Časopis Slovo a slovesnost
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Graphemics and/or its orthography as a distinctive feature of any literate social group

Sáva Heřman



Grafémika a pravopis jako distintivní rys každé společenské skupiny užívající písma; pragmatické důsledky

Man as an animal is studied primarily by the zoologist and the biologist, man as a talking animal is studied primarily by the anthropologist (and the anthropological linguist) and man as a talking and writing animal primarily by the sociologist of language. Whereas the social organization of animals is mainly instinctive and genetically transmitted, that of man is largely learned and transmitted verbally: ”The word ’history’ is usually applied only to those events for which there is some documentation; on the other hand chains of events and their descriptions that stretch beyond the epoch in which such documentation (sometimes traditional – oral) exists are usually called ’prehistory’” (Zgusta, 1991, p. 2)… ”Our inquiries are usually reported, so that Aristotle in his Rhetoric can speak about the ’histories’ of those who write about events’” (Zgusta, 1992, p. 1).

However, there exist general differences between literate and non–literate societies: writing establishes a different kind of relationship between the word and its referent, a relationship that is more general and more abstract, and less closely connected with the particularities of person, place and time, than is obtained by oral communication. At the same time, the written functions as a link between the past and the present (”historical memory”) and manifests its tendency towards language conservativism (in orthography – as in English, in morphology – as in Czech).

Any social group – ethnic, tribal, national, etc. – tends to emphasize those distinctive features which ought to be differentiated enough from each other, most often in order to distinguish itself from the neighbouring cognate group. Such distinction is reflected in many directions: in ideology and – no less importantly – in literary language, i. e. in both cultivated spoken and written forms of language. This tendency manifests itself specifically: the resemblances with the neighbouring language may be more or less suppressed, the more original but distant ”source orthography” begins to be used, as is the case with ”latinization” in English orthography in the Elizabethan age (Pei, 1962).

Another aspect of any writing system must be emphasized: feedback dynamics between the written and the spoken (Daneš, 1992). In any language with a long written tradition this developed in a specific way depending on both external and internal factors (language structure). Some curious analogous, maybe general, tendencies are observable in such geographically and genetically distant languages as English and Chinese. The English writing system being alphabetical in principle, is in many respects analogous to a totally different system: the grapheme–to–morpheme system, called logographic or morphemographic, such as it is represented by the Chinese characters. The language structure of an ”analytic” /”polysynthetic” language respectively – English/Chinese – differs substantially from that of a synthetic (inflectional) language. A different typological and phonetic structure of the language discards various alternations, affixes and grammatical categories, but, on the other hand, it creates new difficulties unknown in the so–called synthetic language or in a language whose writing system is based on the principle of correspondence between sound and phoneme (Trnka, 1988, p. 140; cf. Pei, 1962, p. 59). English has an abundance of lexical synonymy, polysemy and, especially, oral and graphemic homonymy. This tendency also distances its written form from the spoken form. ”There are two different English languages – the spoken and the written” (Trnka, 1988, p. 130). To record 46 English phonemes 104 graphemes are needed (Wijk, 1966, p. 13).

Morphonemic alternations are preserved by means of ghost–graphemes (e. g., g, n, [179]p): paradigm/paradigmatic, damn/damnation, receipt/reception.

Two or more different items (entries) have [1] the same sound (homophones) or [2] the same written form (homographs): [1] meat n ’flesh of an animal’; meet vt ’to confront’ etc., vi ’to come together’, etc., n ’coming together of a number of people’; meet vt ’to allot’. The number of homophones is estimated at about 500 (Nosek, 1977): [2] lead1 n ’soft metal’; lead2 n ’first position’, ’cord’, etc., vt, vi ’to guide’, etc.

In Chinese – a language with a distinctly autonomous written system – the percentage of homophones exceeds two third parts of the 2000 monosyllabic entries in a medium–sized dictionary (cf. Vochala, 1968): huì1 ’can’, huì2 ’to meet’, huì3 ’a bribe’, huì4 ’to transfer, to endorse’, huì5 ’complex, collection’, etc.

The frequent occurrence of homophones and homographs (the latter being relatively high in Chinese as a result of the recent script reform in the People’s Republic of China) is not the only analogous phenomenon in both writing systems. ”A somewhat funny but useful German expression Deckmantelorthographie ’cover–up orthography’ describes precisely another one. It is used for spelling systems that hide differences, e. g. dialectal ones, in pronunciation, thereby creating a unified written form, or written koine, for several varieties. For instance, in English the written form is the same for the sometimes vastly different pronunciations of the American, Australian, British, and Scots varieties, to mention only a few.” … ”Chinese has many similarities with English and the unitary ”Deckmantel” script and orthography is one of them. Indeed, one can say that the Chinese script is the strongest ’cover–up’ writing system (in this sense of the word) in the realm of natural languages” (Zgusta, 1992, p. 5).

In addition, another analogous feature can be noted: the perception of written text (the reading) in both languages can be interpreted by developmental psychology. Both brain hemispheres (and the right predominantly) handle stimuli of a non–verbal character – as visual images, associations, memories, intonation, etc. The code of the right hemisphere is analogical, i. e. the distinctions being expressed simultaneously, by means of transition, i. e. more:less. In decoding Chinese characters (and partly English spelling) it is the right hemisphere that is predominantly engaged. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, is usually (mostly with right–handed people) specialized for speech perception, consequently it is able to decode morphological and phonological graphemics. In decoding, the digital code (i. e. + : –) is used (Drvota, 1979). The case of decoding English spelling is rather specific: its perception may be shared by both hemispheres – as follows from the studies of injured left–handed people and those with left–handed relatives (cf. Bever, 1992).

Languages whose writing systems closely follow the sound of their spoken form engage only the left (verbal) brain hemisphere for both encoding and decoding of their writing systems. This is the case of many European languages, especially of those spoken (and written) in former Yugoslavia, where consequential phonological orthography is applied. One of these languages has many names: Serbocroatian, Serbian, Croatian, etc. From a strictly linguistic point of view it is one language, from the sociolinguistic one there exist at least two literary languages – and, as the result of recent events – maybe more. The spoken forms (dialects) in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are fairly well intelligible, and structurally practically identical with slight lexical differences. Historically, however, at least four basically different sociocultural communities developed. In three of them (the eastern and central area – central Serbia, Monte Negro and Bosnia) a non–literate community survived up to the beginning of the 20th century. In such a society consistency between past and present and the existence of any kind of historical myth is favoured: defeat in a vanished past (e. g. the battle of Kosovo – 1389) is interpreted as victory, ethnic (= tribal) cleansing as national necessity, etc.

In the western part of this area (Croatia, and the western part of Bosnia) the more literate community (using practically the same language) was being gradually dominated [180]by feelings of alleged humiliation propagated by a massive mass–media campaign. The two orthographies of one linguistic structure, far from unifying the written form, make the difference seem even greater than it is in regional or literary pronunciation. Orthography gradually turned into one of the most distinctive features and mutually it is regarded as an ideological weapon.

Different language, its different writing, different religion or different national faith and myths can play a destructive role. The misuse of language was truthfully described by A. Koestler:

”… Man’s deadliest weapon is language. He is as susceptible to being hypnotized by slogans as he is to infectious diseases. And when there is an epidemic, the group mind takes over. It obeys its own rules of conduct of individuals. When a person identifies himself with a group, his reasoning faculties are diminished and his passions enhanced by a kind of emotive resonance or positive feedback. The individual is not a killer, but the group is, and by identifying with it the individual is transformed into a killer.”

Koestler does not make any distinction between spoken and written forms of language. I have tried to show that written language may be equally as dangerous as its spoken counterpart.




Bever, T.: Cf. Sh. Brownlee, The southpaw’s secret semantics. In: U. S. News and World Report, 24. 2. 1992, p. 66.

Daneš, Fr.: Feedback dynamics between spoken and written. In: Writing vs. Speaking. Abstracts. Conference – Prague, Oct. 14–16, 1992, p. 11.

Drvota, S.: Od zvířete k člověku. Panorama, Praha 1979, s. 303–304.

Koestler, A.: JANUS. A Summing up. New York 1978, p. 15.

Nosek, J.: Grafika moderní angličtiny. SPN, Praha 1977, s. 75–82.

Pei, M.: The Story of English. New York 1962.

Trnka, B.: Kapitoly z funkční jazykovědy – Studies in Functional Linguistics. UK, Praha 1988.

Vochala, J.: On the nature of Chinese characters. In: Charles University on Far Eastern Studies. UK, Prague 1968, p. 121.

Wijk, A.: Rules of Pronunciation for the English Language. Oxford 1966.

Zgusta, L.: The polysemy of ”history”. In: Lexicographica, 7/1991. Tübingen 1991.

Zgusta, L.: History and its multiple meaning. In: History, Languages and Lexicographers. Tübingen 1992.



Grafémika a pravopis jako distinktivní rys každé společenské skupiny užívající písma; pragmatické důsledky

Grafémika působí ambivalentně: upevňuje kohezivní vazby uvnitř dané společenské skupiny (v dnešní konvenční nomenklatuře „národa”), ale zároveň může zdůrazňovat skutečné nebo fiktivní rozdíly mezi mluvčími blízkých nebo identických jazykových struktur. Rozbor grafémiky konkrétních jazyků a její konfrontace vede ke konstatování obecněji platných tendencí a analogických rysů (angličtina : čínština). Ideologické zneužití jazyka, této „nejnebezpečnější zbraně člověka” (Koestler), v jeho ústní, a zvláště psané podobě, se projevuje v současné době mj. v areálu jihoslovanských jazyků.

Filozofická fakulta Univerzity Karlovy

Slovo a slovesnost, ročník 54 (1993), číslo 3, s. 178-180

Předchozí František Čermák: Lexis in spoken and written language

Následující Milada Hirschová: On the repertory of the communicative functions and their materialization in primarily spoken vs. written texts