Jack Goody and Ian Watt:

The Consequences of Literacy



From: Goody, ed., Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1968) - 2nd part




The pastness of the past, then, depends upon a historical sensibility which can hardly begin to operate without permanent written records; and writing introduces similar changes in the transmission of other items of the cultural repertoire. But the extent of these changes varies with the nature and social distribution of the writing system; varies, that is, according to the system's intrinsic efficacy as a means of communication, and according to the social constraints placed upon it, that is, the degree to which use of the system is diffused through the society.


Early in prehistory, man began to express himself in graphic form; and his cave paintings, rock engravings and wood carvings are morphologically, and presumably sequentially, the forerunners of writing. By some process of simplification and stylization they appear to have led to the various kinds of pictographs found in simple societies (Gelb [I.J. Gelb, A Study of Writing: The Foundations of Grammatology, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London] 1952: 24). While pictographs themselves are almost universal, their development into a self-sufficient system capable of extended discourse occurs only among the Plains Indians (Voegelin [C.F. and F.M. Voegelin, "Typological Classification of Systems with Included, Excluded and Self-sufficient Alphabets", Anthropological Linguistics III] 1961: 84, 91).


Pictographs have obvious disadvantages as means of communication. For one thing a vast number of signs are needed to represent all the important objects in the culture. For another, since the signs are concrete, the simplest sentence requires an extremely elaborate series of signs: many stylized representations of wigwams, footprints, totemic animals and so on are required just to convey the information that a particular man left there a few days ago. Finally, however elaborately the system is developed, only a limited number of things can be said.


The end of the fourth millennium saw the early stages of the development of more complex forms of writing, which seem to be an essential factor in the rise of the urban cultures of the Orient. The majority of signs in these systems were simply pictures of the outside world, standardized representations of the objects signified by particular words; to these were added other devices for creating word signs or logograms, which permitted the expression of wider ranges of meaning. Thus, in Egyptian hieroglyphics the picture of a beetle was a code sign not only for that insect but also for a discontinuous and more abstract referent 'became' (Voegelin 1961: 75-6).


The basic invention used to supplement the logograms was the phonetic principle, which for the first time permitted the written expression of all the words of a language. For example, by the device of phonetic transfer the Sumerians could use the sign for ti, an arrow, to stand for ti, life, a concept not easy to express in pictographic form. In particular, the need to record personal names and foreign words encouraged the development of phonetic elements in writing.


But while these true writing systems all used phonetic devices for the construction of logograms (and have consequently been spoken of as word-syllabic systems of writing), they failed to carry through the application of the phonetic principle exclusively and systematically. [1]

 The achievement of a system completely based upon the representation of phonemes (the basic units of meaningful sound) was left to the Near Eastern syllabaries, which developed between 1500-1000 B.C., and finally to the introduction of the alphabet proper in Greece. Meanwhile these incompletely phonetic systems were too clumsy and complicated to foster widespread literacy, if only because the number of signs was very large; at least six hundred would have to be learned even for the simplified cuneiform developed in Assyria, and about the same for Egyptian hieroglyphs (Gelb 1952: 115; Diringer [D. Diringer, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, London and New York] 1948: 48, 196). All these ancient civilizations, the Sumerian, Egyptian, Hittite and Chinese, were literate in one sense and their great advances in administration and technology were undoubtedly connected with the invention of a writing system; but when we think of the limitations of their systems of communication as compared with ours, the term 'protoliterate', or even 'oligoliterate', might be more descriptive in suggesting the restriction of literacy to a relatively small proportion of the total population. [2]


Any system of writing which makes the sign stand directly for the object must be extremely complex. Is can extend its vocabulary by generalization or association of ideas, that is, by making the sign stand either for a more general class of objects or for other referents connected with the original picture by an association of meanings which may be related to one another either in a continuous or in a discontinuous manner. Either process of semantic extension is to some extent arbitrary or esoteric; and as a result the interpretation of these signs is neither easy nor explicit. One might perhaps guess that the Chinese sign for a man carries the general meaning of maleness; it would be more difficult to see that a conventionalized picture of a man and a broom is the sign for a woman; it's a pleasing fancy, no doubt, but not one which communicates very readily until it has been learned as a new character, as a separate sign for a separate word, as a logogram. In Chinese writing a minimum of 3000 such characters have to be learned before one can be reasonably literate (Moorhouse [A.C. Moorhouse, The Triumph of the Alphabet, New York] 1953: 90, 163) and with a repertoire of some 50,000 characters to be mastered, it normally takes about twenty years to reach full literate proficiency. China, therefore, stands as an extreme example of how, when a virtually non-phonetic system of writing becomes sufficiently developed to express a large number of meanings explicitly, only a small and a specially trained professional group in the total society can master it, and partake of the literate culture.


Although systems of word signs are certainly easier to learn, many difficulties remain, even when these signs are supplemented by phonemic devices of a syllabic sort. Other features of the social system are no doubt responsible for the way that the writing systems developed as they did; but it is a striking fact that - for whatever ultimate causes - in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as in China, a literate élite of religious, administrative and commercial experts emerged and maintained itself as a centralized governing bureaucracy on rather similar lines. Their various social and intellectual achievements were, of course, enormous; but as regards the participation of the society as a whole in the written culture, a wide gap existed between the esoteric literate culture and the exoteric oral one, a gap which the literate were interested in maintaining. Among the Sumerians and Akkadians writing was the pursuit of scribes and preserved as a 'mystery', a 'secret treasure'. Royalty were themselves illiterate; Ashurbanipal (668-626 B.C.) records that he was the first Babylonian king to master the 'clerkly skill' (Driver [G.R. Driver, Semitic Writing, London] 1954: 62, 72). 'Put writing in your heart that you may protect yourself from hard labour of any kind', writes an Egyptian of the New Kingdom: 'The scribe is released from manual tasks; it is he who commands' (Childe [V.G. Childe, Man Makes Himself, London] 1941: 187-8; [What Happened in History, London] 1942: 105, 118). Significantly, the classical age of Babylonian culture, beginning under Hammurabi in the late eighteenth century B.C., appears to have coincided with a period when the reading and writing of Akkadian cuneiform was not confined to a small group, or to one nation; it was then that nearly all the extant literature was written down, and that the active state of commerce and administration produced a vast quantity of public and private correspondence, of which much has survived.


These imperfectly phonetic methods of writing continued with little change for many centuries; [3] so too did the cultures of which they were part. [4] The existence of an élite group, which followed from the difficulty of the writing system, and whose continued influence depended on the maintenance of the present social order, must have been a powerfully conservative force, especially when it consisted of ritual specialists; [5] and so, it may be surmised, was the nature of the writing system itself. For pictographic and logographic systems are alike in their tendency to reify the objects of the natural and social order; by so doing they register, record, make permanent the existing social and ideological picture. Such, for example, was the tendency of the most highly developed and longest-lived ancient writing system, that of Egypt, whose society has been described with picturesque exaggeration as 'a nation of fellahin ruled with a rod of iron by a Society of Antiquaries'.


This conservative or antiquarian bias can perhaps be best appreciated by contrasting it with fully phonetic writing; for phonetic writing, by imitating human discourse, is in fact symbolizing, not the objects of the social and natural order, but the very process of human interaction in speech: the verb is as easy to express as the noun; and the written vocabulary can be easily and unambiguously expanded. Phonetic systems are therefore adapted to expressing every nuance of individual thought, to recording personal reactions as well as items of major social importance. Non-phonetic writing, on the other hand, tends rather to record and reify only those items in the cultural repertoire which the literate specialists have selected for written expression; and it tends to express the collective attitude towards them.


The notion of representing a sound by a graphic symbol is itself so stupefying a leap of the imagination that what is remarkable is not so much that it happened relatively late in human history, but rather that it ever happened at all. For a long time, however, these phonetic inventions had a limited effect because they were only partially exploited: not only were logograms and pictograms retained, but a variety of phonograms were used to express the same sound. The full explicitness and economy of a phonetic writing system 'as easy as A B C' were therefore likely to arise only in less advanced societies on the fringes of Egypt or Mesopotamia, societies which were starting their writing system more or less from scratch, and which took over the idea of phonetic signs from adjoining countries, and used them exclusively to fit their own language. [6] These phonetic signs could, of course, be used to stand for any unit of speech, and thus be developed either into syllabaries or into alphabets. In a few cases, such as Japanese, the particular nature of the language made it possible to construct a relatively simple and efficient syllabary; but as regards the great majority of languages the alphabet, with its signs for individual consonants and vowels, proved a much more economical and convenient instrument for representing sounds. For the syllabaries, while making writing easier, were still far from simple; [7] they were often combined with logograms and pictographs. [8] And whether by necessity or tradition or both, pre-alphabetic writing was still mainly restricted to élite groups. The Mycenaean script disappeared completely after the twelfth century B.C., a fact which was possible because of the very restricted uses of literacy and the close connection between writing and palace administration (Chadwick [John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B, Cambridge] 1958: 130; ["A Prehistoric Bureaucracy", Diogenes XXVI] 1959: 7-18). It is doubtful whether any such loss could have occurred in Greece after the introduction of a complete alphabetic script, probably in the eighth century B.C.


The alphabet is almost certainly the supreme example of cultural diffusion (Diringer 1948): all existing or recorded alphabets derive from Semitic syllabaries developed during the second millennium. Eventually there arose the enormous simplification of the Semitic writing system, with its mere twenty-two letters; and then only one further step remained: the Greek script, which is, of course, much closer than the Semitic to the Roman alphabet, took certain of the Semitic signs for consonants which the Greek language didn't need, and used them for vowels, which the Semitic syllabary did not represent. [9] The directness of our inheritance from these two sources is suggested by the fact that our word 'alphabet' is the latinized form of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, 'alpha', derived from the Semitic 'aleph', and 'beta', from the Semitic 'beth'.


The reason for the success of the alphabet, which David Diringer calls a 'democratic' script as opposed to the 'theocratic' scripts of Egypt, is related to the fact that, uniquely among writing systems, its graphic signs are representations of the most extreme and most universal example of cultural selection - the basic phonemic system. The number of sounds which the human breath stream can produce is vast; but nearly all languages are based on the formal recognition by the society of only forty or so of these sounds. The success of the alphabet (as well as some of its incidental difficulties) comes from the fact that its system of graphic representation takes advanage of this socially conventionalized patern of sound in all language systems; by symbolizing in letters these selected phonemic units the alphabet makes it possible to write easily and read unambiguously about anything which the society can talk about.


The historical picture of the cultural impact of the new alphabetic writing is not altogether clear. As regards the Semitic system, which was widely adopted elsewhere, the evidence suggests that the social diffusion of writing was slow. This was caused partly by the intrinsic difficulties of the system but mainly by the established cultural features of the societies which adopted it. There was, for one thing, a strong tendency for writing to be used as a help to memory rather than as an autonomous and independent mode of communication; and under such conditions its influence tended towards the consolidation of the existing cultural tradition. This certainly appears to be true of India and Palestine. [10] Gandz notes, for example, that Hebrew culture continued to be transmitted orally long after the Old Testament had begun to be writen down. As he puts it, the introduction of writing "did not at once change the habits of the people and displace the old method of oral tradition. We must always distinguish between the first introduction of writing and its general diffusion. It often takes several centuries, and sometimes even a millennium or more, until this invention becomes the common property of the people at large. In the beginning, the written book is not intended for practical use at all. It is a divine instrument, placed in the temple 'by the side of the ark of the covenant that it may be there for a witness' (Deuteronomy xxxi. 26), and remains there as a holy relic. For the people at large, oral instruction still remained the only way of learning, and the memory - the only means of preservation. Writing was practised, if at all, only as an additional support for the memory..." It was not, in fact, until some six centuries after the original Hebrew adoption of the Semitic writing system that, at the time of Ezra (c. 444 B.C.), an official 'generally recognized text' of the Torah was published and the body of the religious tradition ceased to be 'practically ... a sealed book' and became accessible to anyone who chose to study it (Gandz [S. Gandz, "Oral Tradition in the Bible", in: S.W. Baron - A. Marx, eds., Jewish Studies in Memory of George A Kohut, New York] 1935; 253-4).


Even so, of course, as the frequent diatribes against the scribes in the Gospels remind us, [11] there remained a considerable gap between the literati and the laymen; the professionals who plied their trade in the market-place belonged to 'families of scribes', perhaps organized as guilds, within which the mystery was handed down from father to son. [12]


Anything like popular literacy, or the use of writing as an autonomous mode of communication by the majority of the members of society, is not found in the earliest societies which used the Semitic writing system; it was, rather, in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. in the city states of Greece and Ionia that there first arose a society which as a whole could justly be characterized as literate. Many of the reasons why literacy became widespread in Greece, but not in other societies which had Semitic or, indeed, any other simple and explicit writing systems, necessarily lie outside the scope of this essay; yet considerable importance must surely be attributed to the intrinsic advantages of the Greek adaptation of the Semitic alphabet, an adaptation which made it the first comprehensively and exclusively phonetic system for transcribing human speech. [13] The system was easy, explicit and unambiguous - more so than the Semitic, where tha lack of vowels is responsible for many of the cruces in the Bible: for instance, since the consonant in the Hebrew words is tha same, Elijah may have been fed by 'ravens' or 'Arabs'. [14] Its great advantage over the syllabaries lay in the reduction of the number of signs and in the ability to specify consonant and vowel clusters. The system was easy to learn: Plato sets aside three years for the process in the Laws, [15] about the time taken in our schools today; and the much greater speed with which alphabetic writing can be learned is shown, not only by such reports as those of the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation in 1934, [16] but also by the increasisng adoption of the Roman script, and even more widely of alphabetic systems of writing, throughout the world.


The extensive diffusion of the alphabet in Greece was also materially assisted by various social, economic and technological factors. In the first place, the eighth century saw a great burst of economic activity following the revival of the eastern trade which had declined after the Mycenaean collapse in the twelfth century (Starr [C.G. Starr, The Origins of Greek Civilization, New York] 1961: 189-190, 349). Secondly, while the Greek society of the period had, of course, its various social strata, the political system was not strongly centralized; especially in the Ionic settlements there appears to have been a good deal of flexibility and in them we discern the beginnings of the Greek city state. Thirdly, the increased contact with the East brought material prosperity and technological advance. The wider use of iron, the advent of the true Iron Age, was perhaps one of the results (Starr 1961: 87-8, 357). More closely connected with literacy was the fact that trade with Egypt led to the importation of papyrus; and this made writing itself easier and less expensive, both for the individual writer and for the reader who wanted to buy books; papyrus was obviously much cheaper than parchment made from skins, more permanent that wax tablets, easier to handle than the stone or clay of Mesopotamia and Mycenae.


The chronology and extent of the diffusion of literacy in Greece remain a matter of debate. With the Mycenaean collapse in the twelfth century, writing disappeared; the earliest Greek inscriptions in the modified Semitic alphabet occur in the last two decades of the eighth century (Starr 1961: 169). Recent authorities suggest the new script was adopted and transformed about the middle of the eighth century in northern Syria. [17] The extensive use of writing probably came only slowly in the seventh century, but when it finally came it seems to have been applied in a very wide range of activities, intellectual as well as economic, and by a wide range of people. [18]


It must be remembered, of course, that Greek writing throughout the classical period was still relatively difficult to decipher, as words were not regularly separated (Kenyon [F.G. Kenyon, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome, Oxford, 2nd ed.] 1951: 67) that the copying of manuscripts was a long and laborious process; and that silent reading as we know it was very rare until the advent of printing - in the ancient world books were used mainly for reading aloud, often by a slave. Nevertheless, from the sixth century onwards literacy seems to be increasingly presumed in the public life of Greece and Ionia. In Athens, for example, the first laws for the general public to read were set up by Solon in 594-3 B.C.; the institution of ostracism early in the fifth century assumes a literate citizen body - 6,000 citizens had to write the name of the person on their potsherds before he could be banished (Carcopino [J. Carcopino, L'Ostracisme athénien, Paris] 1935: 72-110); there is abundant evidence in the fifth century of a system of schools teaching reading and writing (Protagoras, 325d) and of a book-reading public - satirized already by Aristophanes in The Frogs; [19] while the final form of the Greek alphabet, which was established fairly late in the fifth century, was finally adopted for use in the official records of Athens by decree of the Archon Eucleides in 403 B.C.




[1] C.F. and F.M. Voegelin classify all these systems (Chinese, Egyptian, Hittite, Mayan and Sumerian-Akkadian) as 'alphabet included logographic systems'; because these make use of phonetic devices, they include, under the heading 'self-sufficient alphabets', systems which have signs for consonant-vowel sequences (i.e. syllabaries), for independent consonants (IC), e.g. Phoenician, or for independent

consonants plus independent vowels (IC+IV), e.g. Greek. In this paper we employ 'alphabet' in the narrower, more usual, sense of a phonemic system with independent signs for consonants and vowels (IC+IV).


[2] 'Protoliterate' is often employed in a rather different sense, as when S.N. Kramer ('New Light on the Early History of the Ancient Near East', Americal Journal of Archaeology, LII, 1948, p. 161) uses the term to designate the Sumerian phase in Lower Mesopotamia when writing was first invented. There seems to be no generally accepted usage for societies where there is a fully developed but socially restricted phonetic writing system. Sterling Dow ('Minoan Writing', American Journal of Archaeology, LVIII, 1954, pp. 77-129) characterizes two stages of Minoan society: one of 'stunted literacy', where little use was made of writing at all (Linear A); and one of 'special literacy', where writing was used regularly but only for limited purposes (Linear B). Stuart Piggott refers to both these under the name of 'conditional literacy' (Approach to Archaeology, London, 1959, p. 104).


[3] 'Egyptian hieroglyphic writing remained fundamentally unchanged for a period of three thousand years', according to David Diringer (Writing, London, 1962, p. 48). He attributes the fact that it never lost its cumbrousness and elaboration to 'its unique sacredness' (p.50).


[4] Many authorities have commented upon the lack of development in Egypt after the initial achievements of the Old Kingdom: for a discussion (and a contrary view), see John A. Wilson in Before Philosophy, ed. H. Frankfort and others (London, 1949), pp. 115-16 (pub. in U.S.A. as The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, Chicago, 1946).


[5] 'The world view of the Egyptians and Babylonians was conditioned by the teaching of sacred books; it thus constituted an orthodoxy, the maintenance of which was in the charge of colleges of priests' (Benjamin Farrington, Science in Antiquity, London, 1936, p. 37. See also Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, p. 121.


[6] Gelb, Study of Writing, p. 196, maintains that all the main types of syllabary developed in just this way. Driver rejects the possibility that the Phoenician alphabet was invented on Egyptian soil, as it would have been 'stifled at birth' by the 'deadweight of Egyptian tradition, already of hoary antiquity and in the hands of a powerful priesthood' (Semitic Writing, p. 187).


[7] 'Immensely complicated', Driver calls the pre-alphabetic forms of writing Semitic (Semitic Writing, p. 67).


[8] For Hittite, see O.R. Gurney, The Hittites (London, 1952), pp. 120-1. For Mycenaean, see John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (Cambridge, 1958).


[9] The Alphabet, pp. 214-18. On the 'accidental' nature of this change see C.F. and F.M. Voegelin, 'Typological Classification', pp. 63-4.


[10] According to Ralph E. Turner, The Great Cultural Traditions (New York, 1941), I, pp. 346, 391, the Hebrews took over the Semitic system in the eleventh century B.C., and the Indians a good deal later, probably in the eighth century B.C.


[11] E.g. Luke xx; Matthew, xxiii; in the seventh century B.C., even kings and prophets employed scribes, Jer. xxxvi, 4, 18.


[12] Driver, Semitic Writing, pp. 87-90, where he instances the case of one scribe who, having no son, 'taught his wisdom to his sister's son'.


[13] 'If the alphabet is defined as a system of signs expressing single sounds of speech, then the first alphabet which can justifiably be so called is the Greek alphabet' (Gelb, Study of Writing, p. 166).


[14] 1 Kings xvii. 4-6; see A Dictionary of the Bible... ed. James Hastings (New York, 1898-1904), s.v. 'Elijah'.


[15] 810a. From tha age of ten to thirteen.


[16] L'Adoption universelle des caractères latins (Paris, 1934); for more recent developments and documentation, see William S. Gray, The Teaching of Reading and Writing: And International Survey, Unesco Monographs on Fundamental Education, x (Paris, 1956), esp. pp. 31-60.]

[17] L.H. Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaid Greece (Oxford, 1961), p. 21; R.M. Cook and A.G. Woodhead, 'The Diffusion of the Greek Alphabet', American Journal of Archaeology, LXIII (1959), pp. 175-8. For north Syria, see Sir Leonard Woolley, A Forgotten Kingdom (London, 1953).


[18] Chester Starr speaks of its use by 'a relatively large aristocratic class' (p. 171) and Miss Jeffery notes that 'writing was never regarded as an esoteric craft in early Greece. Ordinary people could and did learn to write, for many of the earliest inscriptions which we posses are casual graffiti' (p. 63).


[19] V. 1114; in 414 B.C. See also Plato, Apology 26d, and the general survey of Kenyon, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome.