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Hindi-Urdu is an example of synchronic digraphia. Pictured is a road sign in India, with the Perso-Arabic script above and the Devanagari script below, with an English translation at the bottom.

In sociolinguistics, digraphia refers to the use of more than one writing system for the same language.[1] Some scholars differentiate between synchronic digraphia with the coexistence of two or more writing systems for the same language and diachronic (or sequential) digraphia with the replacement of one writing system by another for a particular language.[2] An example of synchronic digraphia is Hindi-Urdu, which is written in the Devanagari script (mostly in India) or the Perso-Arabic script (mostly in Pakistan); an example of diachronic digraphia is Turkish, which replaced an Arabic-based writing system with a Latin-based system in 1928. Another example is Punjabi which uses two different writing systems: 1) uses Gurmukhi script and is used in Punjab in India 2) is written using Shahmukhi (an arabic script)though there is no difference when both of these scripts are read or pronounced. Konkani language is written in Devnagari, Kannada and Roman scripts. Digraphia has implications in language planning, language policy, and language ideology.


Digraphia "using two writing systems for the same language" is an uncommon term, generally restricted to linguistic contexts.


English digraphia, like French digraphie, etymologically derives from Greek di- δι- "twice" and -graphia -γραφία "writing".

Digraphia was modeled upon diglossia "the coexistence of two languages or dialects among a certain population", which derives from Greek diglossos δίγλωσσος "bilingual." Charles A. Ferguson, a founder of sociolinguistics, coined diglossia in 1959.[3] Grivelet analyzes how the influence of diglossia on the unrelated notion of digraphia has "introduced some distortion in the process of defining digraphia," such as distinguishing "high" and "low" varieties.[4] Peter Unseth notes one usage of "digraphia" that most closely parallels Ferguson’s “diglossia,” situations where a language uses different scripts for different domains; for instance, "shorthand in English, pinyin in Chinese for alphabetizing library files, etc. or several scripts which are replaced by Roman script during e-mail usage."[5]


The Oxford English Dictionary, which does not yet include digraphia, enters two digraph terms and digraphic.[6] First, the linguistic term digraph is defined as, "A group of two letters expressing a simple sound of speech". This meaning applies to both two letters representing a single speech sound in orthography (e.g., English ng representing the velar nasal /ŋ/) and a single grapheme with two letters in typographical ligature (e.g., the Old English Latin alphabet letter æ). Second, the graph theory term digraph (a portmanteau from directed graph) is defined as, "A graph in which each line has a direction associated with it; a finite, non-empty set of elements together with a set of ordered pairs of these elements." The two digraph terms were first recorded in 1788 and 1955, respectively. The OED2 defines two digraphic meanings, "Pertaining to or of the nature of a digraph" and "Written in two different characters or alphabets." It gives their earliest examples in 1873 and 1880 (which was used meaning "digraphia"). Isaac Hollister Hall, an American scholar of Oriental studies, described an Eteocypriot language publication as "bilingual (or digraphic, as both inscriptions are in the same language)."[7] Hall's article was antedated by Demetrios Pieridis's 1875 usage of digraphic instead of bilingual for an inscription written in both the Greek alphabet and Cypriot syllabary.[8]

English digraphic and digraphia were contemporaneous with their corresponding terms in French linguistics. In 1877, Julius Oppert introduced digraphique to describe languages written in cuneiform syllabaries.[9] In 1893, Auguste Barth used French digraphisme for Cambodian inscriptions written in Khmer script and Brāhmī script.[10] In 1971, Robèrt Lafont coined digraphie regarding the sociolinguistics of French and Occitan.[11]

Although the word "digraphia" is new, the practice is ancient. Darius the Great's (c. 522-486 BCE) Behistun Inscription was written in three cuneiform scripts for Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian.[12]


Four authors independently neologized English digraphia from diglossia.

The Songhay linguist Petr Zima (1974) first used "digraphia" to describe the Hausa language having two writing systems, Boko (Latin alphabet) and Ajami script (Arabic alphabet).[13] Zima differentiated these paired situations.

  • Digraphia: "Two types of written form of one language co-exist, based upon the usage of two distinct graphical systems (scripts) by the respective language community."
  • Diorthographia: "Two types of written form of a particular language co-exist, using the same script, but they are based upon the usage of two distinct orthographies by the same language community."[14]

Usage of "diorthographia" is unusual. Compare dysgraphia meaning "a language disorder that affects a person's ability to write" and dysorthographia "a synonym for dyslexia".

The anthropologist James R. Jaquith (1976), who studied unconventional spelling in advertising, used "digraphia" to describe the practice of writing brand names in all caps (e.g., ARRID). He described digraphia as "the graphic analog of what linguists call diglossia", and defined it as "different versions of a written language exist simultaneously and in complementary distribution in a speech community."[15]

The sociolinguist Ian R. H. Dale (1980) wrote a general survey of digraphia, defined as, "the use of two (or more) writing systems to represent varieties of a single language."[16]

The sinologist and lexicographer John DeFrancis (1984) used digraphia, defined as "the use of two or more different systems of writing the same language," to translate Chinese shuangwenzhi (雙文制 "two-script system") of writing in Chinese characters and Pinyin.[17] DeFrancis later explained, "I have been incorrectly credited with coining the term digraphia, which I indeed thought I had created as a parallel in writing to Charles Ferguson’s diglossia in speech."[18]


Digraphia is an uncommon term in current English usage. For instance, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which includes over 425,000,000 words, lists digraphia three times in "academic genre" contexts.

Stéphane Grivelet, who edited a special "Digraphia: Writing systems and society" issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, explains.[19]

After 25 years and various articles on the subject, there are still important differences in the scope of the definition, and the notion itself is rarely used in sociolinguistics, apart from the field of Chinese studies, where the notion of digraphia is nowadays frequently used to describe the coexistence of two writing systems: Chinese script and Pinyin.[20]

Digraphia has some rare synonyms. Orthographic diglossia antedates digraphia, and was noted by Paul Wexler in 1971."[21] Bigraphism, bialphabetism, and biscriptality are infrequently used.

Some scholars avoid using the word "digraphia". Describing terminology for "script obsolescence," Stephen D. Houston, John Baines, and Jerrold Cooper say, "'Biscript' refers to a text in two different writing systems. 'Biliteracy' and 'triliteracy' label the concurrent use of two or three scripts."[22]

Theoretical aspects[edit]

Digraphia can be either "synchronic" (or "concurrent") or "diachronic" ("historical" or "sequential"),[23] extending Ferdinand de Saussure's classic division between synchronic linguistics and diachronic linguistics. Dale first differentiated "diachronic (or historical) digraphia" ("more than one writing system used for a given language in successive periods of time") and "synchronic digraphia" ("more than one writing system used contemporaneously for the same language").[24] Dale concluded that,

Two primary factors have been identified as operating on a society in the choice of script for representing its language. These are the prevailing cultural influence (often a religion) and the prevailing political influence of the period in which the choice is made. Synchronic digraphia results when more than one such influence is operating and none can dominate all groups of speakers of the language in question [ … ] Diachronic digraphia results when different influences prevail over a given speech community at different times.[25]

Some recent scholarship questions the practicality of this synchronic/diachronic distinction. Grivelet contends that, "digraphia is a single sociolinguistic process with two types of outcome (concurrent or sequential digraphia) and with specific features related to the causes and types of development of the various cases.[26]

Peter Unseth lists and exemplifies four factors that can influence a language community's choice of a script.[27]

  1. "To identify themselves with a group." In the 1940s, Mongolia replaced the traditional Mongolian script first briefly with the Mongolian Latin alphabet and then, under Soviet influence, with the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet. From the 1980s, the Mongolian script was reintroduced into schools for its historical and cultural importance.
  2. "To distance themselves from a group." In the mid-19th century, the LDS Church developed and promoted the Deseret alphabet for English. Brigham Young publicly claimed it was more phonetically accurate than Latin script and would facilitate learning to read and write English. However, historian David Bigler says the Deseret alphabet "demonstrated cultural exclusivism, an important consideration. It also kept secrets from curious non-Mormons, [and] controlled what children would be allowed to read."[28]
  3. Participation in developments on a broader scale. The choice of a script can influence a group's preparedness to interact with other regional or international groups. For instance, the Hmong language has numerous alternate writing systems. Hmong who live in Southeast Asia prefer the indigenous Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA) or the Pahawh Hmong semi-syllabary; Hmong expatriates who live in the United States prefer to romanize names differently, such as Latin Hmong instead of RPA Hmoob.
  4. "Linguistic considerations." Sometimes a foreign script is rejected because it is unsuitable for the phonetics of a language. Korean was first written in logographic Hanja Chinese characters, but king Sejong the Great promulgated the Hangul alphabet, which is better suited for transcribing Korean phonology. In the present day, South Korean uses both Hanja logographs and Hangul letters, while North Korea uses only Hangul.

Linguists who study language and gender have analyzed gender-differentiated speech varieties ("genderlects", usually spoken by women), and there are a few cases of scripts predominantly used by women. Japanese hiragana was initially a women's script, for instance, used by Murasaki Shikibu to write The Tale of Genji. Chinese Nüshu script (literally "women's writing) is a simplification of characters that was traditionally used by women in Jiangyong County of Hunan province.[29]

Not only scripts, but also letters can have iconic power to differentiate social groups. For example, the names of many heavy metal bands (e.g., Motörhead, Infernäl Mäjesty, Mötley Crüe) use umlauts "to index the musical genre as well as the notion of ‘Gothic’ more generally."[30] This digraphic usage is called the "metal umlaut" (or "röck döts").

Synchronic digraphia[edit]

A modern example of synchronic digraphia is writing Serbian[31] in both Serbian Cyrillic alphabet and Gaj's Latin alphabet. Although most speakers can read and write both scripts, Roman Catholic Croatians and Muslim Bosniaks generally use Latin, while Orthodox Serbians, commonly use both. However, older indigenous scripts were used much earlier, most notably Bosnian Cyrillic.[32] Inuktitut is also officially digraphic, using both Latin and Inuktitut syllabics. In Hindi-Urdu, the Devanagari or Persian script generally follows the Hindi and Urdu standards and the speaker's religious affiliation, though Urdu is sometimes written in Devanagari in India. Digraphia is limited, however, in that most people know only one script.

The Japanese writing system has unusually complex digraphia. William C. Hannas distinguishes two digraphic forms of Japanese: "true digraphia" of occasionally using rōmaji Latin alphabet for a few loanwords like DVD, and of regularly using three scripts (technically, "trigraphia") for different functions. Japanese is written with kanji "Chinese character" logographs used for Sino-Japanese vocabulary; hiragana used for native Japanese words; and katakana used for foreign borrowings or graphic emphasis.[33] Take Nihon for instance, the primary name of Japan. It is normally written 日本 (literally, "sun's origin") in kanji – but is occasionally written にほん in hiragana, ニホン in katakana, or Nihon in rōmaji ("romanization"). Japanese users having a certain amount of flexibility in choosing between scripts, and their choices can have social meaning.[34]

Another example is the Malay language, which most often uses the Latin alphabet, while in certain geographic areas (Kelantan state of Malaysia, Brunei) it is also written with an adapted Arabic alphabet called Jawi.

An element of synchronic digraphia is present in many languages not using the Latin script, in particular in text messages and when typing on a computer which does not have the facility to represent the usual script for that language. In such cases, Latin script is often used, although systems of transcription are often not standardised.

Digraphia is controversial in modern Written Chinese. The ongoing debate on traditional and simplified Chinese characters concerns "diglyphia" or "pluricentricity" rather than digraphia. Chinese digraphia involves the use of both Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin romanization. Pinyin is officially approved for a few special uses, such as annotating characters for learners of Chinese and transcribing Chinese names.[35] Nevertheless, Pinyin continues to be adopted for other functions, such as computers, education, library catalogs, and merchandise labels.[36] Among Chinese input methods for computers, Pinyin is the most popular phonetic method. Zhou Youguang predicts, "Digraphia is perhaps the key for Chinese to enter the age of Information processing."[37] Many writers, both from China (e.g., Mao Dun and Zhou Youguang) and from abroad (e.g., John DeFrancis, Victor H. Mair, J. Marshall Unger, and William Hannas[38]) have argued for digraphia to be implemented as a Chinese language standard. These digraphic reformers call for a generalized used of Pinyin orthography along with Chinese characters. Yat-Shing Cheung differentiates three Chinese digraphic situations. (1) Both the High and the Low forms derive from the same script system: traditional and simplified characters. (2) Both forms derive from the same system but the Low form borrows foreign elements: Putonghua and topolects (or "dialects"). (3) The High and the Low forms derive from two different script systems: Chinese characters and pinyin.[39]

Diachronic digraphia[edit]

"Diachronic" or "sequential digraphia", in which a language switches writing systems, can occur historically through language change or suddenly through language reform. "Abrupt script shift can be seen in the change of Turkish from Arabic script to Roman (in one year), while a gradual change of script can be seen in the change from writing Korean in Chinese characters to Hangul (a process that arguably nearly spanned five centuries)."[40]

The Azerbaijani language provides an "extreme example" of diachronic digraphia; it has historically been written in runic, Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin alphabets.[41]

There are many examples where a language used to be written in a script, that was replaced later. Examples are Romanian (which originally used Cyrillic then changed to Latin) in the 1860s; Vietnamese (switched from a form of Chinese writing called Chu Nom to Latin); Turkish, Swahili, Somali, and (partially) Malay which all switched from Arabic script to Latin, and many languages of the former Soviet Union, which abandoned the Cyrillic script after the dissolution of the USSR and as Moldova, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan all switched from Cyrillic to Latin. DeFrancis notes, "The old literature in the earlier scripts remains, however, so that all these scripts more or less overlap in use, by scholars involved with early texts, or for reprinting earlier materials for a wider readership and for other limited uses."[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dale, Ian R.H. (1980). "Digraphia". International Journal of the Sociology of Language 26: 5–13. 
  2. ^ Cheung, Yat-Shing (1992). "The form and meaning of digraphia: the case of Chinese". In K. Bolton and H. Kwok. Sociolinguistics Today: International Perspectives. London: Routledge. 
  3. ^ Ferguson, Charles A. (1959). "Diglossia." Word 15, 325–340.
  4. ^ Grivelet (2001), p. 5.
  5. ^ Unseth (2005), p. 36.
  6. ^ Oxford English Dictionary (2009). 2nd ed., v. 4.0.
  7. ^ Hall, Isaac Hollister (1880). "The Cypriote Inscriptions". Scribner's Monthly, vol. 20, p. 205.
  8. ^ Pierides, Demetrios (1875). On a digraphic inscription found in Larnaca. Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 4(1). 38–43.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Lafont, Robert (1971). Un problème de culpabilité sociologique: La diglossie franco-occitane, Langue française 9(1). 93–99.
  12. ^ Unseth, Peter (2005). "Sociolinguistic parallels between choosing scripts and languages" Written Language & Literacy 8(1), p. 36.
  13. ^ Zima, Petr. 1974. Digraphia: The case of Hausa. Linguistics 124, 57–69.
  14. ^ Zima (1974), p. 58.
  15. ^ Jaquith, James R. (1976). "Digraphia in advertising: The public as guinea pig." Visible Language 10(4). 303.
  16. ^ Dale, Ian R. H. (1980). "Digraphia" International Journal of the Sociology of Language 26. 5–13.
  17. ^ DeFrancis, John (1984). "Digraphia." Word 35, 59–66.
  18. ^ DeFrancis, John (2006). Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform, Sino-Platonic Papers 171.
  19. ^ Grivelet, Stéphane (2001). "Introduction", "Digraphia: Writing systems and society," International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 150, pp. 1–10.
  20. ^ Grivelet (2001), p. 1.
  21. ^ Wexler, Paul (1971). "Diglossia, language standardization and purism." Lingua 27, 340. "Orthographic differences are not always a reflection of ethnocultural differences and multiple standards. Different scripts may be used by a single ethnic group for different purposes (e.g., secular versus religious literature), in which case we could speak of 'orthographic diglossia'."
  22. ^ Houston, S., Baines, J. & Cooper, J. (2003). Last writing: Script obsolescence in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Mesoamerica. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45(3), p. 432.
  23. ^ DeFrancis (1984), p. 60 uses concurrent and sequential.
  24. ^ Dale (1980), p. 6.
  25. ^ Dale (1980), p. 12.
  26. ^ Grivelet (2001), p. 6.
  27. ^ Unseth, Peter (2005). "Sociolinguistic parallels between choosing scripts and languages." Written Language & Literacy 8(1). 22–29.
  28. ^ Bigler, David (1998). Forgotten kingdom: the Mormon theocracy in the American West, 1847–1896, p. 56. Arthur Clark.
  29. ^ Unseth (2005), p. 37.
  30. ^ Sebba (2009), p 40.
  31. ^ Dejan Ivković (2013). "Pragmatics meets ideology: Digraphia and non-standard orthographic practices in Serbian online news forums". Journal of Language and Politics (John Benjamins Publishing Company) 12 (3). doi:10.1075/jlp.12.3.02ivk
  32. ^ Trager, George L. (1974). "Writing and writing systems." Current Trends in Linguistics 12, p. 413.
  33. ^ Hannas, William C. (1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press, pp. 299-300.
  34. ^ Sebba, Mark (2009). "Sociolinguistic approaches to writing systems research." Writing Systems Research 1.1, p. 38.
  35. ^ Xieyan Hincha (2004). Two Steps Toward Digraphia in China. Sino-Platonic Papers 134.
  36. ^ DeFrancis (1984), p. 64.
  37. ^ Zhou Youguang (1986). Modernization of the Chinese Language. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 59, 7-23.
  38. ^ Hannas, William C. (1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press.
  39. ^ Cheung, Yat-Shing (1992). "The form and meaning of digraphia: the case of Chinese". In K. Bolton and H. Kwok. Sociolinguistics Today: International Perspectives. 210-215. Routledge.
  40. ^ Unseth (2005), p. 36.
  41. ^ Unseth (2005), p. 36.
  42. ^ DeFrancis (1984), p. 60.

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