Orthography in Linguistics: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There's a lot that goes into a language. In this lesson, we're going to explore written languages, see how they're different from spoken languages, and learn how orthographies are formed.

Spoken Versus Written Languages

Language is important. It's how we communicate, how we express our ideas, and how we define ourselves to others. Scientists are always amazed at the power of language to actually define the ways that we think. That's a cool idea, but are they talking about spoken language or written language? Yes, they're different things.

A spoken language is a complex, living system of communication used by all the people who are able to understand it to share ideas, emotions, and information. It is adaptive, capable of changing rapidly, and infinitely complex. However, human groups across history have realized that being able to record information is also pretty useful, so they have developed ways of writing their languages down.

A written language is what some linguists call an artifact of culture: it's created intentionally, but can never truly represent the entire scope of a spoken language (not that we don't try). Just look at this text. The letters before you are symbols, visual representations of sounds in our language. But can you interpret my body language as you read this, or my vocal inflections or tones? Written languages aren't perfect duplicates of spoken language, but they don't have to be. They just have to be good enough to represent a spoken language. This means they have to be simple enough to use, but also complex enough to represent everything we are capable of saying. The result is a system called an orthography.

Orthographies and Alphabets

At its most basic, an orthography is a standardized system of writing. It's the collection of rules that lets us visually represent a language. This starts with creating the symbols upon which a written language is built. One of the earliest ways to do this was to use symbols to represent entire words or ideas. We call this a logographic orthography. Perhaps the most obvious example would be Egyptian hieroglyphs, but Chinese characters and Japanese kanji are technically logograms as well (they're symbols representing an entire word). This writing system is direct, but can also be very extensive, with new characters being needed for every new word. For example, in order to be literate in written Chinese you would need to learn between three and four thousand individual symbols, and more than 50,000 logograms for this language have been created.

Japanese can be written using kanji, a logographic script in which each symbol represents a word.

Orthographies that do not represent entire words in this way may break their languages into syllables. A system based on symbols for syllabic sounds is often called a syllabic orthography. This system, which requires fewer characters than a logographic one, is almost as old. Cuneiform, one of the world's first written scripts which was developed by Mesopotamian peoples, included syllabic elements in its orthography.

The Algonquin Cree language of North America is written using a syllabic script, in which each symbol represents a syllable sound.

The last major type of orthography is alphabetic, in which the visual symbols represent individual sounds in a spoken language (called phonemes), and not syllables or words. This concept should seem familiar: you're reading an alphabetic language right now. The Greek and Latin alphabets are considered true alphabets because they explicitly include symbols for vowel and consonant sounds, but not every alphabetic system is like ours. Arabic and Hebrew, for example, are called consonantal alphabets because their symbols only represent (you guessed it) the consonants. There are no letters for vowels. In Arabic, those dots and dashes above or below the letters let you know which vowel sound accompanies the consonant.

Arabic is written with a consonantal alphabet, where each letter represents an individual consonant sound.

Other Elements of an Orthography

The sorts of symbols you use in your written language may be the most obvious element of an orthography, but there are other things we need to think about as well. Try to read the following three sentences aloud:

What are you doing here?

Is that King George?!?

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