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Questions and Answers

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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Why do we need orthography?

Imagine if someone told you to write a message to a friend using only number and punctuation symbols. Perhaps you could decide on a way to use these signs to express the sounds of your language. But if you wrote a message using your new ‘alphabet’, how would your friend be able to decode it? The two of you would need to have already agreed on a shared way to use numbers and punctuation signs to write words. That is, you would need to have designed a shared orthography.

Image: JNo

Like a key to a code, an orthography is a standard way of linking the symbols of an alphabet (or other script) to the sounds of a language. Having an orthography means that speakers of the same language can communicate with each other using writing. The shapes of the symbols that we choose don’t matter - what is important is that we understand how those symbols (graphemes) represent the sounds (phonemes) that we use in our spoken language.

Even languages that use the same script have different sounds, and thus different orthographies. The Dutch and English orthographies use symbols of the Roman alphabet, and share many sound-grapheme correspondences - for example, the letters ‘l’ and the sounds ‘l’ in the English word light and the Dutch word licht are pretty much the same. However, the letter ‘g’ stands for a different sound in the English orthography (e.g., in good) than it does in the Dutch orthography (goed). Readers of Dutch or English need to know this in order to link the written word forms to the spoken forms.    

There are different ideas about what makes a ‘good’ orthography. General principles are that it should consistently represent all and only the distinctive sound contrasts in the language, with the fewest possible symbols and conventions. However, few established orthographies stick to this ideal - you only have to look at English spelling to realise that! Compare, for instance, the pronunciations of pint and print. Quirks and inconsistencies in orthographies can also have their own advantages, such as preserving historical information, highlighting cultural affiliations, and supporting dialect variation.

Written by Lila San Roque & Antje Meyer

More information:

Online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages (link)
The Endangered Alphabets Project (link)
Scriptsource: Writing systems, computers and people (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos