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?

Reference

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
  • 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.