Iconicity, branding and translation in orthography


Cover of the ‘Complete Russian Songbook’ published in 1917, showing the ‘old’letters <і>, <ҍ>, <ъ> which were reformed later that year

I have recently written a paper on ‘Iconicity, attribution and branding in orthography‘ which will appear in a special issue of Written Language and Literacy later in 2015. You can read the preprint here. Here’s an interesting historic example of iconicity and branding in Russian, which I didn’t use in the paper. It is also an example of the difficulties of literary translation, and how matters of spelling have social meaning which can be difficult to grasp from the outside.

Iconicity is a concept familiar in linguistics largely due to the work of Irving and Gal (e.g. 2000). When a feature of language becomes iconic, its relationship with its users is transformed so that ‘linguistic features that index social groups or activities appear to be iconic representations of them, as if a linguistic feature somehow depicted or displayed a social group’s inherent nature or essence.’(Irvine and Gal 2000: 37). Androutsopoulos (2010) has an excellent example, from the literary writing of Feridun Zaimoglu whose characters are second generation Turkish migrants in Germany. Their nonstandard language, ‘Kanak Sprak’, with its spellings which deviate from standard German, represents iconically the distance between its users and mainstream German society.

Attribution is the process whereby a linguistic feature becomes associated with a particular group of users. Attribution is necessarily a discursive process, and the user (and non-user) groups are likewise discursively constructed.

Branding is the name I give to a process where a specific visual element of the script, for example a letter or a conventional element like a diacritic mark, becomes an emblem of a group of people who use it in their writing practices. There are many examples of such branding, for example in the Spanish counterculture where <k> replaces the standard <c> or <qu> representing the sound /k/ (see Sebba 2007, Screti 2015), or the ‘little hook’ or  haček  whichis seen as emblematic for Slavic languages’ in Austria (Busch 2013: 206).

Branding does not always involve iconicity, although it may do so, if the branding element becomes associated with the non-linguistic behaviour of its users – in other words if it becomes an emblem of something more than the language itself. The haček is emblematic of certain languages, but appears not to be an icon as it is not associated with anything specific outside of language. On the other hand, the use of <k> by Spanish anarchists could be seen as doing the kind of symbolic violence to the conventions of the Spanish language which its users would like to do to the society as a whole. In this case, the <k> ‘brand’ functions as an icon in the sense of Irving and Gal.

So to the example from Russian. The Russian orthography was modernised by Peter the Great in the early 18th century but retained a number of anomalous or redundant letters. One of these was the so-called ‘hard sign’, used to mark an unpalatalised (‘hard’) consonant at the end of a word (this is the last character in the last word in the illustration above, which is the cover of a songbook published in 1917). The ‘soft sign’ was used to mark palatalised (‘soft’) consonants at the end of words. But since all final consonants were either hard or soft, only one of these signs was actually needed. Either the hard or the soft sign was redundant, and in practice it was the hard sign that could be dropped most economically.

IMG_20150407_185815 The ‘hard sign’ (tvyordy znak)

By the late 19th Century it seems that the practice of not writing the hard sign at the end of words had become an emblem of a kind of social enlightenment. In his famous short story Lady with Lapdog, Anton Chekhov uses it as part of a very short description to give a portrait of the character of the wife of the male protagonist (Spoiler alert: she is not the eponymous ‘lady with lapdog’). In one translation,

She was a tall woman with dark eyebrows, erect, dignified, imposing, and, as she said of herself, a “thinker.” She was a great reader, omitted the “hard sign” at the end of words in her letters, and called her husband “Dimitry” instead of Dmitry (translated by Ivy Litvinov)

Here the ‘hard sign’ has become iconic. Rejection of the old, redundant letter can be seen to be linked to the rejection of an old, redundant way of  thinking and a society in need of change. Not writing this letter marks out the writer as socially progressive and an intellectual. So here is a case of iconicity in orthography with <ъ> (hard sign) as the brand.

While the mere  mention of the practice of not writing the hard sign seems to have been enough to trigger an understanding of the social attitudes of Chekhov’s character in his original readers, the same is not true for non-Russian readers. This particular sentence has given translators a fair bit of trouble. Apart from editors of scholarly editions, translators are unlikely to want to explain the subtleties of Russian spelling and its social meaning to readers. So how have they dealt with this? Here’s a selection of other translations:

She was a great reader, preferred the new ‘advanced’ spelling, called her husband by the more formal ‘Dimitry’ and not the familiar ‘Dmitry’ (Penguin books 1964, translation by David Magarshack)

She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13415/13415-h/13415-h.htm ; translator possibly Constance Garnett)

She read a great deal, used the new orthography, called her husband not Dmitri but Dimitri (translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

A fifth verson, translated by S.S. Koteliansky and published by Penguin in  1941, omits all mention:

She read a great deal, called her husband not Dimitri but Demitri

Of course there is no ‘correct translation’ although that of Ivy Litvinov is most faithful to the Russian original. I do find it a bit sad that S.S. Koteliansky gave up on it altogether!

It turns out that Kate Sutherland has already written a blog about translating Lady with Lapdog, so thanks to her for some of the versions which I didn’t know about.

Historical note: the ‘hard sign’ at the end of words was officially dropped after the Russian Revolution of February 1917.


Androutsopoulos, Jannis (2010). Ideologizing ethnolectal German. In: S. Johnson and T. Milani (eds.), Language Ideologies and Media Discourse. New York: Continuum, 182-202.

Busch, Brigitta (2013). The Career of a Diacritical Sign: Language in Spatial Representations and Representational Spaces. In Pietikainen, Sari and Helen Kelly-Holmes (eds), Multilingualism and the Periphery, pp. 199-221. Oxford University Press.

Irvine, J. T. and Gal S. (2000). ‘Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation’, in Kroskrity, P. V. (ed.) (2000). Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities and Identities, 35-83. Oxford: James Currey.

Screti, Francesco  (2015) The ideological appropriation of the letter <k> in the Spanish linguistic landscape, Social Semiotics, 25:2, 200-208.

Sebba, Mark (2007). Spelling and Society: The Culture and Politics of orthography around the world. Cambridge University Press.