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Linguistics is crucial in determining what sounds need to be represented in an orthography, but there are other factors, often socio-political, which turn out to be equally important for acceptance of the orthography. Besides the below, see the section on SOCIOLINGUISTICS.
It is axiomatic that a starting point, at least, for an orthography is a result of discovering what contrasts there are in the language, traditionally called phonemes. Though other factors often come into play, the assumption is that each phoneme should be symbolized differently than any other phoneme, since a different phoneme will entail a change of meaning. Besides an outside linguist analyzing the language, a workshop approach that takes advantage of native speaker intuition can also be used to determine the phonemes (see COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION AND WORKSHOPS) Also, in cases where there are alternations of sounds as a result of phonological rules, it is good to specifically consider the issue of PHONOLOGICAL DEPTH, listed below.
Words that are borrowed into a language can have sounds that the host language does not have. Sometimes these sounds are changed into a near-equivalent sound in the host language. But if they remain as a foreign sound, then is that sound to be represented with an additional symbol in the host orthography?
"Functional load" is how important a contrast is in a language. If a phoneme occurs in only a handful of words, it is taken to have a low functional load. The implication for orthography is that perhaps such a phoneme does not need to be represented. This can be complicated, though, if some of those words have high frequency in the language. Some assume that the functional load of tone in a tone language can be determined by the number of minimal pairs distinguished only by tone. But purely mechanical measures overlook the psycholinguistic impact, which may be different. Functional load turns out to be a term which is relatively easy to grasp intuitively, but a precise definition or measurement is more elusive.
Many orthography designers do not think of applying phonological theory more recent than Chomsky and Halle's 1968 The Sound Pattern of English. However, more recent theories can supply help for thorny situations, especially when a morpheme has two or more forms, depending on the contexts.
Best estimates say that over half the world's languages are tonal. Marking tone in such a language's orthography is a challenging area, especially since for many Westerners, the whole concept of a tone language is somewhat intimidating. We need to make a distinction between lexical tone, which distinguishes individual words, and grammatical tone, which distinguished different grammatical categories, such as verb tenses or singular vs. plural nouns. It sometimes is possible to have a workable orthography with no tone marking, especially if only lexical tone is present. Grammatical tone almost always should be marked.
In a previously unwritten language, often where to insert word breaks is not immediately obvious. But this is a crucial area, since joining morphemes into words or splitting them apart can influence readability.