Spelling and Society: The Culture and Politics of Orthography around the World

By Behrens, Susan J. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

Spelling and Society: The Culture and Politics of Orthography around the World


Behrens, Susan J., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Spelling and Society: The Culture and Politics of Orthography Around the World Mark Sebba. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Spelling and Soaety by Mark Sebba makes a convincing case for a model of orthography that sees a language's writing conventions as part of a socio-cultural system. In this book, Sebba examines established orthographies, developing orthographies, language forms that do not currently have a standard system of writing, and orthographic reform movements.

Orthographic practice is set by convention. Deviation from the convention, for whatever reason, creates an "otherness" for, as Sebba points out, to have social meaning, behavior must have variants, one perceived as the norm and others as abnormal. Almost all languages have dialects, so to set up an orthographic system is to choose one variety as the standard. He coins the term "Zone of Social Meaning" to represent the opportunities afforded meaningful misspellings.

One can "misspell" a word for various reasons: to represent a local accent; to show rebellion; to make a political statement; to create gender-neutral forms, such as "Latin@" for the merging of "Latino" and "Latina"; to distinguish oneself with an usual name spelling (e.g., "Sioux" for "Sue"); and to come across as hip.

Even misspellings, though, must have regularity to be effective. "Skool" or "scool" for "school", for example "has the merit of being recognizable as a representative of the word "school", but at the same time defiantly refusing to conform to the standard norm of this word" (31). Spelling the word "zguul" would not make as effective a statement.

The arenas afforded spelling are both policed and unmonitored: these are termed regulated and unregulated spaces, respectively. So a textbook would be more regulated than e-mail; graffiti would be an example of writing existing in a generally unregulated space.

Orthography being social, change in an orthographic system has social and cultural ramifications. …

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