27th February 2023
An Introduction to Orthography
If you’re looking up the definition of orthography, you’re probably either a language buff like us or taking a linguistics course. Whatever your reason for wanting to learn about this interesting topic, we’re here to tell you all about orthography, its features, and how it applies to a few different writing systems.
What Is Orthography?
Ortho derives from the Greek words orthos, meaning right or true, and graphy derives from graphien, meaning to write – so orthography literally means right/true writing. It’s a writing system that refers to how we write words with letters based on standard usage.
However, orthography is much more than how we spell or write words; it includes all conventions used for writing a language, such as punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation, word breaks, and emphasis. It provides the rhyme and reason for how languages move from spoken to written forms of communication.
Why Orthography Is Important
Orthography is a set of visual characters or symbols that represent a language (such as the one you’re reading right now!). Of course, there are several types of writing systems (which are discussed in more detail in the next section), but they all have one thing in common: they facilitate written communication.
Imagine not understanding an email or text message from a friend or family member. Or a world without books! What would you do if you needed to get a message to someone? You’d have to deliver it in person or through word of mouth. The world would be in absolute chaos without orthography!
Orthography is therefore important because it enables standardized writing systems that native speakers use to enhance communication, as well as paves the way for non-native speakers to study another language and learn how to use its written form.
Alphabetic Writing Systems
Alphabetic writing systems use symbols to represent consonants and vowels, including in English, French, Turkish, German, and many other languages. They’re based on the Latin alphabet. However, considering how many languages use the Latin alphabet for their orthography, coupled with the fact that all these languages use different sounds, a problem is presented: how do all these languages use the same letters to represent sounds that don’t appear in Latin? Well, part of this solution is the use of diacritical marks.
Diacritical Marks and Alphabetical Writing Systems
Diacritical marks (also called accent marks) are any marks that go above, through, or below a letter. They indicate the pronunciation or emphasis of a sound or the meaning of a word in the case of homographs. English doesn’t use diacritical marks, which means our spelling conventions can be difficult to follow for both native and non-native speakers because we squish letters together to make new sounds.
Take, for example, the “sh” sound (denoted as “ʃ” in the international phonetic alphabet) in words like ship, sheep, and sheet. Individually, “s” and “h” don’t sound like “sh” in any way, but they change when placed together. Other languages use diacritical marks to address these issues. Turkish, for example, uses the s-cedilla (ş) to indicate the same sound. In many Balkan languages, such as Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian, the same sound is denoted by the s-circumflex (ŝ).
Other common diacritical marks include the acute ( ́ ) and grave (ˋ) marks commonly used in French and French-borrowed words in English, such as résumé or à la carte. The tilde (˜) is another mark often seen in Spanish words, such as in señor.
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Syllabary Writing Systems
Syllabary writing systems use symbols to represent syllables of words, such as Cherokee and kana in Japanese. (Note: Japanese is very complex and also uses other writing systems.)
Logographic Writing Systems
Logographic writing systems use logograms (a written or pictorial symbol) to represent a word or morpheme. This includes Chinese characters called kanji in Japanese and hanja in Korean. This writing system differs from the two described above in that it doesn’t use characters to represent sounds. It’s important to note that no known writing system is purely logographic: all writing systems that use logograms also use symbols to represent syllables (syllabary).
Capitalization and Punctuation Features of All Writing Systems
Other features of orthography include capitalization and punctuation. For example, in English, capitalization rules include capitalizing the first letter of a word that starts a sentence and proper nouns. However, capitalization rules look very different in other languages, especially languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet. For example, Arabic and Hebrew don’t capitalize letters at all.
The same applies to punctuation conventions. Let’s look at what English speakers would call a semicolon (;). In English, a semicolon is used in a list or to join two independent clauses. But in Greek, a semicolon is used in the same way a question mark (?) is used in English. Spanish has a unique punctuation mark that no other language uses: an upside down/inverted question mark (¿) that’s used at the beginning of a question.
At its core, orthography is a standardized system of writing, including spelling, punctuation, emphasis, word breaks, and capitalization. It’s important because without standardized writing systems, the way we communicate would be limited to spoken word.
We’re quite fond of the written word and are thankful that orthographic systems are in place for languages around the world, old and new! If you need help perfecting your orthography in English, we’re here to help. Try our free trial today.
What is the definition of orthography?
Orthography is the standardization of writing systems, such as spelling, capitalization, punctuation, emphasis, word breaks, and hyphenation.
How does orthography differ from other writing systems?
Orthography is a broad term for standardized writing systems, including alphabetic, logographic, and syllabary writing systems.
What are some examples of orthographic systems?
Orthographic writing systems include alphabetic, logographic, syllabary, and featural.
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