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Linguistics Language and Literacy

Alphabetic Literacy

The simplicity of the alphabet should have meant that now everyone would learn to read and write. Yet the evidence tells a somewhat different story: everyone could learn to write, but for centuries few did. Early Greek inscriptions are few, mostly labels and short dedications. The first person we know who used writing systematically to record everything he wanted to "make note of" was the great Athenian statesman Solon, living around 600 B.C.E., who apparently kept personal notes of what he learned abroad and what he thought about political matters. This is a use of writing not seen before, but soon to become commonplace. (The fragmentary nature of our evidence may, of course, have hidden some other earlier examples in other scripts—one might suspect the Third Dynasty Egyptian genius Imhotep (fl. c. 2650 B.C.E.) of similar practices—but clearly such a use was not common elsewhere.) When Solon had something he thought important for his countrymen to remember, he habitually put it into verse so they could memorize it easily, a fact indicating that most of the population was not literate.

By 500 B.C.E., however, citizens of Athens (that is, those inhabitants who were free and male) were expected to know how to read the public notices and write their own ballots, although anecdotes show that not all could. And throughout the fifth century—the Golden Age of Athens—literature was still primarily oral, still experienced communally in the theater, as the great dramas of Aeschylus (c. 525–456 B.C.E.), Sophocles (495–406 B.C.E.), Euripides (484?–406 B.C.E.), and Aristophanes (c. 448–385 B.C.E.) attest. Written copies of the plays were, however, increasingly available. Our first reference to a new form of literacy, reading to oneself for one's own idle pleasure, occurs in Aristophanes's The Frogs, written in 405 B.C.E., in which a not very bright Athenian citizen says he was sitting around on shipboard between practice maneuvers reading one of Euripides's tragedies to himself. In fact, at this time both Aristophanes and Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) voiced concern over the rise of mass literacy, worrying that a flood of written information would cause people to forget the important things of life.

Then the flood hit: from then on great drama on the stage was replaced in Greek society by great books to be read—the philosophical works of Plato (427–347 B.C.E.) and his successors (which start, interestingly, as "oral" dialogues in form, although too deep to be fully appreciated in one hearing). And there were new types of lesser works, such as novels to be read purely for fun. A major watershed had been crossed.

The new literacy entailed new problems. How could so many literate people obtain the works they wanted to read? Copying by hand was very slow, so the idea of libraries, where numerous readers could share copies, was conceived. The famous library at Alexandria (destroyed in the mid-seventh century C.E.), although the largest, was only one of many. But with increasing amounts to read, people wanted to be able to read faster, so in Roman times letter shapes became simpler and more regular, allowing the eye to take in and distinguish the letters more rapidly.

In the West, most of this progress was lost with the destruction of the Roman Empire around 400 B.C.E. by illiterate hordes. Literacy retreated to the monasteries, where the storing, copying, and reading of books became sacred tasks. Letter shapes ceased to be clean and simple, since now the criteria were different. The desire to shorten the task of copying (rather than speed the reading) led to complex ligatures and other methods of abbreviation, while seriphs, curlicues, and other scriptal flourishes embellished the page even as they impeded easy recognition.

Books had been printed in China since at least 868 B.C.E. (and probably earlier), using carved wooden blocks, but Johannes Gutenberg's (c. 1397–1468) idea of printing with movable type, in the mid-1400s, changed all that. His first printed books are very difficult to read, but simplicity of letter design returned quickly as easier access to books fostered greater literacy, and greater literacy, together with the possibility of multiple copies, fostered more new texts to read. The Renaissance of learning, already started among the rich merchants of southern Europe, could now blossom fully.

But there was a new bottleneck: the high cost of a printing medium. Vellum and parchment were very expensive and paper a little-explored craft (although invented long ago by the ancient Egyptians and Chinese). With the invention of pulp paper late in the eighteenth century, however, books could be printed so cheaply that even lower-class workers could afford them, carrying in their pockets not just novels but printed manuals for the increasingly complex machines they had to operate. In a sense, it was manuals printed on pulp paper that fueled the Industrial Revolution. In the twentieth century, people were so inundated with printed materials that computers were invented to manage the glut, and those computers are inevitably changing patterns of literacy once again.


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E. J. W. Barber

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Kabbalah Mysticism - Types Of Kabbalah to LarynxLinguistics Language and Literacy - Language, Linguistics, Writing, Origin Of Writing, Spread Of Writing And Literacy, Alphabetic Literacy