Chapter Ten: Orthography and Orthoepy

Only within the last 1% of recorded history has the majority of people become literate. Most people, for most of the time, have used language without script. Moreover, when languages with scripts are compared to those without, there is no essential difference as regards structure, pronunciation and complexity of vocabulary. Languages with scripts naturally have a more extensive vocabulary, but not necessarily a more useful and subtle one. No wonder it is called "language" rather than "script".

Likewise, in the life of the individual, language always precedes script - and has greater influence. Language encompasses the euphony of speech, the levels of meaning within words, and the power and mystery of names; whereas script, however attractive on the page, has no function except to represent language. This dominance of language over script means that the primacy of the orthographic ("correct writing") principle over the recessive, but still operational, orthoepic ("correct speaking") principle is the consequence of the natural order of priorities.

Obviously there are advantages in having a script to accompany language; but a script, by itself, does nothing to mitigate, and may even multiply, the "Chinese whisper" effect inherent in speech. The legend of the dragon's teeth which, when buried in the soil spring up later into soldiers, was reputedly a comment on the invention of script - with its ability to rend apart languages, and hence cultures and nations, when interred in books - separate from the continuous development of language. Likewise, the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) tells of a disintegration into a multiplicity of tongues. One might speculate whether a disinclination among the hierarchy for face-to-face meetings concerning the building of the tower led to the introduction of a chain of command through hieroglyphics on papyri or clay tablets - which worked well until there was a breakdown in the correspondence between speech and script.

In less colourful terminology it might be said that problems are created when someone who recognises a script attempts to read it without fully understanding the significance of the symbol-system to the person who wrote it. This is because (alphabetic) script has an innate orthoepic ("correct speaking") function which evokes speech-sounds corresponding to the ascribed symbolism of individual letters. A doubling of confusion tends to occur because a spoken word takes different forms when written down on the page according to different orthographic ("correct writing") systems (whether they use the same alphabet or not), while a single word on the page is read in different ways when different education systems ascribe different orthoepic values to the letters.

In this way the orthographies or spelling systems based on local dialects which were devised in Scotland and the Isle of Man had the effect of breaking up the Common Irish language. Religious differences were also undoubtedly a provoking factor in this area. The Roman Catholic Church had seen Ireland as a springboard for the conversion of England, but considered the native language of Ireland an irrelevance, or even a hindrance. However the Protestant churches historically associated the Irish language with Catholicism and, when evangelising in Scotland, modified Common Irish according to the Protestant translation of the Bible published in 1801. (The Latinate neologism "Gaelic", often pronounced "Gahlic", is proper to a Scottish form of the language which in earlier times would have been known in Scotland as "Erse" i.e. Irish.)

This attitude was most radically displayed in the Isle of Man where a peculiar spelling system, using mainly English conventions, originates from Bishop Philips' translation, completed in around 1610, of the 1604 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. The first printed book in Manx, dated 1707, was a tract on Christian duties; and the entire Bible, published 1771-3 and since taken as the literary standard, confirmed the separation between Manx spelling and the Common Irish spelling employed at that time in Scotland and Ireland. Essentially the Common Irish orthography is still used in Ireland, apart from a few reforms introduced by the Oireachtas in 1948, and the substitution of modern script for the old half-uncials.

In Scandinavia, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes still speak much the same language; but less so than before, partly due to the introduction of differing orthographies. Norway had been ruled by Denmark for centuries, and then by Sweden for decades, when in 1853 Ivar Aasen constructed a Norwegian language, with its own orthography, from the rural western dialects of the country. After Norwegian independence in 1905 this language "Nynorsk" became the focus of cultural self-determination; but was resisted by the urban majority in Norway who regarded Nynorsk as rustic and preferred a dialect closer to the Danish of the old ruling élite. Although Norwegian is west Scandinavian, and Danish and Swedish are east Scandinavian, the resulting compromise between Nynorsk and Dano-Norwegian has produced a language which slots in between Danish and Swedish, which themselves have drifted apart over time.

Orthoepic divergence tends to be even greater where a single language is orthographically written down in two scripts. Before the recent conflict in former Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croat was much the same language everywhere it was spoken, despite being transcribed into Cyrillic and Roman script in Serbia and Croatia respectively. However the religious and national polarisation accompanying the war has separated the spoken language to a greater extent by introducing partisan religious terminology, and also by fracturing the integrity of the former Serbo-Croat speech commmunity, thus giving more scope to foreign orthoepic interpretations of the language. Reportedly, the Croats are bringing in words from other languages and coining neologisms, in a deliberate attempt to create a distinct Croat language.

A similar division has taken place between Urdu and Hindi. These two literary languages were derived from colloquial Hindustani and published by the British in Calcutta at the beginning of the 19th Century. Devised for predominately Moslem and Hindu readerships respectively, they were written in Arabic/Persian script with a Persianised vocabulary and Devanagari script with Sanskrit/Prakrit loan words. Hindustani continued as the lingua franca of India, and was promoted as a simplified Hindi-Urdu by Mahatma Gandhi. However, since partition in 1947, the termination of the common national culture has allowed this common spoken tongue to be defined ever more by Moslem and Hindu terminology in Pakistan and India respectively. The situation of an integral speech area being gradually sundered apart as a consequence of the introduction of the same script with different orthographies, or different scripts with the same orthography (or a combination of the two), is one that has occurred many times. The divided parts normally merge themselves into other language groups, unless they themselves become dominant. The ideal compromise of a new shared standard orthography does not seem to have happened much - if at all. However, valuable though such regional affiliations would undoubtedly be, the wider question of integration of all the world's languages is incomparably more important, since the advantage of the part is best served through the advantage of the whole.

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