogy: essays in honor of Richard L. Venezky. Hillsdale, N.J:
Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN 0-8058-5089-9. OCLC 475457315.
Videos: The History and Impact of
Writing in the West
Phonemic awareness page of the CTER wiki
lonestar.texas.net/~jebbo/learn-as/ orthography of Old English