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grafoletto | grapholecte | Grapholekt


The term is a blend of graph or grapheme + dialect, coined by E. Haugen in 1964 in a paper presented at the UCLA conference of Sociolinguistics. Then it was included in the written form of the paper, appeared in a collection by W. Bright (ed.), in 1966. Haugen’s discussion starts from the observation that correctness of language is a linguistic problem and that language planning is a way to find a solution to such a problem: this could sound unpopular to linguists, Haugen claimed, since 19th century linguistic schools always claimed that the discipline is descriptive and not prescriptive or normative. Such an assumption has affected the relationship between speech and writing, the latter being secondary to and dependent from the former, cf. e.g. Bloomfield (1933: 21) «[writing is] merely a way of recording language by means of visible marks». Haugen’s theory of Language Planning reversed this relationship, considering the writing dimension as primary and the uttered speech as secondary, on the basis of «the function of writing as the medium of communication between speakers separated in time and space. […] Instead of remaining a mere record, it [scil. the writing or written form] comes to embody a code of its one, which can influence the community speech» (Haugen 1966: 53).
Walter J. Ong (1982) referred to grapholect (quoting Haugen) in his analysis of the complex interaction between speech and writing: the term is used here with regard to a particular historical situation, affecting e.g. Great Britain and Italy, in which a particular variety in a set of idioms or dialects has become the national language through written diffusion. The notion of grapholect becomes, therefore, related to that of standard language.
The relationship with the concept of standard ortography should also be taken into account: according to a wider interpretation of the term grapholect, ortography would correspond to the standard grapholect of a community, whereas in Haugen’s perspective the ortography would be a «compromise of grapholects», and requires a second phase of translation and learning, after the first transition from idiolect to grapholect.
More recently, Erik Redling (2006: 16–17) summarizes the way the word ‘grapholect’ has entered scholarly research: it was first coined by Haugen to indicate an accurate transcription of a spoken idiolect, but it will be soon interpreted by Hirsch, 1977, as indicating a standard written code. It was this latter meaning that was taken over by W.J. Ong (1982), and in this phase it became popular in sociolinguistics. Redling’s perspective is, however, focused on the problem of translation of dialect literature: after recalling the use of the term grapholect in Haugen as the individual written variant of a person’s spoken idiolect, Redling declares to apply the same term to all written languages. Being interested in different scales of prestige, he then introduces the opposition between ‘standard grapholect’ and ‘dialect grapholect’, the latter showing a mixture of speech and writing.
The definition of what ‘grapholect’ is thus variable in its oppositional features: in Haugen’s view a grapholect should be opposed to an idiolect, while in Ong’s view a grapholect is opposed to a dialect, as the former is a written variant of an oral one. In this sense, a grapholect is evidently a wider notion, including all the written signs available to a given linguistic community.
Outside of the English speaking tradition, the term grapholecte also occurs in French, e.g Neuman (2004), together with its counterpart phonolecte, a backformation created to express the “phonetic side” of the writing (its reading). This apparent circularity is explained by the context of application: it was here applied to the history of Hebrew, that, passing through a long tradition as a grapholect becomes again a spoken variety still depending to the written code. «L'hébreu moderne, du fait qu'il soit parlé, se distingue nettement de sa couche antérieure en tant que langue techniquement morte, où il constituait un grapholecte juif interdiasporique dont les différents phonolectes n'étaient la langue maternelle de personne» (Neuman 2004: 88).
The discussion generally belongs to the wide and complicated issue of the relationship between oral and written traditions, cultures, experiences, data etc. Apart from linguistics, it has been approached from different theoretical perspectives and methodologies, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, translation study etc.
As regards the application to the study of ancient traditions and textualities, the notion of grapholect becomes relevant and useful for contact related studies as far as it can describe the relationships between written and oral languages or varieties of the same language within a given (historically reconstructed) community. Dealing with ancient societies the issue is extremely important to define, because our knowledge of oral languages and varieties depends exclusively on written data. In our research, the grapholect is the counterpart to the idiolect, and the problem remains to define what an idiolect is: is it an individual language meant as a one person’s variety or rather does it represent a «compromise of idiolects» as a community shared variety? This second hypothesis seems the best one to follow, at least at the current stage of research.
See also epigraphic community, idiolect, standard language.


Haugen, E. (1966). Linguistics and Language Planning, W Bright. Sociolinguistic: Proceedings of the UCLA Sociolinguistics Conference, the Hague: Mouton, 50-71. Heng, MHM 1993, Three Dimensions of Information Technology Applications: A Historical Perspective. Hirsch, E.D. 1977. The Philosophy of Composition. Neuman, Y. (2009). L'influence de l'écriture sur la langue. Ph.D. dissertation, Sorbonne Nouvelle. Neuman, Yishaï (2004) «De l'écrit à l'oral : la lexicalisation des abréviations de l’écrit en hébreu moderne », in N. Andrieux-Reix, S. Branca et C. Puech (eds.), Écritures abrégées : L’abréviation entre pratique spontanée, codification, modernité et histoire, Paris : Ophrys, 81–95. Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy (Italian translation by A. Calanchi, Oralità e scrittura. Redling, E. (2006). " Speaking of Dialect": Translating Charles W. Chesnutt's Conjure Tales Into Postmodern Systems of Signification (Vol. 5). Königshausen & Neumann.