If you are reading this essay, you are literate. And since this essay is written in English, odds are good that two things are true about you: first, that you take literacy more or less for granted, and second, that you believe literacy is hard.
In modern Anglophone countries, the ability to read is enough of a default that probably every person you know above the age of seven has it. At the same time, we’re very familiar with the long task of teaching children to read, of spelling tests in school, of adult literacy programs designed to help those who didn’t acquire that skill before.
But you can probably guess what I’m about to say: neither of those things is always the case.
I’m going to start with the “literacy is hard” angle because that influences the question of how common it is. Back in April, when I talked about writing systems, I mentioned that the type of writing used for a language is going to affect how easily people become literate: do you need to learn a few dozen alphabetic letters, or thousands of logographic characters? The former is easier, but the latter allows for a degree of literacy across language boundaries, or partial literacy that lets you read some texts pretty well but not others. But there’s more going on there, so let’s unpack that.
Reading and writing English is difficult because our orthography — the system of rules by which we render our language on the page — is a mess. Maybe not the worst in the world (I’m told Tibetan makes English look like a cakewalk), but poems like “Brush Up on Your English” and “The Chaos” demonstrate the problem: we have multiple ways of writing the same sound, and multiple ways of pronouncing a given letter or letter combination. Contrast this with something like Spanish, where you can explain the pronunciation rules in a matter of minutes. There are still variations, of course, but nothing on a scale where you could make a long and humorous poem out of playing off the inconsistencies.
A language with more sensible orthography is going to be easier to read. Hangul, the Korean writing system, is so straightforward and well-matched to the language it’s used to represent that people often say: “A wise man can acquaint himself with [the characters] before the morning is over; even a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.” Ten days would suffice to teach you the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, but on their own, those won’t get you far. There are so many rules and exceptions and counter-rules and exceptions to the counter-rules that getting from the letter-shapes to actual literacy is a long and arduous journey. Or take Japanese, where the Chinese characters can have two, three, even a dozen different pronunciations depending on context. It generally takes two years of college-level study before a student of Japanese can read an ordinary newspaper — but the bonus effect is that my sister, who is fairly fluent in Japanese, can muddle her way through written Chinese to a small degree. The same is not true of me and Hungarian.
This is going to affect literacy rates, especially in any society where a large portion of the populace can’t afford to devote a lot of time and effort to learning how to read. Your average fifteenth-century Korean farmer could pick up Hangul in his spare time, but in fifteenth-century Japan or England even the aristocracy weren’t necessarily all literate. This is especially true when you start looking at women, who weren’t necessarily given much formal education — and it’s worth noting that the hiragana syllabary, which is much easier to learn, had a reputation for being “women’s writing” early in its history.
Unsurprisingly, society itself has a huge effect on the rate of literacy. Clergy in Europe were usually literate because it was necessary and expected for the practice of their religion. Women often weren’t because they didn’t receive the same educational opportunities as men. Merchants might be, at least within a limited range of words, because they needed to be able to keep records of transactions and assets and debts. The lower classes generally weren’t not only because they lacked the free time and resources, but because the upper classes had a vested interest in controlling their access to information and their ability to communicate with each other.
But technology affects this, too, because that affects how easy it is to produce texts for people to read. Where books are rare and valuable, few people will own them, and few people will know how to read; introduce a printing press and cheap sources of paper and ink, and suddenly there’s a reason to become literate. When we talk about the illiteracy of the so-called “Dark Ages,” we often don’t realize that’s partly because parchment was so much more expensive than papyrus, and that the breakdown of the Western Roman Empire disrupted the papyrus supply.
So, bringing this back around to fiction: you actually have multiple variables you can play with in setting how literate your invented society is. If you want all your characters to be able to read, despite being from different walks of life, then make the production of written material cheap and easy, so that texts of various kinds are freely available, and make the writing system one that is easy to learn. If you want it to be a rare skill, impose obstacles on the technological, societal, and/or linguistic front. Do the Powers That Be sharply limit education in literacy, but you want your street rat protagonist to be able to pick it up with a small amount of effort? Pair societal controls with orthography that is simple to learn.
And then think through the consequences of the conditions you’ve set up. But that starts getting into a later essay . . .