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The orthography of a language specifies a standardized way of using a specific writing system (script) to write the language. Where more than one writing system is used for a language, for example Kurdish, Uyghur or Serbian, there can be more than one orthography. Orthography is distinct from typography.

While "orthography" colloquially is often used synonymously with spelling, spelling is only part of orthography. Other elements of the field of orthography are hyphenation, capitalization, word breaks, emphasis, and punctuation. Orthography describes or defines the set of symbols (graphemes and diacritics) used, and the rules about how to write these symbols.

Most natural languages developed as oral-aural languages, and writing systems have usually been crafted or adapted afterwards as representations of the spoken language. In an etic sense, the rules for writing systems are arbitrary, which is to say that any set of rules could be considered "correct" if the users of the language mutually agreed to convene upon that set of rules as the standard way to represent the spoken language. However, as standardization takes stronger hold, an emic epistemology of "right and wrong" develops, in which compliance with, or violations of, the standards are viewed as right, or wrong, in a way analogous to moral right and wrong, and in which each word has a written identity that is no less standardized than its oral-aural identity, which is emically unitary. The term orthography is sometimes used in a linguistic sense 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. But the original sense of the word stem, which evolved long before linguistic science, implies a dichotomy of correct and incorrect, and the word stem is still most often used to refer not just to a way of writing a language but more specifically to the thoroughly standardized (emically "correct") way of writing it.



Orthography in English comes from orthographie (French, 13c.), from Latin: orthographia, from Greek ὀρθός orthós, "correct", and γράφειν gráphein, "to write" [1].


An orthography may be described as "efficient" if it has one grapheme per phoneme (distinctive speech sound) and vice versa. An orthography may also have varying degrees of efficiency for reading or writing. For example, diverse letter, digraph, and diacritic shapes contribute to diverse word shapes, which aid fluent reading, while heavy use of apostrophes or diacritics[citation needed] makes writing slow, and the use of symbols not found on standard keyboards makes computer or cell phone input awkward.

Typology of spelling systems


Phonemic orthography

A phonemic orthography is an orthography that has a dedicated symbol or sequence of symbols for each phoneme (distinctive speech sound) and vice versa, that is, graphemes and phonemes are bijective functions of one another. Spanish and Italian are very close to being phonemic, and English is among the least phonemic.

Morpho-phonemic orthography

A morpho-phonemic orthography considers not only what is phonemic, as above, but also the underlying structure of the words. For example, in English, /s/ and /z/ are distinct phonemes, so in a phonemic orthography the plurals of cat and dog would be cats and dogz. However, English orthography recognizes that the /s/ sound in cats and the /z/ sound in dogs are the same element (archiphoneme), automatically pronounced differently depending on its environment, and therefore writes them the same despite their differing pronunciation. German and Russian are morpho-phonemic in this sense, whereas Turkish is purely phonemic. Korean hangul has changed over the centuries from a highly phonemic to a largely morpho-phonemic orthography, and there are moves in Turkey to make that script more morpho-phonemic as well.


A "defective orthography" is one in which there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the letters and the phonemes in the language, such as those of English or Arabic. Most languages of western Europe (which are written with the Latin alphabet), as well as the modern Greek language to a lesser extent (written with the Greek alphabet), have defective scripts. In some of these, there are sounds with more than one possible spelling, usually for etymological or morpho-phonemic reasons (like /dʒ/ in English, which can be written with ‹j›, ‹g›, ‹dg›, ‹dge›, or ‹ge›). In other cases, there are not enough letters in the alphabet to represent all phonemes. The remaining ones must then be represented by using such devices as diacritics, digraphs that reuse letters with different values (like ‹th› in English, whose sound value is normally not /t/ + /h/), or simply inferred from the context (for example the short vowels in abjads like the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets, which are normally left unwritten).

Another term to describe this characteristic is "deep orthography". (Note that the term "defective orthography" should not indicate that the writing system is flawed; some defects, such as the aforementioned absence of short vowels in abjads for Semitic languages, serve the languages better than a supposedly "perfect" orthography would.[clarification needed]) Deep orthographies are writing systems that do not have a full correspondence between the spoken phoneme and the written grapheme (as listed above). Shallow orthographies, however, have a one-to-one relationship between graphemes and phonemes. The syllabary systems of Japanese (hiragana and katakana) are examples of shallow orthography.

Complex orthography

Complex orthographies often combine different types of scripts and/or utilize many different complex punctuation rules. Some widely accepted examples of languages with complex orthographies include Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Khmer.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ orthography, Online Etymology Dictionary
  • Smalley, W.A. (ed.) 1964. Orthography studies: articles on new writing systems (United Bible Society, London).
  • Venezky, Von Richard L.; Tom Trabasso, John P. Sabatini, Dominic W. Massaro, Robert Calfee (2005). From Orthography to Pedagogy. Routledge. ISBN 0805850899, 9780805850895. 

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:



From Ancient Greek ὀρθός (orthos), correct) and γράφω (gráphō), write).


  • (RP) IPA: /ɔːˈθɒg.rə.fi/, SAMPA: /O:"TQgr@fi/
  • (US) enPR: ôrthäʹgrəfē, IPA: /ɔrˈθɑː.grə.fi/, SAMPA: /Or"TAgr@fi/
  •  Audio (US)help, file




orthography (plural orthographies)

  1. The study of correct spelling according to established usage.
  2. The aspect of language study concerned with letters and their sequences in words.
  3. Spelling; the method of representing a language or the sounds of language by written symbols.


Derived terms


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Help:How to check translations.

Simple English

Orthography, or spelling, is the correct order and combination of letters put together to form words.

Spelling changes over time. At about the time of the Renaissance, words in English did not have a fixed spelling. Over time, however, different combinations of letters became more common, resulting in the more standard spellings of words we see today. Although spelling is not so important as vocabulary and usage, it is a traditional sign of education. Those who cannot spell well may suffer discrimination.


British and American English

Differences between American English and British English spelling came about mainly as the result of one man. Noah Webster (1758–1843) wrote a Grammar, a Spelling book, and finally an American dictionary of the English language. In the course of this, he proposed a number of simplifications in spelling. In his dictionary, he chose s over c in words like defense, he changed the re to er in words like center, he dropped one of the Ls in traveler. At first he kept the u in words like colour or favour but dropped it in later editions. He also changed tongue to tung: that did not stick. His main reason was to help children learn to read and write. Webster's dictionary contained seventy thousand words, of which twelve thousand had never appeared in a published dictionary before.

Webster did create a slightly different identity for American English. But, because his efforts left the most glaring problems untackled, his variations make little difference to the way the language is used. An example of the real problems in English orthography is the word ending -ough, which is pronounced several different ways: tough, bough, cough... The root causes of spelling variation are historical, and loan words come with their own (foreign) spelling. Either all French loan words should be left as they were, or they all should be changed. Either we should move wholesale to a more phonetic spelling, or not. This was proposed by many people since Webster, such as George Bernard Shaw, who proposed a new phonetic alphabet for English. In some cases Webster's changes have been widely adopted in Britain: the spelling programme came from the French; US program is clearly simpler, and more consistent with word endings in English. In our modern world, English orthography is still a problem. In some countries (notably, France) a national committee can give advice and direction as to spelling. English has long escaped from national custody.

  • Spelling, though important, is less important than how the language is used in practice. The differences between British and American English in use are more to do with idiom, slang and vocabulary than they are to do with spelling. In this respect, spelling in writing or print is a bit like pronunciation in speech. They are the necessary outer clothes, but the inner substance is more important.
  • In Wikipedia (note the spelling), articles may be in either American or British English, but should be consistent within each article. More details: Wikipedia:Manual of Style

Dictionaries and phonetics

Modern British spelling and use was greatly influenced by the two great English dictionaries, Samuel Johnson's A dictionary of the English language (1755), and James Murray's Oxford English dictionary.[1] Johnson's dictionary was hugely influential, abroad as well as at home. The dictionary was exported to America. "The American adoption of the Dictionary was a momentous event not just in its history, but in the history of lexicography. For Americans in the second half of the eighteenth century, Johnson was the authority on language, and the subsequent development of American dictionaries was coloured by his fame".[2]p224 For American lexicographers, the dictionary was impossible to ignore: "America's two great nineteenth-century lexicographers, Noah Webster and Joseph Emerson Worcester, argued fiercely over Johnson's legacy ... In 1789 [Webster] declared that 'Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline.' ... Where Webster found fault with Johnson, Joseph Worcester saluted him ... In 1846 he completed his Universal and critical dictionary of the English Language.[2]p226

Some people argue which language is the easiest to spell. People who learn a second language tend to think that their first (native) language is the easiest. However, for the learner, programmatic languages, with well-defined rules, are easier to start with than English. The spelling of the English language is by far the most irregular of all alphabetic spellings and thus the most difficult to learn. English is, in its origin, a Germanic language. From its early roots as Anglo-Saxon, it has borrowed words from many other languages: French (a Romance language) and Latin are the most frequent donors to English.

Languages that use phonetic spelling are easier to learn to spell than others. With phonetic spelling the words are spelled as they are pronounced. The Italian word "orologio" for instance is pronounced oh-ro-LO-jo ("gi" always making a "j" sound.) In English, one comes across the word "knife". In "knife", the "k" is not spoken, even though in English it's more common to pronounce "K"s when they are in words.

History of English spelling

One of the problems we have is that similar sounding words may be spelt quite differently. Rough and ruff; meet and meat; great and grate. Words with complicated spelling may be pronounced simply: Leicester is pronounced 'Lester'. Even what rules we do have are frequently broken. "i before e except after c" has over 100 exceptions.[3]p272 Almost all these problems have come about for historical reasons. English has been changing for the last thousand years, and as the language changes, so parts of it get stuck with different spellings.

Here are some of the causes of English orthography: [3]

1. Originally a 23-letter alphabet for the 35 or so phonemes (sounds) of Old English. Other letters were added later.

2. After the Norman conquest, French scribes introduced new spellings.

3. Printing. Many of the early printers came from the continent of Europe, and brought other spelling norms to England. But, although print stabilised spelling, pronunciation continued to change.

4. Printing coincided with the Great Vowel Shift at the end of Middle English (end 14th to 15th centuries). To avoid complex details, here is what happened: over a century, the pronunciation of all the vowels changed, and is still not standard throughout Britain. In any event, the spelling of thousands of words now reflects their pronunciation in Geoffrey Chaucer's time.

5. 16th-century scholars tried to indicate the history of a word by its spelling: the silent 'b' in 'debt' is there to reflect the Latin debitum.

6. More loan words added in the late 16th to early 17th century, such as pneumonia, idiosyncrasy, epitome, cocoa.

English has a huge number of words, but its spelling comes from many different sources. "The large and varied lexicon of English has been bought at the expense of an increasingly deversified graphology".[3]p275


  1. Murray K.M.E. 1977. Caught in the web of words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. ISBN 0-300-08919-8. Winchester, Simon 2003. The meaning of everything: the story of the Oxford English dictionary. Oxford.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hitchings, Henry 2005. Dr Johnson's Dictionary: the extraordinary story of the book that defined the world. John Murray, London. ISBN 0-7195-6631-2 [US edition: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-11302-5]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Crystal, David 1995. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge. p274–275


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