Orthography: A Personal History

Sara Norja

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Lecture #1


Palaeography – the science

of the study of handwriting.

From the Greek, of course:

παλαιόϛ ‘ancient’ + γραφία.


Papyrus, parchment, paper;

wood, metal, stone:

all marked by human hands

and human error,

spelling changing as the sea

in waves.

And we scholars

working through the centuries,

scrutinising ancient texts

through magnifying glasses,

wonder suffusing our hearts

as, in an afternote following

a passage of bible commentary,

we discover that the 10th-

century monk also got cramps

in his hand after long hours

spent, by daylight and rush-

light, writing…


oh writing –

the pale mirror of speech


(writing –

how I purify my soul)






First I learn how to hold a crayon in my hand. Squiggles, freeform frenzies of colour, then circles. Next come the creatures, proto-humans, with gaping smiles. I later call them pääjalkaiset, that’s ‘head-&-legs’ in Finnish – my first language, followed head-over-heels by English, for a child in London must learn the language of the streets. The years turn till I’m near five, & it’s time for school: Peter Hills, in the London Borough of Southwark, Rotherhithe, SE16. A sailors’ school.


Oh! & at school, letters.



Lecture #2


Rotherhithe. The name derives

from Old English hryðer ‘cattle’

+ hyð ‘landing-place’; another

etymology is reðra ‘sailor’,

with hyð meaning ‘harbour’.

Even though less likely,

this second meaning

rings true to the descendants

of those who worked the ships,

to Scandinavian seamen.


Rotherhithe has always

been a place of water, for the river

flows beside it and enters the dreams

of all who dwell there.

The name

has often been pronounced and spelt

Redriff, also Redriph, in parish records

from the sixteenth century on, which I touch

with gentle hands, follow the flowing script,

read the history of


(Rotherhithe. My cradle. My beginning.)






Barely five years old, I begin to learn my letters: in English, for English is the language of school as Finnish is the language my mother and father speak to me. Finnish, my first feeling-language! yet as years pass, English also becomes a heart-language (a poem-language). My first attempts at writing know no ascenders, no descenders, they’re a jumble of upper & lower case. But I’m in love. I’ve been read to always, know that letters convey meanings, & now here I am learning to read for myself, initiated into the lore of letters, of the written word. It’s magic.


My practice words are in no language, not English not Finnish, they’re all strung together like in early Latin texts. I’m so in love with letters that they burst out –




– delirious joyful bursts in the language of discovery.




Lecture #3


Two language groups,

two histories.

English was first written down

as the first millennium waxed

and drew to its end. The language

has meandered

through the falling years

from æsc to ash, from the regularity

of Alfred’s English to the 21st century:

a mixture of influences, several styles,

etymological spellings, attempts to change them,

patchy letter-to-sound correspondence.

Finnish, suomi,

was first written – printed – at the height

of the northern renaissance. A farmer’s son

gave us an ABC book, is called the father

of the Finnish written word. Agricola.

The language then was not the same as now,

but similar enough, and Finnish has reformed

it spellings, till it’s written almost exactly

like it’s pronounced. So they say.

But there’s a divide in our language:

this thing we call kirjakieli,

‘book language’, more formal

than the spoken language,

comprehensible to all, yes,

dialect-levelled; but some say

it’s obsolete, fast on its way

to becoming

a relic


(just like the act of handwriting

in this age of e-text

yet still I write my poems and my diary

by hand

for you can’t smudge a text on the screen

with tears


and what is writing without tears)




[i make worlds with words:]


The moon was shinning [sic]. A blue tree with three apples. Elephants climb up to the sky to catch a star, a snowman throws a snowball back at Mr Wolf. Yes, from the start I use writing for all things, and also to make beauty. To embrace the unreal, or the more-than-real. I glimpse the power of words. Later, in my schoolbook, I write:


Words that keep me warm are: Sun, Summer, Fire.


And they do.





Lecture #4


In Finnish, the 3sg. pres. of


looks identical to that

of burn.

Valo palaa, we say, the (lamp)light shines (burns).

Valo palaa, we say: the light returns.


(I burn, write, yearn.

And always I return

to words.)




[make my languages equal:]


This is how I learn to write in Finnish – independently, I mean, without recourse to my mother, who tells me which letters to form when I write postcards to my friend in Finland. I’m five, been learning my letters & the rules of English spelling for many months. We’re in the kitchen, Mum and I, the sky’s dark outside, & I can see the aeroplanes blinking their way across London. Then the phone rings. Mum answers, & talks, keeps talking & an eternity is passing while I’m sitting there waiting, staring at my postcard, empty, & the pen next to it, I’m staring at my writer’s hands, with a growing knowledge of English but no written inkling of the language my parents speak to me. I wait, I seethe. Finally I breathe a deep breath, take matters into my own hands, because at this rate Mum’s going to be talking till it’s 1993, & I itch to write. I can’t wait. So I take up the pen, & break the borders of another language in writing. I remember the books I’ve been read since I was born, try to recall the letters used. The same alphabet, with some more letters: the dotted ones, ä, ö. Same alphabet, such different combinations. I struggle. I bite my tongue.


The letters emerge. By the time Mum hangs up, I’ve got my three lines of text, laboriously crafted, with reverence, like a nun copying sacred texts. There, siinä


broken, guessworked, Anglicisms galore: my own orthography.

Photo_NorjaSara Norja has a master’s degree in English philology and a predilection for tea. Born in England and currently settled in Helsinki, Finland, she lives for the wind, dance, words, and moments of wonder. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Chantarelle’s Notebook, Curio, Polu Texni, Strange Horizons, Through the Gate and Niteblade. She blogs at http://suchwanderings.wordpress.com.