New Worlds: Literacy

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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 . . .

The Patreon logo and the text "This post is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon. To join their ranks, click here!"



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Literacy — 14 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Literacy - Swan Tower

  2. When I was learning about the Protestant Reformation, one thing that was repeated often, was that the difference between Luther’s (and Huss’ to an extent), vs earlier attempts, was that Luther had access to a printing press. Or at least his adherents did.

    Another nightmare(ish?) was Akkadian, where not only did you need to know your own grammar, but you also had to know Sumerian words written in your script – because why would you *not* put prestigious-language-words in what you want to sound important? 🙂

    • We have the Akkadian/Sumerian thing a bit in English, too, with our Latinate loanwords (and a smaller corpus of Greek-derived ones, too).

      As for the printing press aspect, I’m juggling whether that should be next week’s essay, or the one after that. 🙂

  3. 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.

    Korean had that too! Until the late 19th century the elites used Hanja (Chinese characters) and Hangul was the script of women’s writing and popular fiction.

  4. Hangul was also the language-set of the first printing presses with moveable type (which is one of the four innovations necessary for “mass produced books,” the others being regularized substrate, regularized ink, and systematic binding methods), a couple of centuries before Gutenberg. But since it was the “women’s tongue” it was never adopted very widely.

    And English spelling is a nightmare, and even moreso for adopted placenames. (Says the guy who used to have an office a short walk from Leicester Square, whose first language is exceptionally rigid on spelling.) Mackinac Island is an obvious one; so is Puyallup (there is NO way to guess that one by decoding phonemes).

    • I don’t think the timing can possibly be right for that, as hangul wasn’t invented until the early 1400s. Wikipedia agrees with you that Korea printed books with metal moveable type in the 1200s, but back then they were using hanja. (China had wooden/clay moveable type even earlier.) Even after hangul became a thing, printing in Korea was controlled by Confucian elites who preferred hanja even though hangul would work much better with moveable type.

      • Alison, you’re probably correct on which Korean language was initially at issue, although there are museum-piece hangul typesets dated to half a century (or more) before Gutenberg, and they’re just what survived. That said, the systems using “metal type” from the 1200s were (a) for non-book applications and (b) nearly as slow as hand-reproduction, because each batch of ink and “paper” was an experiment… and the batches were small.

    • I also find myself thinking about orthography of languages that adopted the Latin alphabet ages ago, in a haphazard manner, vs. the ones that got romanized by modern linguists. Native American languages tend to have really complicated orthography (full of diacritics and weird-to-us-looking letter combinations) because the linguists were determined to be rational about this, gosh darn it — with the result that they look substantially more intimidating than most European languages. Which doesn’t mean the latter are actually easy to pronounce — though with most of them being Indo-European, they often lie more within our comfort zone — just that the European languages don’t advertise their phonological complexity on the page in the same way.

  5. Reading up on literacy for work, it seems to be a very squishy thing to define. Apparently in 18th century Sweden (I think it was Sweden. I believe it was the 18th century. I forgot to write it down) the nation boasted 100% literacy, based on the fact that every adult was able to “read” a particular psalm. Not: Open the Bible and read us a verse, but Look at this page and read this specific psalm. I suspect a lot of people memorized the psalm long before they were tested on it.

    In some places/times you were literate if you could write your name, or read it. Or if you could add a column of figures. Sitting down and reading all the way through a book with understanding–a feat many of us take for granted–was a very high order of literacy indeed. Even printers and book binders, who you would expect would need to be literate to do their jobs, often were just as literate as they needed to be (binders, who would receive unfolded “parent sheets” which they folded into signatures before they could be sewn together, would refer to the number or letter on the bottom of the first page of each signature, in order to tell what it’s place in the collated work was. Very often the first word of the next signature was printed at the bottom of the last page of the previous one. Even then, you were likely recognizing the letter shapes rather than the words themselves.)

    • Hah, I didn’t know that about Sweden! Though I knew that the Nordic countries tended to have high literacy rates. But yes, it’s possible read and write just a few words, or recognize things on shape — which is how I can search for a particular string of Japanese text, whether I’m able to parse its meaning or not.