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Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics

Ed. by Rutten, Gijsbert / Auer, Anita / del Valle, José / Vosters, Rik / Pickl, Simon

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Alexandra Jaffe, Jannis Androutsopoulos, Mark Sebba & Sally Johnson: Orthography as Social Action. Scripts, Spelling, Identity and Power

Jukka Tyrkkö
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  • School of Language, Translation and Literary Studies, University of Tampere, Kalevantie 4, 33014 Tampere, Finland
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Published Online: 2015-05-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0006

Reviewed publication

Orthography as Social Action. Scripts, Spelling, Identity and Power. (Language and Social Processes 3), edited by Alexandra Jaffe, Jannis Androutsopoulos, Mark Sebba & Sally Johnson, De Gruyter Mouton, Berlin, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-61451-103-8, vi, 396 pp. €119.95/$168.00

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the study of orthography in the contexts of sociolinguistics, communities of practice and digital communication (see e.g. Sairio 2009; Rogos 2013; Rutkowska 2013; Sairio and Nevala 2013; Carroll et al. 2013; Tagg et al. 2013), and this volume makes a welcome and highly valuable contribution to this upswing of the proverbial pendulum. To some extent, what we see is perhaps more accurately described as a rediscovery than a discovery, given the welcome renaissance of the philological turn in linguistics, but there is also considerable novelty to the new approaches to examining writing systems and the use thereof through truly social rather than scribal or otherwise personal perspectives. Edited by Alexandra Jaffe, Jannis Androutsopoulos, Mark Sebba and Sally Johnson, this volume manages to cover a lot of ground geographically, chronologically and conceptually while still maintaining a coherence that edited volumes, sadly, sometimes lack.

The sociolinguistic study of orthography embraces a variety of approaches and emphases ranging from those placing more focus on the bibliographic and palaeographic features of written text to others that explore the individuals and communities that produce and consume them. Regardless of the focus, however, scholarship in this field proceeds from the premise that orthographic features such as choice of script or writing system as well as more minute variations in spelling and punctuation should not be seen as accidental or somehow merely technical aspects of the written word but instead they are, or at the very least they can be, consciously and carefully considered elements of the communicative act. However, as Mark Sebba notes in the introductory chapter, scripts and orthographies or the “nuts-and-bolts of writing” have been largely neglected in the scholarship of language studies outside phonology. The sociological aspects of writing systems, particularly as they link to issues of power and identity in colonial settings, have been discussed in literature somewhat more widely, but truly sociolinguistic studies remain rare (see Blommaert 1999, 2010). Setting up an analogy between orthographies and more familiar types of sociolinguistic variation, Sebba argues that while choices of script and orthography are nearly always made consciously, their implications in terms of social meaning can be, and frequently are, far-reaching. Although both are subject to standardisation and social pressures of various kinds, there is usually some room for variation when it comes to the practices of an individual or a social group, particularly as pertains to orthography. The opening chapter foregrounds the individual studies with a coherent survey of the main issues at hand.

The thirteen chapters that follow provide a wide-ranging and refreshing look at scripts and orthography from a number of different but complementary perspectives. The choice to include in the same volume studies ranging in topic from manuscripts to digital communication and, thereby, from historical contexts to the latest online media effectively makes the argument that what we are seeing is a universal phenomenon with theoretical appeal not only in specialised situations but in fact wherever and whenever writing occurs. The individual chapters cover German, Russian, Indian, Dutch, English, American, Jamaican and Greek scripts and orthographies, all doing a good job at providing sufficient background so that even the non-specialist reader gets an introduction to the at times highly complex histories and social dynamics. While a detailed description of each chapter is sadly beyond the scope of this review, I wish to highlight three studies that appealed most to this particular reviewer but also between them illustrate the wide scope of the book.

Chapter 4 by Suzanne Wertheim concerns the revitalisation of the Tatar language and script, a topic many readers are unlikely to know much about prior to reading the chapter. The author begins with a brief outline of the historical and social issues involved in the post-Soviet Tatarstan and then gives a thorough historical overview of the Tatar language and its orthographic history from runic and Arabic scripts to a short-lived Latin-based alphabet which was replaced with a Cyrillic system supplemented with characters needed for Tatar phones missing in Russian. The main focus of the chapter is on the post-Soviet era and the attempt to reposition the Tatar state in relation to Russia, culminating orthographically as Latinitsa, a new Latin-based alphabet introduced in 1999 with a ten-year plan of adoption. However, the initiative was quickly blocked by the Russian Duma with a law passed in 2002 prohibiting non-Cyrillic scripts in the Russian Federation and the main part of the chapter details the social, political and sociolinguistic aspects of the ensuing struggle for Latinitsa, national identity and linguistic purity in Tatarstan. In all, Wertheim’s chapter is a lucid and compelling account of the political and social aspects of an “orthographic battle” and as such one of the highlights of this volume.

Chapter 5 by Rizwan Ahmad provides a superficially similar but substantially different account to Wertheim’s chapter. Arguing that language ideologies and the debates around them can inform us about the discourses of social identity and power, Ahmad presents the case of the Hindu identity in Northern India. The chapter opens with a much-needed introduction to the language politics of India, painting a picture of the competing use of Hindi and Urdu in Indian discourses of language and identity. When the British colonial government replaced Persian with Urdu, written in Persian script, as the official language of courts in Northern and Central provinces of India in 1837, the Hindi movement was born with the objective of replacing Urdu with Hindi and the Devanagari script. Ahmad gives a detailed and fascinating description of the history of the debate by juxtaposing the traditional historical perspective with the sociolinguistic approach focusing on social constructivism. Analysing the struggle through binary thematic pairs such as “foreign vs. indigenous” and “biased vs. impartial”, Ahmad shows how the orthographic controversy led to ever-more partisan views linking Urdu to the Muslim faith, thus accelerating the divorce between the social groups involved. This chapter makes for fascinating reading and also serves as a methodological model for similar studies.

Finally, in Chapter 13, Lars Hinrichs turns to Jamaican emails and blogs to discuss the role of vernacular spelling in online language use. As the author notes in the beginning of his contribution, computer-mediated communication is known for the acceptance of more informal language use than what is commonly seen in more traditional media, and one of the key areas in which this development is particularly evident is spelling. Following Sebba (2007) in interpreting the choice of spelling variants as a social action, Hinrichs proceeds to examine the case of how Jamaican Creole is represented in emails and blogs written by Jamaican informants. Both the email and blog data were collected by the author, the corpora comprising in total 221 samples and 45,550 words. The word count in particular may seem low, but given the relatively high frequency of non-standard variants the number of observations turns out to be reasonably high. Following a detailed description of the operationalisation of non-standardness and the statistical predictors, the findings are presented starting with univariate data and moving on to the multivariate model. Of particular note is Hinrichs’ use of mixed effects regression analysis, a statistical method well suited to non-normal data. Although one typically sees the method used with somewhat larger datasets, the data used here appears to yield statistically solid results. As a very minor note, it may be said that the theoretical discussion of odds ratios could have been slightly more informative, particularly when it comes to interpreting ratios that fall below 1; it is often considered preferable in such situations to reorder the data and calculate the odds again, thereby presenting only ratios greater than 1 which are conceptually much easier to grasp. The main findings of the study show the importance of studying interaction effects in addition to single predictors. Hinrichs shows that both gender and diasporic source are significant predictors in interaction with text type and that diasporic writing shows a further significant interaction with the use of Patois. The discussion that follows makes credible and insightful observations about the possible reasons behind the statistical findings. In all, the chapter is not only of interest in light of the results reported, but also as a fine demonstration of the usefulness of mixed effects regression methods in sociolinguistic analysis.

With the exception of a few infrequent oversights in citations and a small number of photographs which could have been in higher resolution, the editing of the volume is superb and the articles are without exception well written and well argued. In conclusion then, this volume is a valuable contribution to the study of sociolinguistics of orthography and it belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in a broad view on the social perspectives of writing.


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About the article

Published Online: 2015-05-06

Published in Print: 2015-05-01

Citation Information: Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 131–134, ISSN (Online) 2199-2908, ISSN (Print) 2199-2894, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0006.

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