OT: Sociolinguistics and orthography

From: brian@gael-image.com
Date: Fri Mar 19 2004 - 11:16:05 EST

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    I have a confession to make. I don't really care, personally, about the whole
    dotted-i vs. undotted-i thing. When I write Irish, I use Roman typefaces and
    the standardized orthography. The real reason that I have tried to sustain this
    argument is my interest in the relationship between orthography and identity.

    Marion Gunn raised a question which I'd paraphrase as, How can continuance of
    dotless-i be guaranteed in Irish texts? By "guarantee," I take this to mean in
    all representations regardless of font selection--i.e., the underlying form vs.
    the surface form. In the ensuing discussion, this question was not answered.
    Instead, the question itself was dismissed as irrelevant and declared

    Who decides what characters (not glyphs) are part of a language and/or an

    In the Irish context, as everybody knows, this has been a contentious issue.
    When the Gaelic League and other traditionalists objected to the spelling
    reforms formally proposed in 1931, experts like Aodh De Blácam characterized
    those positions as ignorant. De Blácam wrote, "Purists who wish to load every
    Irish word with a burden of fossil letters find small support among REAL
    authorities" (Emphasis mine).(1)

    In the 1970s, work was done to standardize Sámi orthographies. In the Skolt
    case, all of the normalized data was pulled from one dialect, which prompted
    objections from speakers of the smaller dialects. As Zita McRobbie-Utasi points
    out that "this resistance was intended to emphasize identity…and (slow) down
    the standardization process aimed at codification and elaboration of the
    dialect chosen.”(2) McRobbie-Utasi’s greater concern, however, was the
    contention that “Skolt Sámi speakers themselves should decide what orthographic
    symbols they should use and which linguistic forms are truly representative of
    the language,” which, it seemed, she viewed as an obstacle to language planning

    Finally, Steven Bird has also written about orthography and identity in
    Cameroon.(3) He concluded that enduring orthographic innovations are those that
    take account of "sociolinguistic and political realities, and the various layer
    of identity referenced by orthography."

    My point in presenting all of this is to try to demonstrate that Marion's
    concerns are perfectly normal. They are not extreme, irrational, or ignorant.

    Furthermore, contrary to what John Cowan said about selection of a hypothetical
    Gaelic "g" not making sense, I suggest that not only does it make sense but you
    can bet your bottom dollar that people will use alternative characters that
    have the preferred underlying form. It's not necessary that they won't be aware
    of or understand the character-glyph distinction. It's that their own concerns
    will be of greater priority. People aren't computers. They don't execute
    programs. They engage in behavior that's meaningful to them--standards by

    I'm not suggesting that this is necessarily a good thing. I am suggesting that
    developers of the Unicode standard need to consider these issues and devise
    creative solutions. The only affirmative answer I saw to Marion's questions was
    that OpenType may soon support alternative characters for diffrerent languages.
    Furthermore, when a guest on this discussion list asks a question of a
    sociolinguistic nature, that question should not be dismissed with
    authoritarian, positivist, expert answers. Questions such as these ARE a matter
    for dispute, because this is a public list and we're not all experts.

    (1) Aodh De Blácam, Gaelic Literature Surveyed, Originally published in 1929.
    New York: Barnes and Noble (1974): 4-5.

    (2) Zita McRobbie-Utasi, "Language Planning, Literacy and Cultural Identity: The
    Skolt Sami Case," Linguistics. Series A, Studia et Dissertationes 17. Zur Frage
    der uralischen Schriftsprachen. 31-39. 1995.

    (3) Steven Bird, “Orthography and Identity in Cameroon,” Written Language and
    Literacy 4:2 (1991):131-162.
    <http://www.ldc.upenn.edu/sb/home/papers/00001446/00001446.html> (March 6,

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