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The state of research before our project

After the linguists of the 18th and 19th centuries had frequently mixed up letters and sounds and had given preference to the former over the latter, Saussure (1960 [1916]: 45, Introduction, ch. VI, § 2) placed the sound above the letter: Studying written language in order to understand language, he argues, “is as if one believed that, in order to get to know someone, it is better to look at his photograph rather than his face”. Only recently has linguistics begun to recover from this disregard of written language. In the area of formal linguistics, graphematics is now gradually catching up with phonology, but in sociolinguistics, written language is still neglected. The expression “sociolinguistics of writing” was used for the first time just seven years ago (Coulmas 2003: 223–241), although the enormous symbolic power of writing is perfectly well-known (just consider the use of blackletter by Neo-Nazis but also on pub signs, or the demolition of Cyrillic and Latin town signs in the Bosnian War).

Only against this background can the discrepancy between the research conducted on bilingualism – which has been producing concepts like diglossia, code-switching, standard-dialect continuum, etc. – and the neglect of biscriptality be understood. The phenomenon itself was noticed early, though: Pierides (1875: 38) introduced the term digraphic for monuments containing the same text twice in different scripts but in the same language, which had formerly just be called bilinguals; Oppert (1877: 1420) for the first time mentioned whole digraphic languages; and Barth (in Bergaigne 1893: 348) proposed the word digraphism to describe this. However, the emergence of sociolinguistics hardly produced any further progress in this area. This is evident from the terminological chaos: On the one hand there is a multitude of (quasi)synonyms (e.g. digraphia, bigraphism, bialphabetism, multigraphic situation, orthographic diglossia, etc.), and on the other hand the ‘term’ digraphia alone was ‘invented’ independently six times (by Lafont 1971, Zima 1974, Jaquith 1976, Dale 1980, DeFrancis 1984 and Consani 1988/1990), which renders it completely polysemous. Grivelet (2001) edited a first collection of papers on the topic, which, however, does not provide any uniform theoretical framework either.


We apply some basic (socio)linguistic methods to the choice of scripts (thus implementing an idea put forward by Unseth 2005), which enable us to analyse socio-cultural factors influencing this choice and the emergence of biscriptality.

As a result, according to sociolinguistic criteria we distinguish between:

Apart from this sociolinguistic distinction, we also have to differentiate graphematically between scripts (like Cyrillic, Latin, Arabic, etc.), glyphic variants of scripts (like blackletter, roman type and Gaelic type as variants of the Latin script) and orthographies. This is important for the evaluation of cultural exchange within biscriptal speech communities because a text written in a foreign script can be completely unreadable, whereas different orthographies never seriously obstruct communication.

We therefore propose the following scheme of 3 × 3 situation types. (Underneath the proposed terms we give a possible example for each situation.)

script glyphic variant orthography
privative digraphia
medieval Scandinavia:
runes vs. Latin alphabet
Russian (18th/19th c.):
Old Cyrillic vs. civil script
medieval Novgorod:
standard vs. vernacular
equipollent scriptal pluricentricity
Devanagari vs. Arabic
glyphic pluricentricity
Medieval Latin:
Caroline vs. Beneventan
orthographic pluricentricity
color vs. colour etc.
diasituative bigraphism
Cyrillic vs. Latin
German (1749–1941):
blackletter vs. roman type
Belarusian (1980s–2008):
Narkamaŭka vs. Taraškevica

Works cited

Bergaigne, Abel. 1893. Inscriptions sanscrites du Cambodge [edited and commented by Auguste Barth]. Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale et autres bibliothèques 27(1). 293–588.

Consani, Carlo. 1988. Bilinguismo, diglossia e digrafia nella Grecia antica I: Considerazioni sulle iscrizioni bilingui di Cipro. In: Bilinguismo e biculturalismo nel mondo antico: Atti del Colloquio interdisciplinare tenutoa Pisa il 28 e 29 settembre 1987. Ed. Enrico Campanile, Giorgio R. Cardona, Romano Lazzeroni. Pisa: Giardini. 35–60.

Consani, Carlo. 1990. Bilinguismo, diglossia e digrafia nella Grecia antica III: Le iscrizioni digrafe cipriote.Orientamenti linguistici 25. 63–79.

Coulmas, Florian. 2003. Writing systems:An introduction to their linguistic analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dale, Ian R. H. 1980. Digraphia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 26. 5–13.

DeFrancis, John. 1984. Digraphia. Word 35. 59–66.

Fishman, Joshua A. 1965. Who speaks what language to whom and when?, Linguistics 2. 67–88.

Grivelet, Stéphane (ed.). 2001. Digraphia: Writing systems and society. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 150.

Jaquith, James R. 1976. Digraphia in advertising: The public as guinea pig. Visible Language 10(4). 295–308.

Lafont, Robert. 1971. Un problème de culpabilité sociologique: La diglossie franco-occitane, Langue française 9(1). 93–99.

Oppert, Jules. 1877. [Review of] François Lenormant, Études sur quelques parties des syllabaires cunéiformes, Paris 1877; idem, Les syllabaires cunéiformes, Paris 1877. Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen 1877(45–46). 1409–1449.

Pasch, Helma. 2008. Competing scripts: The introduction of the Roman alphabet in Africa. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 191. 65–109.

Pierides, Demetrios. 1875. On a digraphic inscription found in Larnaca. Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 4(1). 38–43.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Ed. Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye. Paris: Payot.

Unseth, Peter. 2005. Sociolinguistic parallels between choosing scripts and languages. Written Language & Literacy 8(1). 19–42.

Zima, Petr. 1974. Digraphia: The case of Hausa. Linguistics 124. 57–69.