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
  • JZzzz

    I am fascinated by the illustration of the power of literacy in English language, which makes me consider literacy power in Chinese language. “Literacy” in Chinese is also translated as “讀” (read) 寫 (write)”. Take “讀” (read) as an example: the left part “言” means language or text and the right part “賣” means pausing in a sentence. It means people who can read have to know where to pause while reading since there are no punctuations marks in ancient Chinese texts. These people are mainly literate people who have received well education. This also reflects a close relation between literacy and education in social practices.

  • Nadiah Aziz

    Hi there! I remember my Chinese friend taught me to write the word “House” in Mandarin and it was interesting as the character actually does look like a drawing of a house! 舍 I’m not quite sure if it was this character but I remember it has a roof and to me it represents the roof of a house ^^

    Nadiah AZIZ

  • Wonghoi

    Literacy skill is also very important in the Chinese language learning progress.(in simplified form) Recently one of my friends from UIC is working on a projec with Renming University to set up a corpus to improve the literacy skills of high school students from mainland China, which reminds me how important it is to change this situation in the future.(Esepically about essay writing skill and fast-reading skill)

    In the simplified Chinese style:读(read)写(write)

    Since JZzzz has explained the etymology of those two words in traditional Chinese, I think his explaination is very clear. Except for the idea about the right part of “读”, and personally I would like the interprete it as “to sell something to someone”.

    As you mentioned “nach der Schrift sprechen” in German language, I can not agree with you no more about this concept. This is also a key point when I was in the Chinese class of middlehigh school. Only by developing a full-scale literacy plan for our students, they could get more benefits from it. Last but not least, power code is highly connected with our educational experiences through the whole life.

  • Eleonora Beolchi

    This post is so fascinating because it gives us so many prompts to think about our own language and more broadly about the origin of languages and how sometimes they have elements in common or, some other times, how hard it is to see the interaction between languages over the centuries. In Italian “literacy” is translated with “alfabetismo”, which derives from “alfabeto” (lat. alphabetum). Semantically “alfabetismo” is connected to “scrivere” (writing), which has a clear derivation from the Latin and “leggere” (reading), which again comes from the Latin lĕgĕre. Literacy was a privilege for the oligarchy, therefore related to power.

  • GlobalMikeW

    I teach a Direct Entry Programme at a local university and it is interesting to consider the primary weight of focus our institution places on writing over speaking. I’d always thought it is because once students are accepted into their future fields of study, most assignments will need to be written and so the ability to craft essays is necessarily more important than other skills. But perhaps, as the author states, it is also related to a perception that the ability to write is the basis of academic literacy, and speaking is simply there to facilitate comprehension that will eventually be “scribed”. I do wonder sometimes how the international students feel about this overt focus on writing, and if they would prefer more emphasis on speaking and listening give it has a greater impact on the quality of their lives beyond that of academia.

  • Thi Dung DOAN (Julie)

    Hi Nadiah,
    I am Vietnamese but I speak Mandarin Chinese, so I think I could help. It is pronounced ” jiā ” which is its pinyin and the character is 家 . Hope it is what you meant.

  • Thi Dung DOAN (Julie)

    In Vietnamese, the equivalent translation for ‘literacy’ is “sự biết viết, sự biết đọc” which is “the ablity to write and read “. I am not so sure about the etymology of the translation, nor can I explain why the combination of v-i-ế-t could make up the meaning of ‘write’ and ‘đ-ọ-c’ for ‘read’.

    As you can see, Vietnamese is Roman-based script and personally, I think this translation is simply the transferring of meaning. If we go further on getting the ideas of what “viết” and “đọc” mean, there will be some explanation like “write” means “drawing the lines to form words or presenting what you to say on paper”, etc.

    There are some other Vietnamese colleagues who are also taking the course, and I hope they will help me to discuss more about this.


  • JZzzz

    Hi, Nadiah! Yes, I agree with you! And thanks to Ingrid’s fantastic lecture today, I think I can explain more. To be more specific, the reason why 舍(house) looks like a house is that it comes from ideographic writing, although it also has a modification giving pronunciation (phonogram) information, which is the lower half “舌” (tongue), telling people that 舍(house)is pronounced similar to 舌. Please correct me if I am wrong. 😉 Thanks!

  • Nadiah Aziz

    Hi Prof Ingrid,

    As English is not my first language, I had to google the meaning of the expression that you mentioned in your post; “THE WRIT RUNS”. From my understanding, the word ‘writ’ refers to legal documents, or some sort of written law and the expression is normally, figuratively used in relation to the powers of the king. I happened to come across another related expression; “DROPPING THE WRIT” on WIkipidea, which refers to the informal term for a procedure in some parliamentary government systems, where the head of the government, for example the president or the prime minister, goes to the Head of State (The Sultan, in the case of Malaysia) and formally advises him to dissolve parliament.

    I enjoyed reading the evolution of words that you highlighted especially the ones that were derived from Latin language and the first thing that came to my head when I read the word SCRIBERE (from Latin), I did not actually think of the words ascribe, describe, or prescribe, but I thought of the word SCRIBBLE instead which is, if you like, another way or form of using a language by writing.

    And then it dawns on me, that in Malaysia, especially among the older generations, they use words such as “Gostan” (to go back or to reverse a car), “Kona” (to take the left or right turn), and “Nijam” (these days or nowadays). What is interesting is that there is no formal form of written language even in Malay language to show the semantic representation of these words as they are used mainly in spoken language especially in the rural areas. I personally think that these words originated from the times when Malaysia (formerly known as Tanah Melayu or in English Malay Land) was colonised by the British, when they were officially involved in Malaysian politics back in the year of 1771. Have a look at the explanation of my new findings;

    GOSTAN —> go astern

    KONA —> from the word CORNER

    NIJAM (a short form of INI JAM which means ‘this hour’) or this time

    This reminds me of one of the readings I did when I was doing my Bachelor Degree back in UniSA, in Adelaide, where Shohamy describes language as personal and how it evolves over time which is related to the semantic representation of the word “WRITE” as u mentioned in your post how it originally means to carve or scratch and this is obvious if we go back to ancient times where language is being “written” in a form of carvings images or symbols on stones, rocks, or caves.

    One of the most prominent Islamic scholars who lived through the years 1100-1200s; Ibn Arabi, was responsible to preserve the books of the literalist schools was referred to as “The Greatest Master” by the practitioners of Sufism. It is no doubt that those who are very highly literate in any fields of literacies, in his case spiritual and religious literacies, are looked very highly upon in the sense that he gained recognition and respect from a particular social society, through the power of language that he used to convey messages to a particular, relevant institution.

    Thanks for reading ^_^

    Nadiah AZIZ


    This is an interesting article about the power of literacy which can be considered one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It made me think about how the Greek work for literacy ‘αλφαβητισμός’ was formed. The etymology for the Modern Greek version firstly came via the French word ‘alphabétisation’ from the Latin alphabētum which came from the first two letters of the Ancient (and now modern) Greek alphabet ἄλφα (álpha) and βῆτα (bêta). These two ancient Greek letters originated from the Phoenician pictograms of an ox and a house which were taken from Egyptian hieroglyphics.

  • S. J. L.

    In Korean, ‘literacy’ means ‘an ability to read and write’ but at the same time, it also contains a meaning ‘a competence in a certain field. Literacy as ‘the ability of reading and writing’ closely is connected to ‘the ability in a field’. For example, someone has just bought a brand-new cellular phone and the person wants to use every function of the phone. The fastest way to learn them is to read the manual. Otherwise, it takes more time for the person to use all the functions of the phone. So, I agree with Dr. Piller’s idea.

  • Thi Lam Tra DINH

    In Vietnamese, “literacy” conveys “the capacity of “đọc” and “viết” (“reading” and “writing”). The metaphors for these terms are “đèn sách” and “bút nghiên”(“candle lights, books” and “brushes, ink slabs”) respectively. The long occupation of the Chinese on Vietnam influence on language and writing. Like Korean and Japanese people, the Vietnamese based on the Chinese characters to adapt their script. Between the 10th and early 20th centuries, it was “chữ Nôm” (Nôm script) which was an adoption of Chinese in combination with Vietnamese factors. It has been considered a very complicated system. Nowadays, only some experts could read and write the script. It is obvious that being able to read and write seemed to be really tough to most of the population at that time. Therefore, literate people were highly appreciated and usually had high social positions in the feudal systems for their hard working.

  • MeganLouise

    I really enjoy how the concept of literacy/literacies at first seems pretty basic and simple, but once you take a closer look it has a lot more to offer than just “the practice of reading and writing”. As someone who fluently speaks English, I always find it interesting to explore the literacies and words of other languages, to see where they derive their origins from, or on the other hand, look at other languages that also have their origins in Latin and to look at how different they are from the words we use. For example, in Spanish, the word for “write” is “escribir”, which (similarly to English), is derived from the Latin word “scribere”. Similarly, the Spanish word for “read” is “leer”, which is derived from the Latin word “legere”. As someone who understands basic Spanish who has a lot of friends who speak Italian, I have definitely noticed similarities in a multitude of words within the language (which is also demonstrated by the post Eleonora submitted), which I find interesting as it highlights the way in which different languages have derived different words from the same core language.

  • Nhung Nguyen

    This post widens my understanding of literacy and helps answer my curiosity about the origin of literacy’s power upon the world. It is really impressed to see how the power of literacy is specifically illustrated here. Besides the arguments and specific examples presented here, I also think about the purpose of the invention of writing. Right from the initial time of its existence, two of the three main functions of writing were to serve the practices of state administration and religion (Gnanadesikan, 2009). Obviously, “power” indelibly exists in almost all social practices of these fields and perfectly becomes visible or tangible thanks to literacy. It is also worth noting that in the early age of writing revolution, only upper class people or dignitaries in religious organizations are eligible to learn and use written language. This situation seemed to have been consistent across regions and my own country is no exception although in our Vietnamese current system of written language, the equivalent translation of “literacy” is simply “biết đọc biết viết” which means “be able to read and write” which is close to our most popular, basic definition of literacy.

  • rehan

    its really interesting to know that how the term “literacy” is used in every field or context. while reading this article i noticed a fact that despite the different definitions of this term they core concept of literacy is basically related to ‘competence’. literacy can be explained as a term which refers to the ability of every individual in doing something. Like many other students i belong to the part of the world where English is used as a second language. and the main role of this language is in the field of education. but literacy does not stick to language its about competence of doing something. it can be related to skills or knowledge. But in my context i believe that literacy is a verb which is derived from the word ‘literate”. A literate seems to be a smaller word but it has a very wast meaning. we take the concept of literate person as a person who is well mannered, well educated, has high morals, ethics, values etc, etc. we often say that you are an educated person we did not expect this from you. this reflects to literacy. so the term literacy can not be just summed up with the concept of ability to read and write. this definition can be useful in a specific discipline. but in every discipline it definition varies. as mentioned in the comments its true that the term literacy seems to be really very simple but its actually no that simple. as we go in depth meaning its a very fast field. and its also true that it definition varies in every field but somehow they all overlap each other.

  • Nadiah Aziz

    Hi Julie,
    I have no knowledge on vietnamese but when I see the word “đọc” I can relate to an English word “document’, at least I guess the word in Vietnamese has some sort of semantic representation to me, that is somewhat related to one another ^^

  • Nadiah Aziz

    Ooh! Thanks JZzzz ^^ Yes, it’s pretty similar to Ingrid’s explanation on the word “mother” in mandarin, the word female on the left is pronounced like the word “horse” ^^


    I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Piller’s statement “literacy is a tool of power”. To relate this to Bahasa Indonesia’s term for literacy ‘literasi’, which means basically the ability to understand and make use of written, spoken and visual mode with language as its basic, one illiterate person is considered less knowledgeable than of those literate ones. This difference, thus, inspires many people, started from artist, celebrities, politicians and even local organization to commit to literacy movement for everyone, from every region in Indonesia, especially those underdeveloped area. The notion “literacy is a tool of power” has the underpinning value that one literate person, at the very least is powerful for him/herself.


    Through this article, I can understand well how ‘literacy’ has a power in social practices and lives and the origin of ‘literacy’. In Japanese, literacy can also mean that not only the ability of reading and writing but also skills and knowledge relating to a specific field. The latter meaning seems to demonstrate how importantly and powerfully literacy in Japanese can be relevant to society. Personally, developing literacy in Japanese as well as other languages may contribute to the development of professional knowledge and skills. Therefore, in recent years, there are the wide range of ‘literacies’ in the world.


    This is impressive! It has been my “Wow” moments discovering some essences of literacy. I have learnt connections with English words that I never relate to their etymologies. As in the example from Latin word, scribere which could be seen in words like prescribe and proscribe which are written words closely connected to the enactment of power and written work equated to law. It was new learning for me to read Writ-runs. It is intriguing! I was thinking for many English words that come from Latin, how much easier or difficult for Latin native speakers to learn English as a second or other Language?
    Literacy in PNG, is referred to as the ability to read and write and be understood.

  • Ha Pham

    this article helps me understand how literacy is related to the demonstration of power. In Vietnamese language, this term “literacy” means “đọc” and “viết”. In many Vietnamese feudal dynasties, those who were capable of reading and writing were highly likely to pass the exam at all levels to become mandarins. When kings ratified a decree, they would finish it with a seal as a symbol of their national power.

  • Thanks, Laura! It’s actually a really fascinating etymology: the Indo-European root ‘leg’ had the core meaning ‘to collect, gather’. It was later extended to include the meaning ‘to read’ in Greek ‘légein’, Latin ‘legere’ etc. The ‘legal’ meaning was added in Latin and has given us English ‘legal’ etc. The military unit ‘legion’ is also related, as is ‘lexicon’. And, when we meet again on Tuesday for another ‘lecture’, I’ll neither be ‘reading’ to you nor will I ‘lay down the law’ but it’s part of the tradition of the genre in which we’ll engage.

  • Kaniz Rahman

    This article totally widens my knowledge. Previously i just thought literacy mean the ability of reading writing! How the way Dr Piller stated literacy as a tool of power is impressive. In my mother tongue which is Bengali literacy is defined as “sakkhorota” which means knowledge that is required to write name. However in real sense literacy is more than jusy knowing how to write name or sign. It is amazing to see how this little word can mean so much. It is related with demonstrating knowledge in real life.
    One more thing that caught my attention was how English words are rooted from different languages. Even in my own language there are so many words those are rooted from different languages like Sanskrit. It is interesting to see one everything starts from one point and makes brunches.

  • Binisha Sharma

    In Nepali language, the equivalent translation for ‘literacy’ is Sakshartha “साक्षरता” which means to be able to read and write. In context of Nepal, especially in rural parts, majority of men are capable to read and write. As a volunteer, while working with PAC- Nepal, an NGO, I participated in different literacy campaigns to expand women empowerment. I still remember some instances shared by participants during the campaign. Few agreed on the fact that they were cheated by educated men while selling vegetables and even if they knew they were being cheated they couldn’t argue as they lacked confidence. Today, definitely, such literacy campaigns have helped them to read and write to some extent and improve their self-esteem.

  • Mustaqim Haniru

    This article gives me wider insight of the notion of literacy, particularly on the complexity of the concept of literacy and its association with power, as I used to solely define it as the ability to read and write. In Indonesia, the common notion of literacy, which is called ‘literasi’ in Bahasa is the ability to comprehend and write text properly, that is why people who possess this ability are called literate while those who don’t called illiterate. I personally agree with the notion of power, which is associated with literacy concept as it is evident that individuals who possess better literacy skills have more control of himself and others compared to those who don’t, at least in my hometown. In fact, the former typically have better jobs, status, and financial in social life compared to the latter.

  • 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.

  • Thi Dung DOAN (Julie)

    Hi Nadiah,
    It’s so interesting to see how you relate the words. It surprised me as well since I haven’t had the idea until I read your reply. Maybe I will do some more search about this. Thank you for you reply and hope you enjoy learning some Vietnamese as you really have something for it. (^_^)

  • 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.

  • Gloria Christabel

    This is an extremely thought-provoking write-up. Before signing up for this unit, I had grossly underestimated the importance of literacy. Nevertheless, after reading this article, I could really relate to all that has been written. English could be said to be my first language as I grew up speaking it. Recently, during one of my phone calls with my mum, my career prospects came up. She mentioned how the job market for teachers is getting more competitive each and every day and the one thing that would make an employer choose to look through my resume and call me in for an interview, is my ability to draft an ‘attractive’ resume. It’s all about using words that appeal to the reader. Since I lack any formal experience in the field of teaching, the stakes are definitely higher and if I did not put careful consideration into the vocabulary that I use in my resume and cover letter, I could be in the running to say goodbye to a particularly admirable job opportunity.

    Another instance where literacies came into play was when I went for an interview for my internship with an insurance company. I was fresh after 3 years of pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in the English Language and I was ready to put my skills to use. Nevertheless, when I sat down for the interview, which was conducted by a representative from the Human Resources department and the Head of Corporate Communications, as I was briefed on the job and what it was about, I came to the realization that there were some things that I had not learnt in the course of my study, as I had a minor of Journalism but they were looking for a bit of Public Relations as well. However, I expressed my interest to learn and basically made sure my body language and my words were hopefully on par with their standards. I was then asked to do a sort of case study and write an essay about how I would handle that situation. I made sure to keep my essay interesting and made sure to use the right amount of jargons. Less than a week later I was called in to say that I had gotten the job. A friend of mine however, who came in a month later but interned with me, was a Public Relations major, but had a problem with speaking and writing in standard English. She would often get our colleagues to check her work to see if there were errors as she found it hard to make the correct translations from her mother tongue to the TL. She then explained to me, that she was told after her interview that she would get the call within a week if all goes well, but she only got the call after a month. She told me it was due to her command of the English Language. She found it hard to articulate what she intended to say. This shows how important literacy is. It holds the power to make or break a person’s career and reputation even.

  • Nadiah Aziz

    Hi Julie,
    I personally think that language learners can be very analytical when it comes to the language of ‘the other’ as compared to our own language that we acquired as L1, especially when the writing system differs greatly from what we already know or familiar with ^^ Thank you!!

  • Bindu pokhrel

    Literacy could be considered as a strongest asset for the exercise of power. We have a hand full of examples from the world history, in many instances literates rule over the illiterates. Literate people are wiser than the non-literates; sometimes they use their knowledge as a sturdy weapon to attack the innocent ones. The bitter truth is uneducated people are often cheated and manipulated by the so called educated ones.
    In the history of Nepal, the most powerful Rana prime minister Jung Bhahadur Rana was against educating the public. The school was not open to anyone except their ruling family and their nobles’ sons. The ruling system was autocratic and very strict about the people’s access to education because they wanted the power.
    In ancient Nepal, women were restricted to go to school and were limited to household activities. Men were given the main roles in a family and society, the decision making power and authority were male’s domains. Had women been to school they would seek for an equal status which was the biggest fear. Men were regarded superior to women which to certain extent exists even today. Women were kept away from education in order to rule them. They are the victims of abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence and other forms of exploitations. The relation of this issue with the topic is no knowledge, no power.

  • Sara

    When it comes to Khmer language, the semantic field for “literacy” is rather a sensitive topic and remains quite complex especially to the Khmer people. Literacy tradition dated back to the early 7th century. In terms of better understanding the origins of the second language I speak at home, this article allows me to explore it’s roots and broaden my knowledge of literacy in the past and in modern Khmer. Literacy until this day is thought to be as simple as the meaning to “read” and “write”, however this article helps convey a deeper meaning and appreciation of language origins, not only English but including my own spoken language.

    Much influence has been from other countries, such as the Indian influence in the vocabulary of Khmer where native Khmer words are either monosyllabic or disyllabic and the written system is syllabo-phonemic. From the 7th century AD for a period of time, Khmer and Sanskrit existed side by side, considered to be languages of stone inscriptions. From the 13th century, Pali took the place of Sanskrit, this was due to the spread of Theravada Buddhism. Also, Thai had inevitably influenced Cambodian language, literature culture and administration in the late 16th century AD where Thai had political supremacy over Cambodia. It was a kind of borrowing from the Thai which included much that the Thai had previously borrowed from Cambodia at the time of Angkor. When French arrived in Cambodia before 1950’s, there were three main languages used: Khmer (native language), Pali (language of Buddhism) and French.

  • Sara

    When we consider Khmer language, the etymology of the translation equivalents of “read” and “write” or/and of “literacy” is rather difficult to dissect using public resource. To thoroughly understand these words I was able to discuss this in light with a local Cambodian English speaker. Firstly, to dissect it, we should understand that the words that are used to refer to literature, administration, royalty, religion and specific subjects in the field of education are mostly borrowed from Pali and Sanskrit language.

    The Cambodian translation of “literacy” is “akkharokam” and the word for “read” is “an” and for “write” is “sarser.” The definition of “read” and “write” in Khmer language is ‘one’s ability to read and write.’ It was commonly used as a way to describe the less educated and for people in provinces not so much in the cities. It is translated as a way to measure Khmer language proficiency. It is apart of basic language skills for reading and writing. The word “akkhar” originates from the word ‘aksor” which is translated in English as “word.” The third syllable “kam” means “passive” in English, used to describe the people that are in the lower-social class that are the low knowledgable people. The word “kam” also means program, a program designed for people with low reading and writing skills. The three syllables together “akkhar/o/kam” where the ‘o’ is silenced translated in English means “wording-program.”

  • Sara

    We can see that like all languages and its etymology, when I refer to my second language being Khmer, this language also borrows from other languages in it’s development. When we consider the year 1943, Cambodia embarked on the Romanization of Khmer where printing and making Cambodian typewriters were the most beneficial in this period. However, during the Khmer Rouge Policy, language was not a cultural heritage but an effective brain-washing device. For example, people had to learn and use all the new words and terms, this was because nobody dared to reveal their social status. This is enough to tell us about literacy in Cambodia as a social practice embedded in relationships of power. Therefore, literacy in modern Khmer today is still associated directly with power (socially classed its citizens), identity, respect and one’s ability to handle various situations.

  • Phoebe N

    This article truly broadens my horizons about the term “literacy” in terms of the reason why it is considered as a tool of power in our social practices and especially its different derivations beyond the original meaning. When it comes to Vietnam, “literacy” could be defined and understood as the ability to read (biết đọc) and write (biết viết ), the same notion as in English.

    Though everything has changed significantly as the time flies, literacy has still played an essential role in Vietnam society. In other word, it can be able to govern one’s power and social status. Tracing back to a couple centuries ago, when Vietnam was under constitutional monarchy, only literate people were highly respected, appreciated and hence, assigned to high positions in the court. What’s more, at that time, to maintain the male-dominated regime in our country, females were forbidden from written language. Thus, there was an extremely bad punishment for those who tried to learn how to read and write.

  • Meera Panthee

    Majority of the people of Nepal conceptualize the term literacy as an ability to read and write at a specified age of 15 but my perspective upon literacy has changed after reading this article. The capacity to speak and write has crafted a strong link to the way people manage their social affairs and orchestrate their social lives. Let’s consider few people, veterans of Sanskrit language practise varied norms and conduct rites and rituals in many religious and social ceremonies and functions. People in the society consider them as the most knowledgeable persons, however they actually lack computer literacy, financial literacy, media literacy, medical literacy and so on. But the reality is, their life seems relatively better than that of others. This language-mediated competency is a tool of power. On the other hand, a big member of people acquire some level of dexterity from their seniors and are able to run their daily lives, for example mason, plumbers, carpenters. I suppose, along with literacy, skill is also significant for gaining power.

  • Brendan Kavanagh

    I speak Mandarin as a second language. In Mandarin, the best symbol to represent literacy is probably “wen”.

    It looks like this
    and originates from this:
    As you can see, it is the image of a man with his torso made prominent. This really illustrates the idea of literacy being linked to social status.

    I think that as we move into the future, the most essential form of literacy will be the ability to interpret computer programming code. Those who understand this language will have the power to work at a faster and more efficient pace, as well as automate people’s work roles. This knowledge will be much more important than “correct spelling”.

  • X_C_X

    It is exciting to see the definition of “literacy” evolve all the way through and never stop. From the original meaning to the contemporary ones, from as linguistic competences to social practices, the sparkling changes suggest that the scope of this term is extended and its function is gradually widely strengthened. That is to say, being literate in the contemporary time is not only about being able to read and write but more focus is placed on the social application of the linguistic ability.
    People with whatever kind of literacy are able to use the knowledge to interact and even obtain success in a certain domain. Pablo Picasso won’t create such wonderful artworks without artistic literacy. Jack Ma won’t make Alibaba group famous around the world without internet-based business literacy. Donald Trump won’t be selected the president of America without financial and political literacy.
    This article really highlights the importance of being literate.

  • Reem

    Dear professor Piller,

    I really interested in reading this article because I already have obvious understanding about what
    literacy means with regard to linguistics field. In Arabic world, literacy is known as the ability to ‘read’ from the prior prospective. For instance, the word ‘read’ is equal to the Arabic word ‘اقرا’. Then, the ability to write comes as a second prospective. So, the acquisition of competence is highly increased through reading and takes its way to be written down. As a result, the Arabic world reinforces both two skills to make people improve their knowledge. In other words, Arabic people are encouraged to practice literacy on their social basis. Therefore, they will interact with others in an appropriate way and achieve success throughout Arabian communities or even all over the world.


  • lokendra khadka

    The global phenomenon “literacy” has different interpretations across the world where it is generally defined as an ability to recognize the syllables, words, sentences and texts. After going through this article, I came to know that literacy is not just related to reading and writing, but it unfolds the knowledge of different facets of our real life experiences. More than that, it has been increasingly becoming the milestone for human civilization to exercise their power. The competency in literacy holds many advantages to the people which enables them to gain knowledge about what’s happening in the world. The literal meaning of literacy in Nepal is to be able to recognize the written text. In Nepal, literacy was used as a matter of power center where middle class and lower class people, and other marginalized groups such as Dalits were mainly restricted from the access of education. Only the people from upper class used to go to school in the past decades. The hidden purpose behind this restriction is to deprive common people from the mainstream society. But, slowly and gradually, common people have easy access to the education as the literacy rate is growing annually. in the present scenario, many people are persuaded to get education which is supposed to enlighten their lifestyles.

  • 44209150

    Dear Professor Ingrid and classmates,
    I found this article interesting to ponder about the profound definition of literacy and the association between it and the power. Before enrolling the class of Literacies, what I knew about “literacy” was the ability to read and write. However, the name of the unit is “literacies”- the plural forms. Therefore, I reckoned that literacy is not exclusively knowing how to read and write. It also includes other types of related literacies as listed in the article. Moreover, the picture posted in this article reinforced my perspective of the meaning of literacies. Even though the sign “DO NOT TOUCH” is clearly visible, a vice-president of US does not care. Does it mean he is not able to read? As a high position in society, of course the answer “he is”. Nevertheless, his behavior is not literate indeed. In terms of the power of literacy, from my personal experience drawing from cinemas, news and daily life, people always appreciate the literacy of a person in any society. The higher literacy level he/she has, the more he is respected. Certainly, the literacy does not put an end at “ability of read and write”.

  • 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.

  • Katherine Douglas

    I certainly agree that those who can read and write have a power advantage over those who do not. Catherine de Pizan (Medieval French writer) was taught to read and write while young by her father. She married at 15 years, had children, but her husband died when she was 25 years old (working for the king).
    Most girls of her time were not taught reading and writing, giving men power over women. However, because of her literacy abilities, Catherine was given a job, writing for the royal court – thus providing for her family, and becoming one of the first feminist writers to defend women from written attacks by men. Her literacy skills enabled her family to escape poverty, and for the gender imbalances to be somewhat lessened – paving the way for future feminist writers.

  • Min Wu KIM

    As a speaker of Korean, there is a word ‘문해’ as an equivalent Korean translation for literacy which means ‘ the capability to read and writing’, but to be honest, that word is not really familiar with me at all, so I had to look up English Korean dictionary for it. Instead, a word ‘문맹’, translated as ‘illiteracy’ in English, is a more common word and something that Koreans could have heard at least one time. I found it quite interesting why there is a gap of preference between the two words even though they point at the same concept, and it’s probably oriented from the social practices where the government’s intense policy focused on the elimination of illiterate rate of the nations since Korean war because there was a high level of illiterate people after the war, and being illiterate meant a huge disadvantage in every corner of society, creating serious inequality. Fortunately, now, there are hardly cases where you can encounter someone who are illiterate in Korea, and the focus has moved on how literate someone is. In recent practices in Korea, writing seems to carry more power and reliance in linguistic transactions since a large proportion of authorized conversation is done by means of writing.

  • Min Wu KIM

    As a speaker of Korean, there is a word ‘문해’ as an equivalent Korean translation for literacy which means ‘ the capability to read and writing’, but to be honest, that word is not really familiar with me at all, so I had to look up English Korean dictionary for it. Instead, a word ‘문맹’, translated as ‘illiteracy’ in English, is a more common word and something that Koreans could have heard at least one time. I found it quite interesting why there is a gap of preference between the two words even though they point at the same concept, and it’s probably oriented from the social practices where the government’s intense policy focused on the elimination of illiterate rate of the nations since Korean war because there was a high level of illiterate people after the war, and being illiterate meant a huge disadvantage in every corner of society, creating serious inequality. Fortunately, now, there are hardly cases where you can encounter someone who are illiterate in Korea, and the focus has moved on how literate someone is. In recent practices in Korea, writing seems to carry more power and reliance in linguistic transactions since a large proportion of authorized conversation is done by means of writing.

  • Kyungmin Lee

    When it comes to Korean, ‘literacy’ is defined as ‘ability to read and write. Furthermore, the term could also mean a practical ability. It was obvious that the connection between literacy and power was strong in the past when not all people in Korea could demonstrate their own literacies. Yet it has become individual choice for them to obtain the ability and therefore to reach a higher status in their sociey. In the same vein, people need the ability(in this case, ‘practical ability’) for each specific purpose in their field, just as we have chosen this academia voluntarily and have been working on focused reading and writing in liguistics.

  • fadiyah

    The literal meaning of literacy is limited to “the ability to read and write.” However, the concept has evolved manifold. It is now used in different contexts, such as the specific knowledge competencies such computer literacy, financial literacy etc. I feel literacy is not merely being able to read and write. It includes much more. It broadens our mindsets and helps us to balance out our social lives. It is a power tool that helps us create a more balanced and mindful lifestyle. The importance of literacy is the same around the world, as apparent from the semantic connection of the word “literacy.”

  • Nancy

    No one can deny the crucial roles of literacy in an individual life and in society. In my country, illiteracy eradiation campaigns have been conducted for over seventy years and efforts to promote literacy still continue today.
    Literacy, in my social context, does not merely mean “the ability to read and write” but closely links to education and social status. The higher education you recieve, the more educational qualifications you possess, the more respectable and valued you become in the society.

  • Khalid

    I was reading about the exact meaning of literacy in Arabic language with a great relation to Qur’an, I have found an interesting definition which presented literacy as the “Reading ability” with a metaphorical meaning that goes beyond the abstract word to encompasses the “knowledge” of understanding and reacting. It was defined as the ability to distinguish the meaning in all its facets and contexts, and it was not about being ‘educated’ rather it represents all the knowledge that people may have about specific things.

  • Hayu Austina

    I remember how you asked us in the first meeting of the class “What is Literacy?” and most of us came up with “the ability to read and write”. Since we could not give the same answers later on, it was nice that you encouraged us to reflect on the deeper meaning of Literacy. I agree that literacy is a tool of power and the power in the society is usually run through written-based speech. I think it is because written products can be easily transferred and read many times without being distorted compared with spoken products. Talking about written products, Indonesian spelling has been changed since 1972 by the president at that time. Some of examples on the changes are: “oe” becomes “u”, “tj” becomes “c”, “dj” becomes “j”, and “j” becomes “y”. A criticism on the political motive behind it appeared after that policy. The oppositions mentioned that it was a way to gradually remove the influence of previous government, especially when people would gradually neglect the written products in old spellings during the previous government era.

  • Xi Yang

    I have never really thought about the meaning of ‘literacy’ before reading this article, to me or to many people, literacy basically means the ability to read and write. But now toward the end of semester, I have learnt that literacy has lot more to offer. I am strongly agree with many of the above comments that some languages have a certain degree of similarities because they may comes from the same language, I also believe that geography is main reason which cause this similarity. Based on my own study history, Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean are similar to each other in terms of pronunciation and writing. Not only Asian languages, a lot of European languages share the exact same words and similar grammar structure. For example, all the vocabularies have gender in French and Spanish which is different unique and different from Asian languages.