Orthographic relativity: Comparing the relation between literacy and normativity across writing systems and literate cultures


Writing has shaped humankind in fundamental social, cognitive, and linguistic ways, having developed into such a central and versatile tool in daily routines that in literate communities, life without it appears almost unthinkable. As a research subject, however, writing had long been relegated to the margins of modern linguistics by leading paradigms of the field (such as structuralism) as spoken language was declared the primary – and often only ‘worthy’ – subject of investigation. With the international advent of an interdisciplinary grapholinguistics, this situation is slowly changing and questions of writing and literacy are being given their due. In this context, especially the relation between structural and sociolinguistic aspects remains understudied although their intersection lays bare a phenomenon at the core of modern societies: linguistic normativity. It is the focus of this project, whose main goal is to explore the influence that literacy (especially orthographically curtailed forms of it) exerts on structural, pragmatic, and metapragmatic manifestations of linguistic normativity. This entails research questions such as: How does the structure of languages (and specifically their writing systems) give rise to variation and foster (or require) certain regulation (especially in the form of orthographic standardization)? In a next step, how are the languages and their writing systems socio-politically regulated? How does normativity affect users’ literacy practices, and could it even be inherent to them? At a metalevel, how do users think and communicate about these practices and normativity in particular, and to what degree are their attitudes and beliefs shaped by normativity, the respective writing system that they use, as well as the literate culture they were socialized in?

Underlying these questions is the assumption that the diverse writing systems we have come to use influence our (different) perceptions of language, a phenomenon that is referred to as graphic relativity. In the proposed project, and following the mentioned questions, a specific facet of graphic relativity at the interface of structural linguistics and sociolinguistics is systematically investigated: How do the diverse structures of different writing systems influence – or even constitute – normative categories that their users employ in conceptualizing and evaluating as ‘(in)correct’ or ‘(in)appropriate’ not only literacy practices but possibly language and communicative practices in general (i.e., also spoken and signed ones)? What is the nature of these normative categories and how do they differ in typologically distinct writing systems as well as cross-culturally? This subtype of graphic relativity can be termed orthographic relativity.

To achieve an informative comparison, three writing systems and associated literate cultures have been selected: German, Japanese and Norwegian. Structurally, the writing systems of German and Norwegian are alphabets (i.e., segmental phonographic systems), while Japanese represents a complex mixture of mainly syllabographic (i.e., non-segmental phonographic) and morphographic components. Thus, through the choice of these systems, three types of typologically distinct graphematic relations (phonemic, syllabic, and morphemic) are included and tested for how they affect normative categories. Furthermore, while German and Norwegian use Roman script (with respective modifications), Japanese uses a mixture of kana, Chinese-derived kanji, and Roman script romaji; these scriptural differences – and with them, material aspects of writing – will also be considered. Sociolinguistically, the choice of the three literate cultures is motivated by the presence of different features that are expected to shape how normativity is dealt with: pluricentricity (in the case of German), diglossia (in the case of Norwegian but also German), the influence of other writing systems (in the case of Japanese), unevenly spread (ortho)graphic knowledge due to the complexity of the writing system (also in Japanese), to name only a few. Thus, while the sociolinguistic conditions surrounding the selected writing systems and their embedding in literate cultures will not cover all possible situations, they provide a first overview of reoccurring general constellations surrounding literacy.

The project is divided into two parts. In the (1) theoretical part, the focus is, firstly, on a (1a) structural analysis of the selected writing systems and, secondly, on a characterization of (1b) sociolinguistic conditions surrounding literacy – especially orthographic regulation – in the associated literate cultures. The goal of this theoretical part is to carve out the structural prerequisites for orthographic standardization and to complement and merge these with sociolinguistic perspectives to attain a multidimensional picture of different types of orthographic regulation. This serves as a basis for the (2) empirical part, in which two methods are adopted to study how literacy affects and is affected by linguistic normativity. For metapragmatic aspects, (2a) sociolinguistic language-biographical interviews will be conducted with the aim of eliciting ideologies – including attitudes and beliefs – regarding literacy, normativity, and their interaction. Complementary online (2b) discourse analyses will be carried out to examine how different aspects of linguistic normativity are negotiated in varying contexts and through diverse scribal practices, thus covering both pragmatic and metapragmatic aspects.

In sum, the multiperspective comparative approach adopted in this project will shed light on the conditions and discourses surrounding both literacy and normativity as two pillars of society. It is expected that its findings can be operationalized to solve practical problems of socio-political relevance. Specifically, since the comparative analysis of the literate public’s ideologies and attitudes towards normativity and orthography elucidate the complex and multifaceted phenomenon of orthography as a central cornerstone of language policy, insight is provided into both the perceived and real effects of orthographic regulation; this is highly valuable, for example, for the planning and implementation of future orthography (or in general language) reforms that in the past have often fueled controversy.

Projektleitung: Dr. Dimitrios Meletis, BA BA MA MA
Finanzierung: ÖAW, APART-GSK-Programm
Laufzeit: September 2023 – laufend

The Characters that shaped the Silk Road

A Database and Digital Paleography of Tarim Brahmi

From the 2nd century CE on, Buddhist communities and monasteries developed along the trade routes of the ancient Silk Road in and around the Tarim Basin in today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. These were centers of writing, copying, translating, and transmitting texts similar to the monasteries in medieval Europe.

The old Indo-European languages Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Saka were the major languages of the monasteries in the Tarim Basin. The most important writing system these languages were written in was a special Central Asian variety of the Indian Brahmi script. The earliest material written in this Tarim Brahmi is among the oldest attested Buddhist texts. Most of the material written in Tarim Brahmi is scattered over different editions and not digitally searchable.

It is the goal of the project to make all texts written in Tarim Brahmi available to paleographic investigation in an online database.

The project centers on the question of who wrote what, when, where, and how. These classical issues of paleography so far can only be applied to a small portion of the material or have only been addressed rudimentarily.

The project aims at answering these questions by means of a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. The database will combine linguistic, philological, and paleographic data. It will directly link the texts with their digital images. This will make it possible to search for specific characters, ligatures, and words in the entire corpus. Additionally, the quantifiable features of all characters, ligatures, and words will be extracted and compared using software tools. This will, for the first time, make it possible to identify scribes, scribal schools, as well as regional and diachronic variants of Tarim Brahmi.

Almost all texts of the languages written in Tarim Brahmi are in a fragmentary state. Therefore, one of the most important results of the project will be that the countless smaller fragments will be able to be joined together based on objective paleographic criteria. The new texts, contexts, and word forms will lead to new linguistic and philological insights for Sanskrit, Tocharian, and Saka.

Since the paleography will also shed light on the dating and localization of texts it will provide new perspectives on regional, social, and diachronic layers of the languages and texts. This will in turn elucidate the relationship between languages and texts, which will provide insights into the origin and evolution of literacy along the Silk Road and have important consequences for the understanding of the transmission of Buddhism in Central Asia and, from there, to China.

Projektleitung: Hannes A. Fellner
Bernhard Koller, Martin Braun
Kollaboration: Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities (ACDH), Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (ÖAW)
Finanzierung: FWF, START Programm
Laufzeit: Februar 2018 – laufend