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AUTHOR: Mark Sebba TITLE: Spelling and Society SUBTITLE: The culture and politics of orthography around the world PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2012
Lionel Mathieu, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.
‘Spelling and Society’ is a manuscript on the social place, role, and importance of orthography in our modern times. It seeks to define a new domain of theoretical inquiry, a ''sociolinguistics of orthography,'' as the author puts it (or if one dares to be creative, a 'socio-orthographics'). ‘Spelling and Society’ therefore takes us on the journey to investigate and comprehend the fascinating -- yet still unexplored -- world of orthography as a social, synchronic practice.
The introduction of the book opens with a few anecdotal encounters with street graffiti exhibiting variant spellings: the proper name ‘Kris’ juxtaposed with the more familiar spelling, ‘Chris,’ on a Lancaster bus shelter; a small text on a Manchester telephone booth written in a creole variety of British English where ‘ov,’ ‘woz,’ ‘ere,’ and ‘dredd’ replace the standard forms; and a subversive Spanish ‘OKUPACIóN’ inscription on a squatted house in Catalonia. These irreverent orthographic manifestations constitute the starting point of Mark Sebba's enterprise to reinvigorate the study of orthography within the field of linguistics (which so often denigrated it), with particular attention to its social, cultural, political, and ideological underpinnings. As Sebba writes, ''orthography [...] is a topic of great interest [...] because it is a point where issues of language as a formal object and of language as a social and 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 fields of linguistics. Of note, he identifies two problematic points regarding the state of research on orthography; the first, that ''[s]ocial and/or cultural aspects of orthography are not currently the main focus of any area of linguistics'', and the second, that ''[t]here has been no serious attempt to produce a theoretical framework which addresses the social/cultural aspects of orthography'' (12). The latter point is the crux of the second section, where Sebba couches his new approach within 'literacy.' Invoking the tenets of ''The New Literacy Studies'' (Gee 1990), where reading and writing are embedded within a social fabric operating on a set of practices, Sebba contends that ''orthography, too, needs and deserves a 'practice account''' (13). The third section makes direct reference to Street's (1984) work, calling an 'autonomous' model of orthography one that simply views it as an instrument (detached from social/cultural reality), and a 'sociocultural' model one that acknowledges and embraces its social/cultural aspect. While only the latter is deserving of attention in Sebba's endeavor, in the fourth section, he retraces the beliefs behind the autonomous model of literacy, which inundated 20th century linguistics, and consequently shaped the view of orthography as primarily a system of rules. In this view, not all systems are equal. On arguable accounts of cognitive benefits, evolutionary naturalness, and ethnocentricity, phonetic systems were/are perceived as 'superior' to others, even serving as rationale and blueprints for codifying unscripted languages. Sebba argues that the phonemic principle ideology at the core of such models also receives support from a learnability perspective. In section five, questions of ease of acquisition of a writing system are discussed, where matters of orthographic depth, phonological awareness and reading versus spelling are evoked. The author counterbalances a number of claims by psycholinguists, ultimately leaving the question of learnability open for future research. The last section of this chapter foreshadows the rest of the book by insisting that the purpose of orthography 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 social practice.' In the first section, the author outlines a list of conventional linguistic features of orthographic systems which, although highly codified, leave the possibility for licensed (e.g. ‘judgement’ versus ‘judgment’) and unlicensed (e.g. ‘school’ versus ‘skool’) variation. Section two delves into the expression of social meaning through the variability offered by flexible orthographic systems. It proposes a 'zone of social meaning,' where deviant spellings are recognizable and meaningful due to their constrained modifications. Hence, social meaning through orthography can only emerge between two neutral ends: the standard, highly conventionalized (sometimes institutionalized) forms (e.g. ‘school’) and the unrestrained, free forms (e.g. ‘fkpuut’). The remainder of this section presents, in great detail, the multiple strategies employed to articulate meaning through non-conformist orthographic forms as, for instance, ‘wa/oz’ for ‘was,’ ‘ere’ for ‘here,’ ‘m8, 4eva’ for ‘mate, forever,’ etc., all serving various meaningful purposes within a community of speakers. Section three contextualizes occurrences of these non-standard orthographic manifestations within ''orthographic regimes of regulation'' (43), where published texts fall within a 'fully regulated' space and graffiti within an 'unregulated' space, distanced from one another by numerous 'partially regulated' subspaces (e.g. emails, SMS, personal and product names). It is important to note that these degrees of regularization defining these spaces are far from being clear-cut, but rather constitute a continuum on which various types of text find their place. The chapter concludes with two case studies, the first dealing with the Spanish ‘k,’ and the second with computer-mediated communication about the British persona Ali G.; both illustrate how orthography can be manipulated to create, express, and claim specific subcultural identities.
Chapter 3: Language contact, linguists and the emergence of orthographies
This chapter concentrates on 'orthography as a social practice' among bilingual and biliterate communities. The first section sets the stage by taking as examples the cases of Estonian and English orthographies colored over time by German and French spellings, respectively. It discusses the role of 'bilingual mediators' in the development of these vernacular orthographies; a theme expatiated upon in the following two sections. In section two, Sebba describes how a Manx-English biliterate clergy was clearly responsible for introducing English characteristics into the developing orthography of Manx Gaelic. Such practice was deeply rooted in the social, cultural, and ideological literacy context of the community, where the privileged status of English left an indelible imprint on written Manx. Section three further explains how European language ideologies, religious, and literacy practices shaped the Sranan orthography through Dutch conventions. These two cases illustrate how social and cultural contexts intervene in the formation of a contact-induced orthographic tradition. In section four, Sebba argues that the role and success of linguist experts -- often lacking adequate sociolinguistic knowledge in designing 'new' orthographies -- could be at odds with the goals of the community and their literacy practices. The last section reinforces this point by asserting that if transitional orthographies meant to lead to literacy are not ideologically aligned with community practices, the newly, orthographically-equipped language could well be in peril.
Chapter 4: 'Postcolonial' Orthographies
This chapter starts out with a section illustrating how orthographies may stand as iconic symbols of religious and national affiliation, often subject to rejection by postcolonial populations. The remainder of Chapter 4 presents relevant case studies. The second section therefore retraces the social and cultural history behind the adoption of a Haitian orthography, encumbered by much ideological debate over its national and international significance in light of Haiti's colonial past and contemporary identity. The third section revisits the Sranan case, whose second orthographic reform intended to dispose of remnant signs of Surinam's colonial past by adopting more international letter-sound conventions. The third section details the numerous changes introduced in Malaysian and Indonesian orthographies in an attempt to arrive at a joint orthographic system sensitive to both national and international demands. These cases reveal how (inter)national and language ideologies transpire in the definition of a suitable orthographic practice. The last section looks at the issue of loanword orthographic adaptations within the context of spelling reforms accompanying changes in cultural identity.
Chapter 5: Between language and dialect: orthography in unstandardised and standardising vernaculars
In this chapter, Sebba tackles the issues facing unstandardized and standardizing vernaculars from a sociocultural perspective. He first outlines five problems for the orthography of such languages: 1) the representation of 'voices' (riddled with potential stigmatization); 2) the transcription (which is often more phonetic than necessary for readers); 3) the invariance and optionality of rules (the former being preferred and the latter ill-regarded); 4) standardization and dialect differentiation (often difficult to accommodate as they go beyond rudimentary questions related to the phonemic principle); and 5) symbolic distance and the Abstand-Ausbau paradox (the struggle between establishing oneself as an 'independent' orthographic language while concurrently remaining inspired by existent orthographic models of other, prestigious languages). The remainder of the chapter looks further into these issues through two case studies. The first, about Jamaican Creole, details how in 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, dealing with a 'war of orthographies' in Galicia, explains how a heavily charged political and ideological context informs various orthographic practices, in turn 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. The opening section touches upon cases in Poland, Germany, France, The Netherlands, and Tatarstan, where spelling reforms were often met with great resistance. It also references work by Geerts et al. (1977) and Eira (1998) in an attempt to frame the basic fields within which arguments over orthographic reforms are carried 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, unity and separation; 3) cultural heritage: creation myths, history, permanence and decline; 4) economic discourses; 5) pedagogical discourses; and 6) prescription and optionality: the discourse of conformity. In each of these domains, Sebba draws on a series of concrete circumstances from the countries mentioned in the first section (e.g. German and French spelling reforms, Tatar script reform, etc.), while also making references and ties to previously examined cases and chapters. All in all, Sebba concludes that ''it seems that successful reforms of orthographies, whether marginal modifications or total replacements, are rare. Conservatism is almost always the most attractive option for the majority of language users, who will be already-literate adults'' (155). The focus on discourses rather than arguments (for or against orthographic reforms) enables him to highlight the social, cultural, political, and ideological pressures impeding such reforms.
Chapter 7: Why do we spell?
This concluding chapter probes the purpose of orthography through four major recurring themes: identity, iconicity, interlinguality, and authority. In reviewing these themes, Sebba inventories the numerous situations examined throughout the book (e.g. Haiti's identity debate, Tatarstan's iconic script reform, Manx' interlingual history, Corsicans' fight for legitimacy, etc.), depicting a picture of an interconnected network of motives. He also reiterates the role of linguists in the development of orthographies, emphasizing the need to not only recognize, but also plan for social, cultural, political, and ideological dimensions in their endeavors. The book concludes by advocating for a more inclusive and multifaceted view of orthography, or one that anchors it into a sociocultural world.
‘Spelling and Society’ is a well written, researched, and structured book, with each chapter partitioned into reasonably-sized, subtitled sections, making for an enjoyable read. While it claims to pursue theoretical goals, its content is nevertheless relatively accessible to a wide audience of readers interested in questions of orthography from a social perspective. For neophyte readers, IPA tables are provided, as well as a brief glossary of key terms. Maps of Europe and the world, locating the various languages mentioned in the book, are also available to the reader. Throughout, a few photographs can be seen, offering ethnographic evidence of various orthographic practices around the world.
However, in an early section of the book, entitled 'Note on transcription,' a rather staggering phonetic transcription is offered for the English word ‘cat,’ where the voiceless velar plosive appears as [ch] (while the phonemic transcription appears as /k/). Four pages later, the in-text phonetic transcription 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 [chæt], but phonemically as /kæt/. Besides the inconsistency, the use of [c] for [k] is clearly a typo. Another minor bracket typo can be spotted on page 92.
In terms of content, Chapters 5 and 6 deserve particular attention because they highlight the fact that both standardization and reformation efforts are situations where cultural, political and ideological forces are exceptionally exacerbated. As it turns out, such efforts are almost never about spelling concerns themselves, but rather about managing power relations in a communal sphere. Such contexts reveal how orthography is taken hostage by various stake-holding entities, who manipulate it to exert even more power. Sebba does a very good job of outlining the numerous areas in which such power struggles are carried 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 between orthography as an instrument/expression/outlet of social practices (through writing) and as a social practice in and of itself. While it is true that orthographic systems are rule-based and allow for variation in their expression, it is not orthographic variations in and of themselves that are 'practices.' On the contrary, they are reflections of broader social factors. In other words, orthography allows for and encapsulates social aspects within its flexible configuration, resulting in a product *out of* social, literary, and ideological practices. Only as a social product first can orthography then participate in social practices. The fine line between orthography as materialization of socioculturally suffused writing practices and 'orthography as a social practice' in and of itself remains therefore debatable.
Furthermore, a more tangible theoretical framework than what is proposed would have been welcome. Sebba champions the notion of orthography as a 'social practice' without thoroughly delineating what 'practice' is (other than ''a widespread and recurrent activity which involves members of a community in making meaningful choices'' (31)). What are more specific criteria to infallibly identify social behaviors as 'practice'? How systematic does a 'practice' need to be in order to be labeled as such? Are *all* meaningful social interactions reducible to 'practice'? In short, how do we go about collecting data corresponding to this notion of 'orthography as a social practice'? These are some of the more fine-tuned questions that remain partially unanswered in this book (without prior knowledge of literacy theoretic developments). The reader is also left with only few discernible guidelines as to what may or may not constitute a 'social practice.' In addition, there is no discussion of how Sebba's particular sociolinguistic approach to orthography either incorporates, departs from, or fits in with other related fields such as language planning and policy, and paleographic, historical, and ethno-linguistics, etc. It therefore remains an emergent theoretical framework with vague parameters and margins that is difficult to deploy with clarity in subsequent studies.
Nevertheless, such shortcomings are not overly detrimental to the genuine purpose of the book; rather, they invite readers and sociolinguists to further examine the premise of orthography as a social practice (versus an object or medium of practice). Sebba's book is therefore commendable for laying down the groundwork for a novel avenue of scientific inquiry likely to engender fertile discussions and promising perspectives.
Eira, C. 1998. 'Authority and discourse: Towards a model for orthography selection,' Written Language and Literacy 1 (2): 171-224.
Faraclas, N., E. Barrows, and M. C. Piñeiro (to appear): 'Orthographies for Afro-Caribbean English-Lexifier Creoles: The Languages Who Dare Not Write Their Names.' To appear in Arthur K. Spears (ed.), Black Language in the English-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 in Dutch Spelling Reform,' in Fishman (ed.), pp. 179-245.
Street, B. 1984. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Lionel Mathieu holds a Masters degree in linguistics from the University of
Arizona, where he is currently working on his PhD dissertation. His
research interests focus on the phonology-orthography interface, loanword
adaptations from a theoretical and experimental perspective,
psycholinguistics and second language acquisition.