14.842, Review: Writing Systems: Olson & Torrance (2001)

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-14-842. Fri Mar 21 2003. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 14.842, Review: Writing Systems: Olson & Torrance (2001)

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Date:  Fri, 21 Mar 2003 18:35:20 +0000
From:  Terrence Potter <terrence.potter at usma.edu>
Subject:  The Making of Literate Societies

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Fri, 21 Mar 2003 18:35:20 +0000
From:  Terrence Potter <terrence.potter at usma.edu>
Subject:  The Making of Literate Societies

Olson, David R., and Nancy Torrance, ed. (2001) The Making of Literate
Societies, Blackwell Publishers.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-1601.html

Terrence M. Potter, US Military Academy


This edited volume brings together sixteen papers about the theme of
literacy and how we should understand the phenomenon in its historical
context and in its contemporary reality. The editors attempt to
synthesize much of what we have learned about literacy, especially the
provision of literacy, and then present selected literacy projects as
they are conceived and currently practiced. It is asserted that the
literacy projects of the 1950s and 1960s largely failed, because what
was attributed to literacy in terms of ability to empower was
essentially imaginary. Consequently a new view of literacy should
emerge that emphasizes the situated practice of literacy in a society,
what it can do and how it can work there (Olson 1994). This is in
contrast with a view of literacy as an ideology according to which the
individual acquisition of an indispensable and universally recognized
life skill will somehow address any and all of society's problems. The
first of two sections provides the setting for this discussion. Its
papers establish literacy, especially writing, as a typical endeavor
in the developed world, a dominant cultural and social
practice. Chapters in the second section present reports on aspects or
projects on literacy in the developing world, especially where
extending literacy has been a goal. This volume serves to highlight a
prevailing view of literacy development as social development.

In Chapter 1, ''Conceptualizing Literacy as a Personal Skill and as a
Social Practice'', the editors Olson and Torrance review a set of
issues that when properly understood contribute to a more accurate
view of and produce more appropriate expectations of literacy in
society. Such a view is pragmatic and reiterates a new direction that
focuses more on what people can do with literacy, 'less as cause and
more as instrument' (5). This practical focus characterizes the
general thrust of the papers that follow in the volume. If this view
is taken by current generations, it may help to determine how writing
and reading skills can be used by communities for their own purposes
in their own cultural contexts. At the same time other needs in
society must be addressed rather than rely upon the cliche that
suggests illiteracy alone is responsible for all of society's ills or
that literacy (education) will cure all of society's ills. The authors
suggest that if the need to meaningfully apply the skills of reading
and writing for personal and professional advancement in specific
societies is recognized, then perhaps some of the gap between imagined
and real social development that is possible through literacy may be

In Chapter 2, ''The Roles of Literacy Practices in the Activities and
Institutions of Developed and Developing Countries'', Armin Triebel
places literacy among an array of human communal activities, social
functions and cultural processes. He seeks to demonstrate that
literacy development has been hampered by the belief that literacy
itself generates social change and the belief that script changes mind
(21).  His review of the literature identifies important parameters
that must be understood and accounted for if the role of literacy
should be changed. These include how the literacy-related policies
have been orchestrated, how they have been rationalized
philosophically, and what the legacy of writing practices has mandated
for literate societies today. While he clearly believes in a future
for literacy, he is less sanguine about the prospects for
self-sustaining literacy. Through institutional (government, political
system, empowerment, etc.)  arrangements and support efforts the
advantages and interests that members of society derive will likely be
the bases for the development of wider literacy.

In Chapter 3, ''Societal Literacy: Writing Culture and Development'',
George Elwert asserts that the development of a culture of writing is
the necessary pre-condition that determines written tools will become
the norm in a given society. Societal literacy differs from functional
or basic literacy in important ways. In distinguishing between oral
and written culture, Elwert outlines the strengths of oral culture,
suggesting that an oral culture perspective must be taken seriously if
a written one should come to supplant or replace it. The institutions
in a literate society are necessarily concerned about writing and
value it for its usefulness rather than simply promote its wider use.
Necessary societal conditions for the development of literacy include
standardization in language, trustworthiness as in contractual
agreements, technological development, and respect for textual
communities that are sheltered from power structures. Elwert ties
self- reproducing literacy to social and economic
development. Societal structures that are working demand
literacy. These structures include the rule of law, a market economy,
and an independent system for advancing knowledge. As literacy alone
has never triggered development by itself, it is ''the concomitant
development of a new type of language, and a new set of institutions
for using literacy in the fields of knowledge, economics, law, and
politics'' that accounts for real social development (65).

In Chapter 4, ''Literacy in Ancient Greece: Functional Literacy, Oral
Education, and the Development of a Literate Environment'', Rosalind
Thomas summarizes key aspects of the emergence of the so-called
''document mentality'' and an ''archive mentality'' in ancient Greece,
and later the more generalized development of a literate
environment. She cautions against equating the well-known uses for
writing in specific circles, societies and cities with the notion of
generalized literacy that we imagine today. The reasons for its rise
are linked more to the network of needs connected to social
development than to the linear development of a public literacy per
se. She presents orality as a highly valued social form of
communication, and describes early writing as subservient to the needs
of persons who orate or dramatize in person. Based upon the
archeological record she describes purposes for writing in ancient
Greek society, and notes that the absence of any sacred or venerated
text suggests religion had little or no major role in literacy
development. The written texts, however, that formed a tradition in
Greek education and represent products of literacy probably ''did most
to foster a ''textual community'' and a literate environment''
(78). But Thomas quickly returns to her original theme that both oral
and written cultures were vital in classical Greece. She echoes a
general theme of this volume when she reiterates the need to examine
the cultural and political values assigned to orality in any present
day culture where the products of literacy may not be valued or even

Chapter 5, ''Literacy in Germany'' by Utz Maas, traces the success
that Germany has had in achieving universal literacy. Germany's rate
of illiteracy by OECD standards is pegged at 14.5 percent, better than
Canada, the USA and Switzerland. A rating of 1 to 10 per cent is more
commonly offered. The author reports and analyzes the social and
historical facts that show that literacy became a cultural
reproduction, according to which people often engaged in writing for
its own sake. As the needs of German literacy adapted Latin for its
own purposes, so ironically, did those who would make German language
universal continue to exhort Latin the language of prestige. Even
today the quest for reform in orthography does not enjoy universal
support, e.g. the persistence of the grapheme <sz>, named ess
tsett. The author introduces the preliminary results of an ongoing
study that promises to reveal how written language is successfully
acquired in Germany, and how spoken and written language are distinct,
despite the typical pedagogical presentation that asserts spoken
language primacy. A chart summarizes the historical development and
the important distinctions (keys) noticed between spoken and written
language that are said to have contributed to the high rate of
literacy in Germany.

Chapter 6, ''Literacy in Japan: Kanji, Kana, Romaji, and Bits'' by
Florian Coulmas. The author provides in rapid succession a description
of each of the written forms that have been introduced and retained
for use in Japanese. In this way he is also able to offer an outline
of literacy development. Thirteen figures illustrate the different
graphemes that have become fully integrated into literate culture over
time. Historically other writing system features (e.g. alphabetic or
Romaji) are added whenever needed, rather than discarding or changing
the existing system. The author concludes that writing systems evolve
due to a combination of conventional needs, social control and
conceptual organization of graphemes. The high rate of literacy that
prevails in Japan depends upon knowing the intricate combination of
systems, which is in turn possible because Japan is an intensively
schooled society.

Chapter 7, ''Language, Literacy, the Production and Reproduction of
Knowledge, and the Challenge of African Development'' by Kwesi
K. Prah, begins Part II of the volume, ''On Becoming a Literate
Society: Literacy in Developing Societies.'' In this chapter Prah
pursues his basic belief that ''literacy for development in Africa
must be based on African languages'' (126; also Prah, 1995; 1993). He
sees the use of colonial languages as a hallmark of an elite making a
desperate attempt to integrate into western culture (127). Prah
stresses the role of people, culture and language in constructing his
nativist argument for the need to have an African based development of
ideas. These ideas - presumably those that will address issues of
literacy - will be able to show the influence of the society where
they originate. Prah echoes his longstanding view that continued use
of neocolonialist, European languages to relate and create knowledge
disserves Africans. Thus the use of African indigenous languages in
the intellectual enterprise and for purposes of development is
essential if real contributions will be made to ''a truly universal
fund of culture'' (140).

Chapter 8, ''Literacy and Literature in Indigenous Languages in Benin
and Burkina-Faso'' by Joseph Akoha. The author asserts the role of
language policy is crucial to sustained literacy development. The
sustained policy of making indigenous languages the languages of
literacy will aid ''in nation-building, democracy development and the
struggle against poverty'' (147). Charging a kind of neo-colonialist
conspiracy holds back the indigenous from making true sense of
literacy and making it part of their communities and individual lives,
the author proposes that political will is needed to support adult
education in indigenous languages. This in turn will promote the
needed autonomy and empowerment that is crucial to true development.

Chapter 9, ''Constructive Interdependence: The Response of a
Senegalese Community to the Question of Why Become Literate'' by Sonja
Fagerberg-Diallo. The language Pulaar (a Fulah language), an
indigenous language used by about 3 million, has successfully become a
language of literacy. Fagerberg-Diallo traces a continuum that goes
from simple writing to publishing making use of Pulaar. This
indigenous language successfully competes with French and with Wolof,
the other principal indigenous language, as a language of education
and cultural identity.  Books in Pulaar have been available since 1971
and are popular, especially ''novels, histories and those about
indigenous knowledge systems'' (163). The real and varied uses of
Pulaar integrate autonomous and idealogical models for literacy
support. This integration has meant a successful transformation of
literacy into a powerful tool to discover and transmit the cultural
core of the using communities.

Chapter 10, ''Literacy for Gonja and Birifor Children in Northern
Ghana'' by Esther Goody and JoAnne Bennett. The authors are concerned
with the relationship between L1 and L2 literacies in Northern Ghana
and how resources can be used to address them in that country. Despite
numerous subcultures connected to literacy, L2 literacy is the only
way to gain access to them and to key resources. Goody and Bennett
paint a bleak picture of English teaching and learning, and describe
teachers as discouraged and unable to see their efforts as helpful
towards improvement. However, the positive effects of teaching L1
literacy on later acquisition of reading comprehension in L2 English
are reiterated and several factors are described to explain why
official policy has not followed and changed to promote L1
literacy. Officially programs emphasize that L1 literacy will be of
assistance to all Ghanaians, having the potential to bring all of them
into the modern world.  Despite achievements by altruistic local
literate teachers, the sustainability of L1 literacy is
problematic. The authors propose that a level of ''metaliteracy'',
that which is shared by those who teach L1 literacy and those who
teach L2 English literacy, could serve as a bridge between local
communities of literacy and the national subculture of L2 (English)
literacy (198).

Chapter 11, ''Literacy and Intercultural Bilingual Education in the
Andes'' by Luis Enrique Lopez. The author raises the related issues
of the role of indigenous languages and of bilingualism in oral
societies with a hegemonic language, in this case Spanish. As
background he provides information about principal indigenous
languages, numbers of speakers, and official ''shifts'' on the part of
Latin American governments in the interest of indigenous languages and
cultures.  Recent developments include the ''officialization'' of
indigenous languages and cultures and increasing local control in
government and education. Lopez reviews the historical record of
literacy. Pre- Columbian writing included the bundled textiles,
inscribed ceramics, the kipu record-keeping system, as well as
widespread use of glyphs.  When compared with the worldview of
Europeans and their conception of the written word especially the idea
of book, the indigenous populations did not understand it as
concept. Distinctions in worldviews were embedded in the different
concepts of writing. The author explains in some detail the necessary
ideological contradiction that results when there is a change from
Spanish to indigenous language as the first language of literacy. It
is clear today that education cannot be seen as emancipatory when the
literacy process is carried out entirely in the unknown, hegemonic
language. With the increased rates of bilingualism due to in part
formal bilingual education, the amount of writing and availability of
printed books have increased. Books in Quecha, Aymara and Guarani
reach primary schools in rural areas. In particular, the Guaranization
process transfers indigenous knowledge and competencies through the
reading and writing of the ancestral language. In this case
bilingualism has preserved and promotes the continuation of an oral
culture. The resulting literate environment in Latin America is
becoming one based upon not one but two languages. The advantages
connected with the ability to create in two languages and to recover
indigenous knowledge make biliteracy the right choice for indigenous
peoples who must live and survive in two communities any way.

Chapter 12, ''The Uses of Orality and Literacy in Rural Mexico: Tales
from Xaltipan'' by Elsie Rockwell. The village of Xaltipan
successfully ''appropriated'' writing principally because it is
embedded in social activity or cultural practice. This ethnographic
study of Cleofas' storytelling demonstrates the use of written
documents by a local official for his purposes. Through his oral
discourse mediation, persuasion, negotiation, litigation and ordinary
conversation he has regularly resorted to the authority he is able to
derive from written documents. Since Cleofas carries out these
processes in oral discourse, we should see written documents then as
''embedded within this oral performance'' (243). The author also draws
attention to the parallel uses of written texts in the oral
performance of contemporary scholars.  She calls for a context
specific analysis of cultural practices that integrates the analysis
of oral performance with the use of various written texts.

Chapter 13, ''Developing a Literate Tradition in Six Marginal
Communities in the Philippines: Interrelations of Literacy, Education,
and Social Development'' by Maria Luisa Canieso Doronila. Following a
description of the context for literacy in the Philippines, and a
quick review of the results of her 1996 study that covers the effects
of literacy on thinking, Doronila seeks to portray each of several
communities in its own stage of building a literate tradition. Drawing
upon her original ethnographic study she briefly describes each
community in terms of literacy and social development. Areas include
traditional and literate knowledge and how they are encoded, official
functional literacy rate (without regard to non-literate or other
literate subcultures), and contradictions or issues presented by
ethnolinguistic and religious composition, and an assessment of
socioeconomic and social development. Two of the communities Doronila
has studied engage in activities that show the integration of literacy
into their daily communal lives. As communities that are seeking
change they have begun to incorporate literate practice in important
ways to achieve their own communal objectives. The author's 1996 study
offers lessons for other communities that wish to transform themselves
in ways that will address local issues. For Doronila literacy can best
become literate practice in communities capable of sustaining a social
development process and when the limits of change as prescribed by
policy-makers and powerful groups are suitably circumscribed.

Chapter 14, ''Issues of Literacy Development in the Indian Context''
by Chander Daswani. Daswani describes in some detail the complex
linguistic situation of Indian society in which literacy programs are
employed to promote literacy development. He estimates that an Indian
who completes 10 years of schooling will have learned to read and
write in three languages. Those three languages will come from a mix
of over 1652 mother tongues, 17 scheduled languages, Hindi the
national language, and English an international language. According to
Daswani multilingual India has not had broad success with mass
literacy programs due to complex linguistic and social factors. The
promised economic development has not necessarily resulted from
literacy programs, a national priority. However, long term positive
individual, family and society effects have been noted as a result of
these programs. These include providing enhancement for creativity,
making the rule of law feasible, and promoting notions of egalitarian
democracy. Daswani provides a brief but compelling assessment of the
effectiveness and status of literacy in India, especially in light of
its highly complex linguistic situation.

Chapter 15, ''Women and Empowerment through Literacy'' by Malini
Ghose.  The author successfully demonstrates the interplay of power
and the dynamics at play in a literacy program in India called Mahila
Samakhya.  The need for literacy in India demands intervention and
this program as such has sought to introduce women to a different
culture of power. The author demonstrates the relevance and
instrumentality of literacy to women in their lives as she carefully
recounts experiences recorded at literacy camp. Ghose shows the
contradictions inherent in introducing a different power dynamic while
needing to rely upon the existing norms of power inherent in pedagogy
and education as the participants understand them. Student views and
beliefs about power in language, about traditional cultural beliefs,
and about the nature of knowledge and the ways to deliver it led the
Nirantar Center members to confront and evaluate their own views as
they sought to empower women attending these six-month literacy
camps. Brief and compelling this account succeeds in showing the
challenges inherent in efforts to alter a traditional culture of
power, how literacy is instrumental in developing individual
understanding, and why such efforts will be strongly influenced by the
interplay of students' and organizers' worldviews and beliefs.

Chapter 16, ''Literacy and Social Development: Policy and
Implementation'' by Ingrid Jung and Adama Ouane. The authors present a
summary of the major points raised, discussed or inferred by the
preceding papers in the volume. The revisit key topics of orality,
knowledge and language. A surprising fact for some readers will be
that different societies in different times have become literate for
essentially the same reasons. Those factors that contribute to our
ever increasingly complex society are linked to the needs of
developing institutions and the associated subcultures that rely upon
literate practice. Societal and personal literacy no longer hold the
same promise for development because of the complex network of needs
that may not be addressed through variously administered education
programs that only promote acquisition of simple reading and writing
skills. In fact, societies have historically promoted literacy for
their own purposes and according to the prevailing social fabric of
each society.  Literates in indigenous languages as well as
administrators who focus on the functional needs of community members
should be afforded the opportunity to address literacy through
education in relationship to other specific social, political,
economic and religious factors. The authors eschew a hands-off
approach to problem of literacy and echo the sentiments of the other
chapter writers as they ''plead for investment in civil society, the
creation of participation processes, and relevant education systems''


At a time in world affairs when there may be renewed interest in
discovering ways to address the unevenness among human societies, this
edited volume of 16 chapters offers the reader an assortment of
perspectives on literacy and a glimpse at the record of its
development in 12 different contexts. The reader should consider
reading Chapters 1 and 16 to get a good idea about the volume's
contents, and then begin digesting each of the other chapters. This
volume can serve as an up to date primer for those who wish to join
the discussion about worldwide literacy. Each piece is generally
short, informative of a key facet of literacy and pertinent facts of
its historical development. The salient issues relating to literacy or
illiteracy become apparent, as do the broad perspectives and
differences that divide those who promote development and
literacy. Indeed a number of the chapters in part two raise the
question of the absolute need for literacy, that is, of the command of
written language as commonly understood in western cultures.  Still
other authors maintain that universal monolingual literacy is the only
way to address development issues and to stave off greater social
disintegration. No solutions are proposed to address social and
economic development without literacy; indeed despite claims that its
importance to a particular society may not be as compelling as in
another, there does not seem to be any real alternative to one to
several generalized forms of literacy. Even for those who support the
use of indigenous languages, there does not seem to be any argument
advanced that general literacy in non-indigenous languages is not

This text adds to our insights about the role and importance of
language policy. It gives any reader insights into our own use of
written language, the relationships between spoken and written
language and what mistaken assumptions are basic to our longstanding
belief in the power of literacy. Olson and Torrance have provided a
rich and multidisciplinary account that shows that human societies
have made language, especially written language, its acquisition and
use a central pillar of human civilization.


Doronila, M. L. (1996) Landscapes of Literacy: An ethnographic study
of functional literacy in Marginal Philippine Communities. Hamburg:
UNESCO Institute for Education.

Olson, D. R. (1994) The World on Paper: The conceptual and cognitive
implications of writing and reading. Cambridge: CUP. ASIN: 0521443113.

Prah, K. K. (1993) Mother Tongue for Scientific and Technological
Development in Africa. Bonn: DSE (German Foundation for International

Prah, K. K. (1995) African Languages for the Mass Education of
Africans. Bonn: DSE/ZED (German Foundation for International
Development/Education and Documentation Center).


Terry Potter is an associate professor in the Department of Foreign
Languages at the US Military Academy. He has taught general
linguistics, Arabic, French and German. His research interests include
applied sociolinguistics, the teaching and learning of less commonly
taught languages, and onomastics.


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