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What is Orthography?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Orthography is a humanities discipline concerned with the study of writing systems. Most languages on Earth have at least one orthography, a writing system widely used to represent the language, and some languages are written with more than one writing system, creating several orthographies for people to choose from when communicating in these languages. In addition to studying modern languages, orthographers also look at historic languages and writing systems.

The word “orthography” comes from Greek roots meaning “correct writing.” Many people specifically identify orthography as the study of spelling, although this is a bit inaccurate. Orthographers do study spelling and are especially interested in the commonly accepted spellings used in a language's writing system, but they also study much more than spelling. Spelling is only one aspect of orthography, and it was not very standardized for much of history; even now, there are a number of variations on words which many people think are spelled in only one way.

One aspect of orthography is punctuation, the examination of markings used on the page to add more depth to the text. Punctuation provides information about how a text should be read and interpreted, and can also provide critical insight into meaning. Orthographers are also interested in topics like capitalization and other norms of writing, including natural variations seen in various communities of language speakers.

The study of orthography can be applied in a number of ways. Orthographers can be a valuable part of the teams which put together dictionary entries, researching words to learn more about variant spellings, including historic spellings which are not widely accepted anymore. They also work on books about the history of language and word use, and on guides to language use, including style guides which provide people with information about punctuation, spelling, and other norms of the language.

Orthography is also used in the study of ancient languages. Orthographers are involved in the task of puzzling out ancient scripts, identifying variations in ancient languages, and attempting to trace the history of writing and the ways in which writing systems are adopted and adapted. Another topic of interest is writing systems which are used in several languages, such as the Roman alphabet, and the ways in which these writing systems are adapted and changed to meet the needs of entirely different languages. Things like accent marks and additional letters, for example, may be added for the convenience of speakers of a different language.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon357156 — On Dec 02, 2013

I am going to work and search on the effect of orthography on language teaching, especially English teaching. I would really appreciate if you help me in this regard. Also I am an English teacher, but I am not a native English speaker.

By JessicaLynn — On Jul 07, 2011

@ceilingcat - That's funny that you're so entertained by Spanish punctuation. I have a Spanish speaking friend and she says English punctuation is "boring." Apparently the fact that we don't put any accents over our letters is just so lame!

By ceilingcat — On Jul 07, 2011

I've always been fascinated by that fact that different languages have different punctuation. When I took Spanish in high school I was amazed at how much different punctuation they had. The accents over the letters and the "squiggly n"really delighted me.

I also liked the fact that the question mark appears on both sides of the sentence. I had a hard time training myself to do that when I wrote and remembering to make on upside down though.

By Vegemite — On Jul 06, 2011

@SushiChamp – It’s funny that your user name is “SushiChamp”, because Japanese is one language that has several orthographies. I don’t speak Japanese, but I’m an anime fan, so I’ve studied the language a little bit.

There are three official Japanese orthographies:

Katakana - Used for writing scientific terms and words borrowed from other languages

Hiragana – The most commonly used Japanese orthography

Kanji – Based on borrowed Chinese characters; Its use in decline

There is also an unofficial Japanese orthography called Romaji. Romaji is created by spelling out the Japanese characters phonetically, using roman characters. It’s very helpful when a native English speaker is trying to learn Japanese.

You’ll also see Romaji on subtitled anime series, during the opening and closing theme songs, so you can sing along.

By SushiChamp — On Jul 05, 2011

The article says that some languages can be written in several different orthographies. I’ve never seen a language like that. Can someone give me an example of one that exists today, if there are any?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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