Online Orthographies

Online Orthographies

Christiana Themistocleous (University of Manchester, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-773-2.ch020
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The representation in online environments of non-Roman-based script languages has proved problematic. During the initial years of Computer-mediated Communication, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange character set only supported Roman-alphabetic languages. The solution for speakers of languages written in non-Roman scripts was to employ unconventional writing systems, in an effort to represent their native language in online discourse. The first aim of this chapter is to present the different ways that internet users choose to transliterate or even transcribe their native languages online, using Roman characters. With technological development, and consequently the availability of various writing scripts online, internet users now have the option to either use Roman characters or their native script. If the latter is chosen, internet users still seem to deviate from conventional ways of writing, in this case, however, with regards to spelling. The second aim, therefore, is to bring into light recent developments, by looking at the ways that internet users manipulate orthography, to achieve their communicative purposes.
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Ever since the internet became available to the public it has dominated and changed people’s lives in several different ways, by offering convenience, quick exchange of information and contribution to knowledge. With the phenomenal growth of the internet and the emergence of Computer-mediated Communication (henceforth CMC), one area that has attracted the interest of many scholars is how this new technology has influenced the way that people use language. According to Crystal (2001), “the electronic medium, to begin with, presents us with a channel which facilitates and constrains our ability to communicate in ways that are fundamentally different from those found in other semiotic situations” (p. 5).

The internet was developed in the 1960s’ in North America, by the American Defense Department, with the aim to connect organizations and give researchers access to remote computers (Pargman, 1998). At this early stage, due to the fact that this medium of communication was developed in an English-speaking country, the English language was almost exclusively used online. The rapid increase of the internet has promoted its availability to the public and, consequently, its globalization. Danet and Herring (2007) maintain that, according to a recent compilation, conducted by Computer Industry Almanac, the internet was used in 2004 by around one billion individuals around the world. Although still the dominant language, English ceased to be the only language evident online, and nowadays the internet has shifted from being a monolingual to being a multilingual network.

Something that could not have been foreseen by the early planners of the internet was that, due to the increasing popularity and the spread of this medium around the world, languages other than English would begin to emerge online. One limitation for non-English speakers, and particularly for speakers of non-Roman-based script languages, was that they were not able to adequately represent their native language online. The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) character set, which was originally established in the 1960s, was based on the Roman alphabet and only supported a limited number of characters (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

The ASCII character set. Adapted from: Retrieved 11 March 2009


The keyboard of a computer was firstly designed to be used by speakers of English and difficulties for non-English speakers were identified in varying degrees. Pargman (1998) explains that speakers of Swedish, whose writing system contains the letters <å>, <ä> and <ö>, were initially not able to represent these characters in online environments. Warschauer and Donaghy (1997) observed that speakers of Hawaiian had similar difficulties, as their writing system includes a number of diacritic marks, the use of which makes a difference in the meaning of a given lexis (e.g. paÿu ‘soot’, paÿü ‘moist’, and päÿü ‘skirt’). Portuguese writers also had difficulties in rendering diacritics and, according to Jensen (1995), internet users either abandoned them or they replaced them with other diacritic marks that existed in the original ASCII character set. The difficulties were of a greater scale for speakers of languages that are not written in Roman characters, for example Arabic, Greek, East Asian languages, and so on.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Writing system: A set of rules for using one (or more) scripts, to represent human language in written form. Examples of writing systems include the Roman alphabet, the Cyrillic script, the Chinese writing system, the Japanese writing system, and so on.

Romanization: The representation of a written word with Roman characters, where the original word uses a different writing system (or none). Methods of Romanization include transliteration and transcription.

Greeklish: The transliteration of Greek alphabet with Roman characters, frequently used by Greek internet users

Diacritic mark: A mark added to a letter to indicate a special pronunciation (e.g. <ç>, <ñ>, <â>)

Pinyin: A Romanization system for standard Mandarin. This system is taught at elementary level education, before students start learning the Chinese writing system.

Transliteration: the representation of written text (e.g. word or letter) from one writing system into a different writing system

Transcription: the conversion of spoken language (e.g. sounds) into writing

Diglossia: A sociolinguistic situation characterized by the simultaneous use of two language varieties, which are usually in complementary distribution. The High (H) variety is standardized, it is ascribed more prestige and it is used in formal situations and in writing. The Low (L) variety is used in oral informal communication and it, generally, does not have a standard official orthography.

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