If two subcultures use the same realization (pronunciation) of the same word form (particular inflection of a word) but spell it differently, what is the technical term for the alternative spellings?

One example: apparently in the old days when the word "ye" would show up in books it was actually meant to be pronounced "the", as the "y" was used to stand in for the thorn character ("þ"), which represented the "th" (voiced fricative) sound.

A modern example I can think of is "leet speak", where words are spelled with numbers and other non-alphabetic symbols. So "speak" could be represented as "5|>34|<", and both the meaning and pronunciation of the word form remain the same as "speak", with only the written representation changing.

I'm looking for a term that captures the fact that the two written representations share the same pronunciation, inflection, and meaning. The terms "alternative spelling" or "alternative grapheme sequence" seem like they could serve my purpose but I'm wondering if linguists have decided on some other term instead.

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    Linguists don't normally care about spelling too much because it's just so unpredictable and arbitrary. Comparing spellings across languages also wouldn't have much use most of the time. But I guess you could call them homophones?
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 20, 2018 at 11:48
  • @curiousdannii Thanks for the clarification about how linguists think about spelling. I don't think "homophone" is the right term because I'm talking about the case where the meaning is the same, but "homophone" seems to refer to the situation where the meaning is different. Sep 20, 2018 at 12:37
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    Sorry, I misunderstood what you were asking. Nonstandard spelling is probably as good a term as any.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 20, 2018 at 12:41

2 Answers 2


Dealing with historical texts, we talk about spelling variants (of a word or a personal name). For those modern innovations in the writing system, I know the term non-standard spelling or, for the whole system, a non-standard variant (e.g., of English).

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    Probably good to note that set of conventions for spelling an entire language is an orthography, and therefore for a single word we could speak of an orthographical variant. Sep 20, 2018 at 13:22
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    Additionally (to @A.M.Bittlingmayer ) we could note that this often isn't possible in a well-designed spelling system. It's possible in English and a few other languages because the writing system doesn't have a good match of phonemes to written symbols. Sep 20, 2018 at 23:23
  • @GastonÜmlaut I do not know a language where it's not possible. :-) For Spanish there is k paso wey como stas (some influence of English), for Russian there is translit which uses 4 for ч and 6 for ш... Sep 21, 2018 at 10:14
  • Well, most Australian, Papuan and Austronesian languages for a start, as they generally have highly phonemic writing systems. But of course many of the languages of Europe have been written for long enough that the languages have changed in ways not reflected in the writing systems. Sep 21, 2018 at 22:38

Allographs is the technical term for the graphic variants of an abstract grapheme.

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