Home > 88. The Quaggas of Creativity, 9. The Alphabet & Redefining Intelligence > What’s in an Orthograph? Or, Why Does Scottish Gaelic Use All Those “Infuriating” Spellings?

What’s in an Orthograph? Or, Why Does Scottish Gaelic Use All Those “Infuriating” Spellings?

File:Flann for Érinn.png

Ya gotta love the gorgeousness of this penmanship…the superb and cadenced use of space, the wonderful letterforms, the cumulative texture of the writing all (doubtless) complement the poetry of the language. This is reading at its best.

That is, if you can read the language. Unfortunately, the art of reading is not an easy one to learn…great scholars go to their graves admitting they only scratched the surface of knowledge and beauty. Orthography, the standardized alphabet, spelling, and punctuation used to record a language, is too often one of the culprits in cheating people of the delights of reading a foreign language. Or could it be that one man’s infuriation is another man’s delight? Or, to put it again, How is it that the orthography of a language develops?

In the first place, orthography is helpful; it greatly eases the interpretation of a text by practiced readers. Orthography can be broadly divided into rules concerning spelling and copy style. Let’s look at each.

1) Spelling. Ideally, spelling with an alphabet would perfectly reproduce the sounds a speaker makes when talking. But this is rarely the case. Usually, a language’s alphabet has been adopted from another language, as is the case with the English alphabet, which was adapted from the Roman alphabet (which was in turn adapted from the Phoenician alphabet via the Greek alphabet). One might not be surprised to find, then, that English has a highly non-phonemic spelling–one that requires brute memorization and practice to master.

File:Codex Sinaiticus Matthew 6,4-32.JPG

But even when one has mastered spelling, however phonemic and intuitive it may be, there is still the issue of finding word breaks and other pauses and stops in a text of run-on words, such as the page from the Codex Sinaiticus at right. The masterful penmanship and open format of this book have made it a standard for design and legibility–even if it’s hard to pick out the words.

2) Copy Style. This is a medieval development; those monks knew a thing or two. At last the reader has the benefit of word breaks, commas, and periods to speed the process of reading. One gets the sense that reading was becoming a more frequent occurrence and that texts were getting longer. Increasingly, the scribe (or, as we would say, the publisher) was expected to provide the copy editing required to make a book read easily.

But consistency in the use of the maturing orthographies did not exist. (That is, spelling and copy style proved complex enough to become arts in their own right–a situation that has never quite disappeared.)

Then, in the 1450s, the Guttenbergs invented movable type.

File:Gutenberg bible Old Testament Epistle of St Jerome.jpg

By 1500, writing and reading (at least of certain books and languages) had become widespread enough to be matters of regulation, both political and academic. Universities and, in some countries, language academies were appearing–rules were being issued. Spellings and punctuation became standardized (however haphazardly).

And then, in Europe, people began having an even more seditious idea–that anyone should be able to read the Bible. Modern publishing had arrived, a revolution that produced the King James Bible (translation complete, 1611) and even its own martyrs, among them, William Tyndale (1492-1536), the man whose translation of the Bible into English has arguably proven the most influential on English language and culture.

But whatever happened to Scottish Gaelic orthography? These are the hard facts: the New Testament in SG was not published until 1767 and a complete SG Bible, until 1801. And SG orthography was not standardized until the late 1970s! When we add a further consideration–SG spelling is based on word-histories, not consistency or simplification, then we begin to understand why Scottish Gaelic reads more like a poem and less like a text book. Beauty rears its ugly head, getting in the way of communicating information and widespread circulation. Here is the most seditious thought of all: maybe Scottish Gaelic orthography has something to teach us English speakers…

But that sounds like the start of another post.    RT

Photo: Opening lines of the poem Flann for Érinn (Flann over Ireland); written by Máel Mura Othna (died 887) in praise of Flann Sinna. From the Leabhar Mór Leacain (Book of Lecan), Royal Irish Academy manuscript RIA MS 23 P 2, folio 296 v. (The work was written some time between 1397 and 1418. Scribe Adam ó Cuirnín copied the manuscript on the instruction of Gilla Isa Mor mac Donnchadh MacFhirbhisigh). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Middle Photo: Codex Sinaiticus, page with text of Matthew 6:4-32. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Bottom Photo: The Guttenberg Bible, opening page (The Epistle of St. Jerome). Wikipedia; Public Domain.

  1. January 14, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Well, that’s a little more clear….. Rather shocking that the standardis/zation was so recent!

    • January 14, 2013 at 10:37 pm

      SL: this post got a bit sidetracked by the history of orthography; i wonder if the unusual spellings of Gaelic languages have anything to do with the use of the Ogham alphabet…another research question in the growing pile… RT

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