Literacy – the power code

By August 7, 2017Literacies

U.S. Vice President Pence ignores NASA “DO NOT TOUCH” sign. Would anyone else get away with such illiterate behavior?

“Literacy” is one of those words that everyone uses as a technical term but that is actually really hard to pin down. When I asked the new students in my “Literacies” unit last week what they thought “literacy” meant, they came up with quite a variety of definitions.

The most popular definition of “literacy” was that it is simply a cover term for “reading and writing”. That understanding of literacy contrasts with spoken language. Closely related to this first understanding of literacy is a second of literacy as “the ability to read and write.” Students with a background in language teaching readily referenced the “four skills” – speaking, listening, reading and writing – that make up language proficiency.

The latter understanding of literacy has spawned a significant expansion of the use of “literacy”: today, “literacy” is no longer exclusively about language but may be used to refer to all kinds of knowledge and competences: financial literacy, computer literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, news literacy, environmental literacy, ethics literacy, health literacy, spiritual literacy, artistic literacy, emotional literacy, etc. etc. While the connection with written language is more obvious in some of these literacies than in others, the reason for the extension of the meaning of “literacy” to “competence” is clear: in the contemporary world, the acquisition of most competences is mediated through the written word and at least some reading and writing is involved in the vast majority of learning.

The multiple meanings of “literacy” from “written language” via “ability to use written language” to “all kinds of language-mediated competences” make the link with social practices obvious and give us yet another perspective on literacy: literacy is a way to do things with words. Literacy practices are intricately linked to the way we manage our social affairs and organize our social lives. In short, literacy is a tool of power.

While some people like to pretend that literacy is a neutral technology and that “the ability to read and write” will be equally beneficial to everyone and have the same consequences for any individual and in any society, nothing could be further from the truth.

One simple way to start thinking about the power relationships inherent in literacy practices is to consider its semantic field. A semantic field is constituted by all the words in a language that relate to a particular subject. In English, the key terms in the semantic field “literacy” are obviously “reading” and “writing”. Both words have Germanic roots: “read” derives from Old English “rædan”, which meant “to advise, counsel, persuade; discuss, deliberate; rule, guide.” Its German cognate is “raten”, which means both “to advise, counsel, guide” but also “to guess.” So, reading was associated with thought and cognition early on.

“Write” derives from Old English “writan” meaning “to carve, scratch.” Well, writing started out as a way to scratch marks on bone, bark or clay, or to carve them in stone or wood. So, it’s not surprising that the word for “write” originally meant something like “to carve or scratch” in many languages. Latin “scribere” is no exception.

You may wonder why I’m bringing up Latin here. Well, it is not to show off my classical education but to draw attention to the fact that – apart from basic “read” and “write” – most English words in the “literacy” field are actually derived from Latin.

The Latin verb “scribere” has given us “ascribe”, “describe”, “inscribe”, “prescribe” and “proscribe”, to name a few. The latter two in particular point to the fact that the written word is closely connected to the enactment of power: so close, in fact, that the written word may be equal to the law. The expression “the writ runs” makes this connection obvious: where a particular written language is used, a particular law applies.

English words that make the power of literacy obvious are usually derived from Latin (and, of course, “literacy” itself is another example). This demonstrates the strong hold that not only the written language per se but Latin writing in particular had over Europe for almost two millennia. Latin was the language of the law and the language of religion – two domains that took a long time to separate from each other. The close association of writing with religion is also obvious from the word “scripture” – where a word for “writing” generally has come to stand specifically for religious writing.

There are many other fascinating associations to explore in the semantic field of “literacy” but I’ll close with an example from German, which makes a neat point about the fact that the relationship between written and spoken language is also a power relationship in itself. The German word “Schriftsprache” literally translates as “written language” but specifically refers to the standard language. The expression “nach der Schrift sprechen” (“to speak according to writing”) means to not use a regionally marked dialect but to speak the national language in a standard manner.

As linguists we like to insist on the primacy of speech but “nach der Schrift sprechen” reminds us that power usually runs in the opposite direction and, in literate societies, the power code is either written or writing-based speech.

What does the semantic field for “literacy” look like in your language? What is the etymology of the translation equivalents of “read and write” or of “literacy”? And what do they tell us about literacy as a social practice embedded in relationships of power?


Details of the vice-presidential transgression in the image are available in this Time article.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • rajni jaishi

    This piece articulates the complexity surrounding the term ‘literacy’ and yet makes it so clear. The picture of Trump serves as the best precedent to the story. There couldn’t have been a better way to explain how written words command us to act in a certain way. The roots of the words we use now in English and the relationship between written language and power is a new concept I got to ponder over. This piece reminds me of Foucault’s saying ‘knowledge is power’.
    In India and Nepal’s context, language plays a major role in asserting someone’s status, ability etc. The choice of words and placing them carefully to denote the exact message can have such powerful impact.

  • Eleonora Beolchi

    yes, totally..unbelievable how many things we can find out if we just stop to reflect…

  • Dee

    In the Serbian language literacy directly translates to писменост ‘pismenost’. Pis is derived from the word пише piše which means to write.
    The German expression “nach der Schrift sprechen” (“to speak according to writing”) has reminded me of a similar Serbian expression; пиши као што говориш (write as you are speaking”). I only ever considered this expression literally as Serbian is a phonic language. This article has made me reconsider that expression. And additionally to observe that so many regional dialects are under represented in written form when such power codes exist.

  • rajni jaishi

    This piece articulates the complexity surrounding the term ‘literacy’ and connotations of literacy and power is an interesting and thought-provoking topic.
    The picture of Pence serves as the best precedent to the ideas in the article. The instances in the article made me think about how literacy determines power domain in our country too. The ability to use words asserts a person’s ability, elevates his/her’s social status. So, here language is directly associated with power. In countries like India and Nepal, where so many languages are spoken; literacy certainly means gaining some command over or the ability to handle various situations. The written words can instruct, command us to act in a certain way. Here, this piece also reminds me of Foucault’s saying ‘knowledge is power’. I think the two ideas are similar on some level.

  • Tricia

    The Filipino translation of “literacy” is “karunungang magbasa at magsulat” (the ability to read and write). This confirms that despite the 21st century evolution of its meaning as it is appended to terms like “digital,” “financial,” “media,” etc., literacy is originally and innately tied to the two macro language skills of reading and writing. In the Philippines, the Literacy Coordinating Council (LCC) and the Department of Education (DepEd), through the Functional Literacy, Education and Mass Media Survey (FLEMMS), report the distinction between basic or simple literacy and functional literacy. The former refers to the “ability to read and write” while the latter is defined as the “ability to read, write, compute, and comprehend.” The former, as labelled, is the basic measure of literacy, whereas the latter is a more advanced form of literacy influenced by exposure to mass media, including TV and Internet. But whether basic or functional, literacy in my country is clearly understood as the power to read and write.

  • Pizza

    It is interesting how various forms of literacies have developed overtime. You may be literate in a language, but illiterate in computer or emotional literacy. As ideas are preserved or have fueled exchanges of information, for example, the spread of religions, it is fair to say that the origin of words is an important aspect of gaining a better understanding of humanity’s beginnings and transformations.

    In the image of this article, “Do not touch” is a phrase even children would understand, however, power overtakes this assumption as there may have been a fear of upsetting an individual of higher status. We have been trained to not challenge someone of greater power and thus, whether one is literate or not is unfortunately, of lesser importance.


    This article has raised my awareness of how the term literacy conveys further and deeper meaning of simply the ability to read and write- thanks, Ingrid! Though I’m an Indonesian, I find myself unaware of the historical definition of the word literacy in Bahasa Indonesia (literasi) but thanks to the post Danisa submitted so I now understand it better. In my viewpoint, to pinpoint the power of literacy, it is literacy that plays a large role in humans’ communication across time and space- we wouldn’t be able to perceive what happened in another part of the world years, decades or even centuries ago if humans didn’t put the essential information in writing- and the information wouldn’t be comprehended if they weren’t literate. It hence explains why literacy can’t be simply defined as the ability to read and write since there embed sociocultural and pragmatic factors indicating if the individuals are fully literate, as also exemplified in the picture of Pence.