Transmission and diffusion in diachronic orthography

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Theories of language change often focus on the various ways in which innovations spread from one language user to another. Following Labov (2007), transmission and diffusion are two crucial concepts in this context. On the one hand, transmission is used for changes in language passed down and incrementally amplified from one generation to the next, where innovations move in a similar direction across generations. Diffusion, on the other hand, is used to signal changes across communities, with innovations spreading, for instance, from one dialect group or one part of a language area to another, and involving imperfect adult language learning. Since their introduction, both concepts have gained wide currency in sociolinguistics, but the implications and relevance of this twofold distinction for orthographic change have not been assessed in great detail.
Exploring the relevance of the transmission versus diffusion dichotomy is exactly what we set out to do in this handbook chapter. Departing from the classic definitions of transmission and diffusion by Labov, we evaluate their applicability to diachronic orthography, comparing them to other, related concepts, to a large extent based on the work of James Milroy (2007). We then move on to discuss examples of transmission and diffusion. Next, we shift our attention to another layer of orthographic variation and change, above the notion of the community that underpins transmission and diffusion, namely the layer of multiple standards in situations of pluricentricity. We then move to a broader reflection comparing diachronic perspectives on spelling variation and change to other instances of language change. At the same time, we also discuss the issue of transmission versus diffusion within the larger framework of standardization and the development of linguistic norms within and across speech communities over time.
In line with our own research expertise, we adopt a historical-sociolinguistic approach to the topic outlined above, delving into several examples of regionally or socially motivated language change. As such, we do not only look at the peculiarities of spelling as a learned behavior, but also explore the link between orthographic change, diffusion and supralocalization, which offers clear implications for the study of standardization as a historical process. We argue against a ‘tunnel view’ of the standardization process, where regional writing traditions lead to one clear and exclusive national standard. Instead, we focus on how such regional standards actually give rise to a more multilayered sociolinguistic landscape, as is the case for many pluricentric languages. To evaluate the different theoretical concepts discussed in this chapter, we draw on different case studies from our own research on Dutch language history, but also from case studies in German and English historical sociolinguistics. By taking this crosslinguistic perspective, we explore to which extent issues related to the diffusion and transmission of orthographic change are similar across languages, pointing to interesting avenues for comparative historical sociolinguistic work and applications to other languages and language families.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of Historical Orthography
EditorsMarco Condorelli, Hannah Rutkowska
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781108766463
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • historical sociolinguistics
  • orthography
  • spelling
  • transmission
  • diffusion


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