Spelling and society: The culture and politics of orthography around the world

Mark Sebba. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xix + 189.

Reviewed by Jing Zhao
Sun Yat-sen University
Guangzhou, China

Spelling and Society by Mark Sebba provides a systematic and coherent socio-cultural conceptual framework within which research on spelling can be conducted. The purpose of the book is to introduce new ways of looking at and thinking about orthography (p. 9). Researchers and graduate students interested in studying writing systems from a socio-cultural and historical perspective will find this pioneering work a helpful resource.

Spelling and Society contains descriptions of multiple issues involved in orthography development and a plethora of cases concerning establishing and reforming orthographic conventions. The book has seven chapters alongside an introduction. In the introduction, Sebba identifies a lack of research in socio-cultural aspects of spelling and calls for viewing orthography as social practice (p. 9).
In chapter 1, Sebba defines and distinguishes key terms such as writing systems, orthography, scripts and spelling. Also in the first chapter, Sebba establishes the theoretical foundation of the book by contrasting two opposing models, the socio-cultural model and the autonomous model. The socio-cultural model, the author explains, is based on Gee s (1990) framework of New Literacy Studies which supports the notion that orthographies are situated in social contexts. The autonomous model, on the other hand, is detached from the socio-cultural context, and it considers phonemic orthography as more scientific than logographic orthographies.

In chapter 2, Sebba emphasizes the practice approach of literacy. He clarifies how different regimes of orthography (e.g., published texts, personal emails, SMS text messaging and graffiti) serve as symbols for social meaning. He concludes the chapter with two case studies of orthography as a social practice: the Spanish K and the language of Ali G website.
Sebba explains in chapter 3 the role bilinguals have in shaping orthographies. In the case of writing systems such as Manx, Sranan Tongo and modern English, for example, he explains that literate bilinguals bring new writing conventions from their first language, which influence how they write their second language.
Chapter 4 illustrates how post-colonial changes experienced by many language communities are associated with national identity and language ideology and how orthographic changes can be a symbolic rejection of colonial mastery (p. 90). Sebba also addresses attitudes toward borrowing of words in this chapter inasmuch as the acceptance of loan vocabulary is arguably at the heart of colonial relationships between powerful and less powerful languages (p. 96).

Chapter 5 introduces five problems for the orthography of unstandardized languages: (1) representing the voices of vernacular users, (2) transcribing colloquial languages, (3) keeping orthographic rules invariant while allowing optionality, (4) presenting dialect differences, and (5) symbolizing distance and the distinction between standardized and unstandardized forms. According to Sebba, while unstandardized forms may be deviant from the standard forms, they can also be systematic on their own.

Chapter 6 discusses issues and challenges related to the reform of an already established orthography. Sebba argues that it is uncommon to replace or even modify an established orthography because of certain social, economic, and linguist reasons. The chapter also illustrates different fields of discourses that are usually part of the orthographic reform, such as modernization, cultural heritage, conformity, and pedagogy.

The concluding chapter, chapter 7, reiterates the message that spelling is not merely a skill users of a certain script need to master. Instead, it can also be a signifier of social identity, a marker of language ideology, and even a symbol of political or religious power.
In this book, Sebba summarizes an impressive number of cases and examples of orthographic development and reforms. One shortcoming that arises as a result is the overuse of block citations; though useful, they interrupt the flow of the otherwise elegantly written text. Readers who lack technical knowledge of worldwide orthographies may also miss the details contained in the many examples Sebba provides. Nevertheless, Spelling and Society makes a significant contribution to sociolinguistics and literacy studies as one of the most comprehensive works on social perspectives of spelling and orthography, a largely neglected research area. Therefore, the book deserves serious attention from researchers and graduate students who might be interested in writing systems research from a socio-cultural orientation.

Gee, J. P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. New York: Routledge.