Spelling and the ongoing standardization of written norms

by John Bellamy

There have been a number of developments in recent months with regard to orthographic norms and standards in written language. The Institut d'Estudis Catalans (IEC) ratified a new set of spelling norms last October, which gave rise to heated debates over changes to the usage of accents (in terms of the diacritic). This January witnessed the death of 111-year old Zhou Youguang, who had played a pivotal role in the development of Pinyin, used for depicting Chinese characters using the Latin alphabetic script. One of the particularly valuable functions of Pinyin is for the teaching of Standard Chinese and a structured, clear, standardized set of writing criteria can be incredibly helpful in the language-learning process.

Norms for writing and orthography commonly emerge as a stage in the process of a language's standardization. In the case of English, for example, this occurred relatively early on in the standardization of language (Nevalainen 2003: 138). Although attempts at standardizing spelling might seem relatively innocuous when compared to top-down changes to grammar (for example, whether to use different from or different to (cf. Milroy and Milroy 2012: 14)) or to official rules changing the accepted order for saying numbers, when spelling reforms take place they can arouse fierce debates. Nicola McLelland has already commented in an earlier blog post on the Je Suis Circonflexe dispute and for German the most recent spelling reform began in 1996, then ended up taking at least ten years (Johnson 2005).

Decisions on spelling can frequently become political. Luxembourgish - the national language of Luxembourg – underwent multiple spelling reforms in the twentieth century. Luxembourg is officially a trilingual country (French, German and Luxembourgish) and an early spelling reform in 1914 made use of German as the predominant model for the new orthography. Following the Nazi-German occupation during the Second World War, a subsequent spelling reform in 1946 expressly avoided 'German-style' characters (for example, ä and ß). However, this sweeping change was felt to be too drastic and ultimately never caught on, leading to a compromise for the system developed for a new Luxembourgish dictionary compiled over a 27-year period (from 1950-1977). After a minor overhaul in 1999, this is more or less the same orthographic system in use for Luxembourgish today (Gilles 2015).

So even for a language with fewer than 400,000 speakers (UNESCO 2012), there can be an intriguingly high number of debates about spelling norms, leading to reforms and counter-reforms. However, hefty and focused deliberations about spelling norms sometimes go beyond earthly languages. A fluent speaker of Na'vi, the language spoken on the moon Pandora in the film Avatar, has been inventing new languages for the forthcoming online game Star Citizen. This specialist in constructed languages and 'xenolinguistics' has had to devise a whole new written script for the languages of Vanduul and Xi'an, which are spoken and written by the aliens encountered by the game's players. One of the goals of this undertaking is to ensure that the resultant linguistic forms can still be reproduced by the human actors providing the alien voice-overs and by fans who will want to learn the languages for themselves. So even in this scenario, there is an emphasis on clarity, ease of learning and standardized forms, bringing us back to the general aims of spelling reforms and learner-friendly writing systems like Pinyin. Although confined to the terrestrial bounds of this planet, Strand 2 of the MEITS project explores standard languages and norms in a range of linguistic situations, looking at both written and spoken varieties in a comparative context.


Gilles, P. 2015. 'From Status to Corpus: Codification and Implementation of Spelling Norms in Luxembourgish'. In: Davies, W. and Ziegler, E. (eds) Language Planning and Microlinguistics. From Policy to Interaction and Vice Versa. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 128-149.

Johnson, S. 2005. Spelling Trouble? Language, Ideology and the Reform of German Orthography. Cleveland: Multilingual Matters.

Milroy, J. and Milroy, L. 2012. Authority in Language. Investigating Standard English (4th edition). London/New York: Routledge.

Nevalainen, T. 2003. 'English'. In: Deumert, A. and Vandenbussche, W. (eds) Germanic Standardizations. Past to present. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 127-156.

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