Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

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Language Unity - a Result of Professionalism?

Anja Voeste (Universität Potsdam,



Texts from the late medieval period have a specific feature in common: their (ortho)graphic schemes show extensive variation. Within one text, even on one page we find graphic variants of the same word, even though the writers of the day have a good command of another language that shows no variation: Latin. The early modern period from about 1500 records a fundamental change: the writers now seem to avoid regional differences and show a general effort towards a more uniform spelling.

In my talk I will argue that this emerging language unity is due to the developing professionalism of typesetters. The technical and economic demands of the printing process had an influence not only on the work cycle and the various, relevant crafts, but also on spelling. The letter case used by typesetters marked the limits of the typographic possibilities: double types, abbreviations and most of the ligatures were removed from the letter case in order to speed up the printing process. Variants including these letters could no longer be set and were discredited as "unprofessional" in the course of the 16th century.

By avoiding time-consuming variants, typography became a key factor in the establishing of logographic patterns. While the writer of a manuscript was never able to copy a word in an identical shape, the production of uniform, printed texts allowed words to be identically replicated. The iterative process of printing had an effect on visual perception. Words became more than semantic entities: now a prototypical logographic pattern had been superimposed onto them. The principle of uniform spelling had been established.

In this context, language unity can no longer be seen as a result of expanding communicative areas or as a side-effect of nation-building but as a collateral effect of a technological achievement.

Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9. - 11. december 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-11-08