Orthography is how a language is expressed in written form, with the symbols, punctuation, decisions on where to break words and where to join them together, and so on. It draws from linguistics, literacy and education, and sociopolitics. Though orthographies of different languages may resemble each other, each language needs to have an orthography based on that particular language.

The focus of these pages is to provide resources to help on-the-ground language workers and researchers to devise an orthography for a previously-unwritten language, or to help revise an existing orthography which is deficient in some way. Governmental officials and scholars of academic orthography studies may find useful information here as well. Since its founding in 1934, SIL has been involved in developing orthographies, and to date has helped develop these in over 1300 languages.

Orthographies can be simple or complex, depending on the sounds and structure of the language in question, but also depending on the social and political factors in play. To be effective, an orthography must be acceptable to the people who will use it, and also usable, in terms of characters matching the sounds of the language.

This comprehensive but not exhaustively detailed checklist of factors to assess and activities to do will be helpful to refer to in beginning an orthography project.

An excellent recent book for understanding both sociopolitical and technical factors in orthographies is "Developing Orthographies for Unwritten Languages”

These pages link to valuable articles and books. Some materials are listed under multiple headings, since they cover multiple topics or geographic areas.



Checklist of factors to consider


For questions, comments, or suggestions, contact orthography_services@sil.org.