Literacy in the Persianate World: Introduction (3)

Continuing one more time ...


32. "By the late 1960s the ideas developed by Goody, Watt, and Havelock had come to be known as "the literacy thesis." ... The general argument was that writing is a technology that transforms human thinking with regard in particular to its relationship to language, to tradition, and to the past in general. ... It does not make any serious effort to question or investigate current implicit assumptions such as (a) literacy is good, (b) phonetic alphabetization makes it easier to acquire (to the extent that it is optimally analytical), and (c) other ways of writing (sc. all non-Western scripts) are a barrier to progress, because they are considered (sometimes erroneously) to be in varying degrees less anlytical. Examples of societies with high rates of participation in text-based communities, using scripts which are less analytical (such as Japanese, Malayalam) are ignored." (p.46)


33. "What was unprecedented about the function of writing in 5th century Athens was its social context, not the fact that it was alphabetic!" (p.50)


34. "We should also remember that when we talk about the beginning of writing at the end of the 4th millennium, we are talking about the earliest writing on materials durable enough to have come down to us. Presumably less permanent records were being made on whatever materials came to hand for current purposes long in advance of this date, in association wiht other unrecorded stages in the rise of social awareness, which began with the steady increase in the size of communities after the Neolithic transition." (p.50)


35. "The nature of the koine changed and developed in relation to other types of change: the language of the civilization was sometimes (but not always) a lingua franca (a second language for oral communication between speakers of different local languages) ... A significant property of the koine -- especially significant in the case of Persian because of the geographical and temporal extent of its currency -- is that its users can and do draw on vast lexical resources and ranges of associations and connotations." (p.53)


36. "In the case of each of the major languages of historical writing we have touched on besides Persian, especially LAtin, Greek, and Chinese, the relationship between the written and the spoken has evolved differently. Efforts to explain this difference have always tended to favor arguments from the analytical power of the script. We are challenging such arguments by suggesting first that insofar as writing is learned analytically, it is not in terms of the analysis of the spoken word, but of the components of the writing process; that experienced readers scan pictographically, not analytically; and that a comparison of modern literacy rates does not support it. Secondly, we would argue that the ultimate determinant of literacy rates anywhere has been the way the society has been structured to restrict or encourage reading and writing." (p.56)


37. "We do not argue that writing causes social change, but that the ability to read and write spreads hand-in-hand wiht the type of social change that expands social horizons. The countries with the lowest rates of literacy in the modern world, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, are those where social change was latest to accelerate. What we recognize as the mark of modern society in most parts of the world today, irrespective of cultural flavor, is an unprecedented fluidity in social relations and interaction." (p.58)


I have quoted this chapter at length - as I feel that some of these arguments clear up many myths and biases against scripts / writing systems by proponents of linguistics (e.g. DeFrancis on the Chinese language). The fact that this is only a book published in 2012 points to the long time it may take for these "linguistic" bias to evaporate. Even in the book itself, Victor Mair (an older generation contributor on the comparison with East Asia) for example is not up to speed as these theses as he should be.

Write a comment

Comments: 6