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Some languages change what writing system they use. For example, Old English used to use Anglo-Saxon runes but eventually used the Latin alphabet, and Mongolian in Mongolia uses the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet (while in China they still use the Traditional Mongolian alphabet). Likewise, some languages used to not have any writing at all.

Does the change in writing system change the language, such as how words are pronounced?

  • All languages used to not have any writing at all! – Gaston Ümlaut Jun 8 '15 at 10:52
  • @GastonÜmlaut Hmm, not sure that's true for Esperanto, is it? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jun 9 '15 at 12:35
  • Esperanto isn't a language; it's a conlang and has never been subjected to the constant oral usage in all contexts in a speech community that defines a real language. Except at Esperanto conventions. But that's not enough. – jlawler Jun 9 '15 at 16:51
  • @jlawler It might be nice to have a definition of languages that include sign languages. In any case, most of the modern languages of Europe had writing at the time they became distinct from the predecessors. – prosfilaes Jun 11 at 4:49
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There's a long list of languages which changed their orthography (maybe even several times). Sometimes gradually and sometimes through reform. Some of those changes were relatively small like the move from Schwabacher in German and some other languages, or introduction of diacritics as in Czech. Sometimes quite major such as the change from Arabic to Latin based script as in Turkish or from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet in Turkemnistan (having previously switched to Cyrillic from Arabic script), or Korean switching from Chinese characters to its own orthography, etc. You could also think about the introduction of intermediate scripts in the teaching of Chinese writing (such as Pinyin or Bopomofo) or think about the fact that most speakers of languages with orthographies other than Latin are often by-scriptal - just through exposure to things like advertising or the Internet. You also have situations where the same language is written in different orthography depending on location (such as Turkmen being written in Arabic script outside of Turkmenistan). You also have cases where the only (or the main) distinguishing mark between official languages is the official orthography (Serbian and Croatian or Moldovan and Romanian).

So we have ample evidence that the introduction of a new system of orthography does not change the language (in as much as that is even a sensible way to formulate it). But it does have an impact on the community of speakers of the language in question (and as jknappen points out, is often accompanied by other changes). One of the avenues of impact could be simply that the speakers of the language all of a sudden have access to different writing traditions and that subsequent generations will have more limited access to the previous writing tradition of the language.

On the other hand, it has been hypothesized that the introduction of writing to a language does have an impact on the development of syntactic features such as sentence and the formalization of things like genre. However, that is not due to orthography but rather the very nature of writing which is not just transcribing what is said but creates its own ways of saying things. So introducing writing to a language is very different to changing an existing orthography and is likely to have some impact on the language - if only through borrowing of structures of other languages - as in the translation of the Bible which has been one of the first written text in many previously un-written languages.

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  • Like several Soviet languages, Turkmen was given a Latin orthography in the 1920's, and then a Cyrillic one in the 1930's. I don't know whether the 1920's Latin orthography was the same as the current one or not. – Colin Fine Jun 9 '15 at 0:09
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There is a plain answer: No, it doesn't.

Historically, only a minority of speakers were literate; therefore the spoken language did not follow the writing. Even in societies were almost all adults are literate, the influence of the writing to the spoken language is rather small.

But: A change of the writing system often comes with massive other changes in the speaker's community (like Atatürk's reforms, a foreign invasion, declaration of independence, changing of military and cultural affiliations, success of a new religion) that have massive impact on the language on all levels.

So a change of the writing system often coincides with a change of the language, but it does not cause it.

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If it’s not the case I’m glitching…
There`s some phenomenon which can be named ‘orthographic(al) pronunciation’, a kind of hypercorrection based on received spelling. (The term is coined in Russian (‘орфографическое произношение’), AFAICS, to denote the impact of spelling on pronunciation.) But all this is the case of an existing, not new but maybe spreading through education, writing system. With an impact – I’ll be surprised if worthy of the 'language change' status.
I’d be even more surprised if such phenomena are observed in relation to changing writing systems.

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  • 1
    In English, the term I've heard used most often is simply "spelling pronunciation." – ewawe Jun 8 '15 at 23:46
  • Spelling definitely affects pronunciation. I can mention clear examples in Dutch. – reinierpost Jun 9 '15 at 21:12

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