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1. a writing system
2. the study of spelling



also spelling, a system of rules that determine the uniformity of the means of representing speech—words and grammatical forms—in writing. Orthography is important to society because a uniform spelling system that disregards individual and dialect differences in pronunciation facilitates the use of the written language. The rules of orthography cover, for example, the ways of representing phonemes and words in letters, the use of capital letters, word division, and the open, solid, or hyphenated spelling of compounds.

In an ideal phonetic writing system, one letter corresponds to a single phoneme and vice versa. In practice, however, breaches of this correspondence can be observed: (1) a letter can represent different phonemes, as in English, where c can represent [s] or [k]; (2) a phoneme can be represented in different ways, as in German, where [f] can be represented by f, ph, or v; (3) a letter can signify a combination of phonemes, as the Russian ia can indicate a combination of [j] and [a]; (4) a phoneme can be represented by a combination of letters, as [ŝ] is represented in German by sch and in Polish by sz; (5) a letter need not represent a phoneme, as in the case of the Spanish h; and (6) some phonemes, such as the vowels in Arabic, are not represented at all in writing. These discrepancies are particularly great in certain languages, for example, English, French, Irish, Tibetan, and Bengali.

A problem of orthography arises when more than one spelling is possible for a given word or form, each spelling justified by a different orthographic principle. The basic principle of a writing system that uses letters to represent sounds is the phonemic principle, by which phonemes are represented according to the conventions of a given alphabet. In Russian, for example, the first vowels in travá (“grass”) and trávy (“grasses”) are represented by the same letter, even though the sounds differ because of the position of the stress. Associated with the phonemic principle is the phonetic principle, by which a letter corresponds to the sound actually pronounced. The phonetic principle is exemplified in the spelling of the Russian prefixes raz-/ras-. Divergence between the spelling and the phonemic or phonetic composition of a word is a characteristic trait of other orthographic principles. The graphic principle is seen in a preference for or an aversion to certain combinations of letters. In Russian, for example, zhi and shi are written instead of zhy and shy; and in French è cannot appear before a double consonant. According to the morphological principle, morphemes are always written one way despite differences in pronunciation. This principle can be observed by juxtaposing the Russian words Evropa (“Europe”) and pan “evropeiskii (“Pan-European”). The etymological principle reflects either the spelling of a language from which a word has been borrowed, as the Russian kollektiv (“collective”) reflects the Latin collectivus, or an older state of a language, as the Russian segodnia (“today”) reflects the older sego d’ne. The traditional principle preserves obsolete, often erroneous, spellings, as with the Russian svidetel’ (“witness”) instead of svedetel’. The differentiating principle serves to distinguish homonyms, such as the French ou (“or”) and où (“where”). Some spellings cause related words to be similar in appearance despite differences in pronunciation, as in the case of the Russian vodá (“water”) and vó dy (“waters”) or god (“year”) and its diminutive and adjectival forms godó k and godovó i Such spellings are characteristic of Russian and may be regarded as phonemic or morphological, depending on what is understood by a phoneme. The orthography of any language utilizes these principles in a given ratio.

The rules of orthography are linked to the grammatical structure of a language, and certain grammatical forms can be indicated or distinguished in writing. In the Russian word rezh’ (“cut”), for example, the’ indicates the imperative. In French, to take another example, number, gender, and personal form that coincide in pronunciation are distinguished in writing, as with aimé (“loved”; masculine singular) and aimées (“loved”; feminine plural), and je park (“I speak”) and tu paries (“you [familiar] speak”).

The history of an orthographic system is connected with the history of a given language’s writing system. In the case of many languages with a long written tradition, such as Russian, and especially in the case of languages that have adapted and modified the alphabet of a different language, such as many Latin-alphabet Western European languages, three periods can be distinguished in the history of orthography. In the first period there is no unified set of orthographic rules. In the second, rules of orthography for the first time become fixed, which is linked to the general standardization of the literary language; this took place in the 16th through 19th centuries in Europe. Printing played an important role in the development of rules of orthography, and later, if no official orthographic rules existed, authoritative dictionaries and grammars were decisive. In the third period the orthography is perfected.

The question of orthography reform became a serious social problem in many countries in the second half of the 19th century, when universal compulsory education was introduced. In the 20th century, orthographic reforms are being carried out in a number of languages for two purposes. The first is to improve the graphic system of a language by eliminating, for example, superfluous letters and introducing needed letters or diacritics. The second is to improve the orthographic rules themselves, usually by replacing traditional and etymological spellings with phonemic, morphological, and phonetic spellings and by standardizing morphological spellings. Improvement of the alphabet and the establishment of orthographic rules for loanwords are especially important in languages with recently devised writing systems.

The first reform in the history of Russian orthography took place in 1918. It eliminated the letters β (iat’), θ(fita), i (i desiatirichnoe), and v (izhitsa) and changed a number of spelling rules, mainly in accordance with the phonetic principle. The basic guide to modern Russian orthography is Rules of Russian Orthography and Punctuation, published in 1956.


Grot, Ia. K. Russkoe pravopisanie, 22nd ed. St. Petersburg, 1916.
Baudouin de Courtenay, I. A. Ob otnoshenii russkogo pis’ma k russkomu iazyku. St. Petersburg, 1912.
Shapiro, A. B. Russkoe pravopisanie, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1961.
Panov, M. V. I vse-taki ona khoroshaia! Moscow, 1964.
Ivanova, V. F. Sovremennyi russkii iazyk: Grafika i orfografiia. Moscow, 1966.
Obzor predlozhenii po usovershenstvovaniiu russkoi orfografii (18–20 vv.). Moscow, 1965.
Études de linguistique appliquée: Orthographe et systè me d’écriture, new series 8. Paris, 1972.



In drafting, a geometrical representation of an elevation or section of a building.
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