Category Archives: Neography

How pervasive is neography, really?

The pundits within us tend to think that spelling has, wholesale, gone down the toilet. Especially on the Internet, nobody can seem to spell correctly. But is that really the case? Let’s not be so dramatic.

Mark Sebba has pointed out a distinction between regulated and unregulated communication spaces, and this continuum is useful for determining the extent to which orthography tends to be flouted in the real world. At one pole, we have printed books, which are heavily edited, in terms of both style and subject matter. At the other end are the completely unregulated spaces, of which graffiti is the most representative. As you can imagine, online social networks tend to fall toward the unregulated end of the spectrum (though we could argue that a service like Twitter is less regulated than Facebook, and that both are much less regulated than LinkedIn).

I think it’s important to point out that the level of regularity of each of these spaces fluxes with each individual interaction. For example, I don’t tweet to strangers in the same way I tweet to friends, and I might take neographic shortcuts in an email to a family member that I wouldn’t to a professor. As we can see, communicative spaces are regulated in terms of social norms and expectations just as much as they are by the characteristics inherent in the platform, such as its history and brand.

So, if you only hang out on Yahoo! Answers, you may well come to the conclusion that the spelling you learned in grade school is dead. But crack open a book every once in a while, and you’ll be able to appreciate that that isn’t the case.

Neography ain’t new

The name neography implies that it refers to a new (neo-) form of writing (-graphy). But the truth is that this is a misnomer: Neography is nothing new. In fact, it’s as old as writing itself.

Mateo Maciá writes in his study on written language that the first Greek writings exhibited tremendous freedom in form, focusing as much on the graphic value of each letter as the phonetic value. Early Greek writers wrote indiscriminately from left to right, from right to left and in bustrophedon, in which a string of characters advances down the page in a zig-zag pattern, with each line alternating between left-to-right and right-to-left. You can read more about this in a recent article on Lexicon Valley that is, in itself, an excerpt of a recent book on written language by Keith Houston.

In time written language saw some standardization (with regard to direction, for example), but each individual writer still had a lot of freedom of visual expression. As I’ve written about before, there are uncountable ways to write each letter, and we each develop our own, unique handwriting scripts as we scribble our way through life.

But when the printing press came along, it squelched this type of individual paragraphemic expression. As Amalia Gnanadesikan writes in The Writing Revolution:

Different people have different handwriting … Individual Mycenaean or Carolingian scribes can still be identified by their work; not so the modern writer. With a single font, the e in one word will look just like the e in the next, no matter who originally authored the individual words. …

Inevitably, there were some who objected to the sterility of the new process. How could the spiritual value of a printed Bible possibly compare to that of one crafted by hand by a praying human soul?

If today’s neography is an attempt to recoup the personality lost in the transition to type, are we seeing a return to the writing of oral culture? In his book, Maciá lists a number of ways that our current writing culture reflects that of before the invention of the printing press:

  • Concept of scroll (which reminds us of scrolls that were around before modern pages)
  • Predominance of copulative sentences instead of subordinations
  • Fixed formulas that are no longer analyzed for their literal meaning (lol, for example)
  • Integration of text and images
  • Homeostasis (dictionaries are consulted less in neographic writing, meaning that words are defined in running context)
  • Multilingualism
  • Change of support (whereas typography has only occurred on paper, other writing has used a myriad of supports)
  • Rewriteability
  • Proliferation of audiovisual communities along with textual communities
  • Predominance of orality in public communication
  • Mobility of information
  • Public (rather than individual) storage of information
  • Lacking policies of control and governance (innovations can surface anywhere)

Clearly we have readopted many aspects of oral culture. But we don’t truly have an oral culture. Our laws are still written, for example, and written contracts are final. And, after all, though our writing does encroach upon speech, it is inarguably still written. So where does that leave us? We’ve got a print culture with many aspects of oral culture—amidst a heterogeneous culture clash.

A new way of writing

We’ve all seen things written around the Internet that seem like veritable Newspeak from Nineteen Eighty-Four. For example, a rather typical (i.e., not extreme) writing sample appears in this Yahoo Answers question:

He tells me he loves me allllll the time and its always very nice things whenever he talks to me. But he always says ” i hope u feel the same way about me”. I feel like my life revolves around him and im not liking it. Someone help me please? :/

As you can see, the user has neglected to employ commas and apostrophes, she doesn’t capitalize in all obligatory cases, she’s created a face using symbols at the end and she’s spelled all with far too many ls. This type of writing—academically called neography—is often criticized for not conforming to the orthographic standards of written English, and many people think that people who write like this are causing the decay of our language itself. Just look at all the grammar nazi Someecards out there.

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But recently, scholars like Mark Sebba and Alexandra Jaffe have shown us that these nonstandard orthographic practices are not naïve; they’re socially conditioned, and they can shed light on speakers’ attitudes and perceptions. Above all, this type of writing demonstrates that a speaker feels their context is not academic or official in any capacity—it’s a place they can flout the orthographic norms of their language and express a particular identity.

For example, in Spanish, the letter k is very rare, but the letter c is very common. Among the Spanish youth, it’s very popular to use k instead of c in unregulated spaces like Twitter and SMS messages.

In “Spelling rebellion,” found in the 2003 book Discourse Constructions of Youth Identities, Mark Sebba points out that this is due to the feeling of otherness that the letter k, in its rarity, evokes. Teens who want to express their own “otherness” may use the letter k to do so. Another example in Spanish is the digraph tx, which is used instead of ch in Basque. Some Spanish speakers have taken to using tx instead of ch in Spanish as well—for example, writing mutxo instead of mucho—to express their Basque origins or align themselves with the Basque ideology. (Although it should be noted that using simply x is much more common than using tx; the use of x is likely tied to the same feeling of otherness that the letter k exhibits.)

In effect, speakers can use neography in written language to express nuances of meaning that they couldn’t before, which is quite remarkable. It becomes a problem, though, when they haven’t yet learned where neography is appropriate and where it is not.

Therefore the “problem” of neography in teen writing should be looked at as an issue of manners, not knowledge.