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Literacy and writing system

November 6, 2011

The gradual demise of Akkadian and its replacement, given several centuries of biliteracy, with Aramaic as the language of empire and administration, begs the question as to whether the characteristics of the writing system were determinative. This has had enormous theoretical and practical implications for Bible translation. There has been a theory that the alphabet is the medium most suited to mass literacy, and therefore historically significant in the spread of religion. The corollary to this is the historic preference of some missionaries and Bible translators for the alphabet over an alternative writing system.

This is a huge subject, but I would like to narrow this down to the simple question of whether the characteristics of the Aramaic writing system, which we now recognize as the Hebrew alphabet, was significant in influencing Aramaic to replace Akkadian as the language of wider communication in the ancient Middle East. I won’t answer this question, but will simply provide a few starter citations. Duane Smith of Abnormal Interests has blogged on this here and here,

I date the transition in attitude regarding writing system characteristics and literacy back to the late 70’s, when I was in university. With regard to cuneiform, the first indication that things were shifting, is reflected in this passage by M. A. Powell, who expresses a negative take on the correlation between writing system features and literacy,

The inescapable conclusion is that the introduction of the alphabet, by itself, has had little effect upon the reduction of functional illiteracy, and thus, its importance in the history of human development has been overstimated, whereas that of cuneiform has probably been underestimated. Powell, 1981

Powell, M.A. 1981. “Three problems in the history of cuneiform writing: origins, direction of script, literacy.”Visible Language 15: 419-440. 

The abstract presents Powell’s thesis in these terms,

“Origins” suggests that cuneiform was invented in a short period of time around 3000 BC by a citizen of the Sumerian city of Uruk and that it arises conceptually out of the token system described by D. Schmandt-Besserat. “Direction of script” agrees with S. Picchioni that cuneiform was written and read vertically down through c. 2300 BC, but it emphasizes the use of reed patterns to demonstrate the manner in which the stylus was manipulated and sees this mode of manipulation at the motivating force behind the transition to horizontal script. “Literacy” argues that cuneiform was not as difficult as usually assumed, that the alphabet had no demonstrable effect on the level of functional literacy, and that the superiority of the alphabet over cuneiform has been exaggerated.

My research on the topic indicates that this was the first explicit statement that writing system characteristics were not determinative in the succession of Aramaic (alphabet) over Akkadian (cuneiform). This is a complex topic with room for qualification.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2011 4:36 pm

    This is an interesting post, but during the Akkadian period, Sumerian (a language isolate whose cuneiform script was used, with some adaptations, for the written Akkadian language) remained the dominant language culturally prestigious language (much like Greek during the Roman period.)

    Certainly the decline of Akkadian was due to the rise of the Neo-Assyrian empire which adopted the Phoenician alphabet (which is the great progenitor of most of the major alphabets used today, with a few exceptions, such as Hangul.)

    Pliny the Elder famously credited with the Phoenicians as being the inventors of trade; and in any case, it is clear that the Phoenicians became the most active trading society seen to date in the ancient Mediterranean, their elegant and simple alphabet thus was adopted dozens of times over, not least for Greek and Aramaic.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 6, 2011 5:10 pm

    Thanks for clarifying that cuneiform was originally the writing system for Sumerian, a non-Semitic language and was then adopted by Akkadian, a Semitic language. I should have started there. So there was an earlier period of bilingualism with Sumerian and Akkadian, and later a period of bilingualism with Akkadian and Aramaic.

    I think it was the expansion of the Neo-Assyrian empire to include more speaker of Aramaic, and certain migratory patterns, which contributed to the ascendancy of Aramaic.

    While Hangul is an alphabet which is not derived from the Roman alphabet, it is a system derived from contact with the alphabet, so cannot be considered to be of parallel origin. I favour the opinion that Hangul is derived from Phagspa. It is extremely difficult for any theory on the origins of a national writing system to be discussed in an impartial way, so I can only say, this is my impression. I won’t hunt down citations at the moment.

  3. November 6, 2011 5:57 pm

    I am not aware of a theory that explains more than five hangul consonants as being related to Phagspa. It is certainly a possibility given the real-politik of Mongolian influence in Asia, but not universally accepted.

    Most hangul letters appear (even today) to be graphic depictions of the speech organs involved in their pronunciation, and the understanding of Koreans today is that hangul is a feature alphabet, based in science.

    In any case, it certainly is interesting that hangul is an artificial language, imposed by the famous reformer King Sejong (although not universally adopted over the more prestigious Chinese writing until the 20th century). I visited his statue at Deoksu Palace yesterday, and there he was, recognizable by the giant open book in his left hand (which conveniently served as a nesting place for birds.) I can only think of a few (non-ecclesiastical) monarchs who are famed for being scholars.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 6, 2011 6:58 pm

    My view on Hangul is likely to be a minority opinion. In fact, my views on another writing system are not likely to be published for the same reason, that they do not serve national interests.

    I recently read Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From.” Let me cite him,

    “the truth is that technological (and scientific) advances rarely break out of the adjacent possible; the history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.” page 36.

  5. November 6, 2011 11:47 pm


    Like many of your ports this one is abnormally interesting. I need to read Powell’s paper before I can say too much but here are my thought’s in ignorance of Powell’s detailed discussion.

    As your post indicates, I’ve worried about this subject from time to time. In addition to the Mannu-ki-Libbali tablet (thanks for linking to my post) there is a very interesting tablet (K 652) from one Sin-na’di to the king of Assyria, possibly Sargon 2. Simo Parpola wrote a very important article on it (“The Man Without a Scribe and the Question of Literacy in the Assyrian Empire,” AOAT, 247, 1997, 315-324). My translation of Partola’s tranliteration reads,

    “To the king my lord, your servant Sin-na’di(?), greetings to the king my lord! Where the king sent me, there is not a scribe with me. Let the king send (a message), either to the governor of Arrapha or to Aššurbelutaqqin, that one scribe be sent to me.”

    The Neo-Assyrian text has several weirdnesses. These only confirm Parpola’s idea that Sin-na’di was a semi-literate professional. He could read and write to some extent but needed a professional scribe to carry out his duties fully.

    I believe that a complex of cultural factors have a lot more to do with literacy than does the singular cultural factor of writing system. Many cultures with largely illiterate populations or still had literate professions who were not scribes. And this was independent of the complexity of the writing system. At least at some times and in some places Sumero-Akkadian scribes tried hard, somewhat successfully, to limit access to their skills. These attempts were part of a cultural tradition that sought to control literacy. On the other hand, modern China has a very high literacy rate (>95%) in a writing system that makes Akkadian cuneiform look easy. A literate person in Chinese must recognize something in the neighborhood of 5000 characters. That’s more than 5 times the number needed to read and write Akkadian at any given time or place. The fact that Akkadian cuneiform was borrowed from a language family with a different phonetic complement added to the difficulty of learning added but not all that much.

    Did the transition to an alphabetic system help develop a more literate population? I’m sure it did a little. But I’m equally sure that other cultural factors were far more important than the writing system. The complex of factors that led to the adoption of Aramaic might well have increased literacy (if it did indeed increase) even if the transition had been to a seemingly more difficult system. So I guess, as far as I can tell, I agree with Powell.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 7, 2011 12:10 am

    Are either of you familiar with Leonard Shlain’s ideas?

    or Robert Logan’s The Alphabet Effect

  7. November 7, 2011 9:14 am

    Duane: according to a World Bank study:

    Literacy has been measured in China primarily according to the quantity of characters recognized (known) by an individual, normally 1,500 characters for rural dwellers and 2,000 characters for urban residents and rural leaders. These measures are not verified directly during a national census. Rather, survey teams note educational attainment and check illiteracy-eradication certificates. County level education departments or work units (danwei) are responsible for assessing through surveys or tests the literacy of and awarding literacy certificates to individuals who have not completed the fourth grade of six year primary school, the third grade of five-year primary school, or an intensive primary school.

    In other words, to qualify as literate in China, one needs only complete third grade (at this point about 500 hanzi characters are taught — and one presumes that those who leave third grade may not recall all of those characters) or, for those who fail that measure, be awarded a literacy certificate by a county education department that is rewarded based on its literacy levels (do you see a slight possibility of corruption there?) The World Bank study is mostly complimentary but points out that the claimed results of high literacy were “premature.”

    To master 5000 hanzi characters is typical of a college educated student, a level that (according to UNESCO) only 25% of current college-age students in China achieve (and drop off much more rapidly for older population.) It is likely that fewer than ten percent of the adult Chinese population can read 5000 hanzi characters or above.

    Now to be sure, literacy levels in the West are also vastly exaggerated (a point forcefully made by Jonathan Kozol in his book Illiterate America.)

  8. November 7, 2011 10:28 am


    I’m not familiar with either Shlain or Logan’s ideas (I think I‘ve heard of Logan). I guess I should be. I do worry that there may in general a pro alphabet prejudice that is not well supported by the brute facts of actual literacy potential with about the same amount of education among peoples with seeming more difficult writing systems. Controlling for all related factors in such a complex cultural system is nearly impossible. I will note that Theophrastus’s comments on rural and urban (+ rural leaders) literacy in China.


    Yeah, that’s a good point. But I’m not sure it changes much. Fewer than 500 signs would be required to be functionally literate in Akkadian at any given time or place. My guess is that Sin-na’di knew fewer than that. Obviously, he didn’t use all he knew in his letter to the king. His reading capability was likely greater. The best scribe needed to know no more than 500 with many of them having several different phonetic and ideographic values.

  9. November 7, 2011 2:56 pm

    I believe that there are fairly extensive Chinese and Japanese discussions of the value of alphabets (with scholars on both sides) during the period in which these nations were first contacted by European powers. These might be illuminating as they would come from non-alphabetized systems and potentially correct some biases towards alphabets. However, it may be that comparing the Chinese and Japanese systems with their thousands of symbols to cuneiform which, I think, requires fewer symbols will produce odd results.

  10. November 7, 2011 8:53 pm

    Suzanne —

    As it turns out I knew Leonard Shlain, and I count his daughter Tiffany and his son-in-law Ken among my friends.

    Shlain had a wildly creative mind — one of these “master dilettantes” (how is that for an oxymoron) who is full of ideas. I find him endlessly interesting — he was the sort of guy who was lots of fun at a cocktail party because he had so many interesting ideas. However, I think of his writings as a type of art, rather than a serious scientific set of conjectures.

    It seems to me that that he is positing a type of Sapir-Whorf conjecture applied to writing systems. As you mentioned above, this certainly fits in with certain national self-perceptions of cultures (think of the kabbalistic musings on the shape of the Aramaic script, or the endless Confucian discussions of calligraphy as an echo of the mind, or even Western style handwriting analysis.) But in the end, I find the idea that an alphabet shaped thought to be implausible.

    The argument you hinted at earlier: that the complexity of a writing system may be related to the difficulty in achieving literacy, seems much more plausible. It seems that the complexity of hanzi/kanji based character systems (or the irregularity of English pronunciation from spelling) can be reasonably hypothesized to bear on the complexity of reading, and indeed, more hours must be spent in Chinese countries and in Japan on teaching reading and writing. However, even this seems somewhat exaggerated when we speak of educated people (say graduates of academic high schools) who must master a wide variety of “languages” and “notations” ranging from mathematics to the notation for chemical reactions to understanding a wide variety of Internet conventions (such as URLs). Certainly learning the rules underlying mathematics or chemistry must dominate the complexity of their notations.

    For example, I think a major challenge in mastering Chinese or Japanese is the separation between the written language and the spoken language. In Chinese, this is even more stark since many different Chinese dialects (I am speaking of now of true dialects, and not of independent languages such as Tibetan, Uighur, Mongolian, etc.) are mapped into a common writing system.

    Of course, the same thing exists in English (if you’ve ever listened to a humanities professor “read her paper” you know what I mean — the written language differs in many ways from the spoken language, and sentences that are acceptable in written form become almost incomprehensible when read aloud). But the difference is more stark in these languages. I would hazard that the disconnect between spoken and written language dominates the complexity of mastering the writing system. It is better compared to an era we might speak in a vulgar tongue, but we read and wrote in Latin.

  11. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 8, 2011 12:10 am


    Thanks for this. I won’t say more on the subject of his book except to note that myth-making takes many forms and is so much more saleable that the facts. More entertaining and more memorable. It is more fun and easier to remember a good story which has little connection to evidence, than evidence which is not united around a narrative.

    Duane and Theo,

    I am enjoying the discussion of Chinese and Akkadian. As you have pointed out, literacy is a matter of degree, for each individual.


    I think communist bought into the alphabet for China at one point but that trend was later reversed. But we also have to remember that China, Korea and Japan were exposed to and influenced by alphabetic literacy from the earliest centuries of the spread of Buddhist writings in Sanskrit, and later Tibetan, Uighur and Phagspa.


    “I would hazard that the disconnect between spoken and written language dominates the complexity of mastering the writing system.”

    That certainly seem to have played more of a role in European history for sure!

    I have enjoyed the discussion, and may come back to it at some later date.

  12. November 8, 2011 7:07 am

    I would hazard that the disconnect between spoken and written language dominates the complexity of mastering the writing system.

    I’m late to the conversation but am surprised that no one has mentioned the near Whorfian (some have called them ‘racist’) theories of Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma (Asian Interactions and Comparisons) and The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity (Encounters with Asia) posited there by William C. Hannas. Before he developed his book-length thesis, Hannas had written an essay entitled, “Reflections on the ‘Unity’ of Spoken and Written Chinese and Academic Learning in China.” In Writing on the Wall, he writes (in English – alphabetically – and I don’t think anyone has bothered to translate this into Chinese; he starts his “Reflections” with the sentence, “Chinese is not a language”) –

    There can be no question that the alphabet plays a leading role in the development of analytic thought. Historically writing begins with the iconic representation of physical phenomena and proceeds through various stages where the link with language intensifies, until its units become identified with syllables, at which point development usually halts. This pattern is observed in cultures that founded writing indigenously (Sumerian, Mayan, and presumably Chinese) or assimilated the concept and early prototypes from other civilizations (Japanese kana, the pre-hangul Korean syllabaries, Vietnamese chu nôm, and some West African and Native American systems). The evolution typically stops when a language’s syllables each have holistic representations.

    Notice the rhetoric, “there can be no question.” Well, I’m only re-mediating what Hannas has said because I think there must be questions here.

    I doesn’t take a genius to see (and to hear) the richness of “non-“alphabetic writings compared with what sometimes the alphabetic replacement loses. For example, Vietnamese poet 胡 春 香 (Hồ Xuân Hương) has written in characters (i.e., “Chữ-nôm”) in a way that English translator John Balaban rather astutely notices:

    “The original in Nôm script is filled with aural puns as well as visual puns caused by the calligraphic brushstrokes.”

    To assert that the orthography curbs creativity is shortsighted (my pun intended). I’m quite sure I’ve digressed substantially away from the intentions of the post here, but I do like the questions. Mustn’t we continue to question the relationships between orality, literacy, secondary orality, orthographies, alphabets, syllabaries, and brushstrokes? Can’t we argue that human creativities with these parts of language are multidimensional and tend to open up meanings?

  13. November 8, 2011 8:26 am

    It appears that Hannas is not only racist, but that he is intellectually dishonest in quoting his source material and relies on the crassest pop-psych books.

    Richard Sproat (Urbana-Champaign) did Hannas the honor of seriously reviewing his work. Here are some of my favorite parts of his review (I have indicated the books Sproat [and Hannas] cites with Amazon hyperlinks):

    But what is creativity anyway? This is the topic of the fifth chapter (pp. 113–138) entitled “The Anatomy of Creativity”. The title is to be taken literally, since H. argues that true creativity is a process that starts in the more analytical left brain, migrates for a period of rumination to the more fanciful right brain, where connections to ideas in possibly unrelated areas are explored, and then returns to the left, where the various strands of thought are synthesized into a coherent, implementable whole. In this, H. intends to exclude the pop-psychological notion that any unconstrained “right-brain” activity is creativity. Curiously, though, one of H.’s supporting citations is Jaynes’ (1976) pop-psychological book on the “bicameral” mind.

    Many of H.’s ideas on the link between writing and culture are drawn from de Kerckhove and Lumsden’s 1988 collection, which explored the possibility that Western science was fostered at least in part by the alphabet developed by the Greeks. Being a collection from many authors, that volume offered a more balanced treatment of the topic (though the editors’ own bias was clear). By considering some contributions and not others, one could find support for any view, and this is what H. seems to be doing. A similar selectivity obtains in H.’s treatment of Scribner and Cole’s (1981) study of the cognitive impact of literacy among the Vai.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 8, 2011 8:55 am


    I have read the first book by Hannas and the conclusion of his second book. Here are some of the problems. He lumps together China, Korea and Japan as Chinese character nations. I don’t know how useful this is since Japan has a concurrent syllabary, and Korea has an alphabet. Alphabetic literacy is now the norm in China since pinyin input on computers. School children are taught pinyin, although most adults over 40 are not fluent in pinyin input.

    He also misunderstands the evolution of writing, as he states that it is unidirectional from iconic to phonetic representation, true, but then Chinese, Japanese and Korean all provide phonetic representation. All writing is phonetic representation. That is the definition of writing.

    Chinese is phonetic as each character represents a syllable, but there is more than one character (shape) for each phonetic syllable. Chinese is a morphosyllabary. Japanese has the Chinese characters and a syllabary. Korean has an alphabet.

    India has an alphabet with certain characteristics of syllabaries. Indian scripts, classed as alphasyllabaries, are derived from the Aramaic alphabet. Tamil has the characteristics of a syllabary derived from an alphabet. So development has not gone from character to syllabary to alphabet and stopped there. The alpha-syllabaries are derived from the alphabet.

    India, Tibet, Mongolia, historically have alphabets (alphasyllabaries). Are they more scientifically creative than China?

    In fact, China was ahead of the west scientifically until the Renaissance and the introduction of zero into Europe. Wthout zero, paper and print, the west was a backwater. in fact,without the infusion of wealth from the new world, Europe was stagnant. That is George Saliba’s thesis.

  15. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 8, 2011 9:17 am

    I enjoyed an intense correspondance with Sproat at one time. We are on the same page. Logan, Shlain, Hannas, and de Kerckhove are all herding facts to tell a story. De Kerckhove went off in a sulk when I told him Cree was written left to right and not right to left, as that fact did not fit his story.

  16. November 8, 2011 5:44 pm

    “I think communist bought into the alphabet for China at one point but that trend was later reversed. But we also have to remember that China, Korea and Japan were exposed to and influenced by alphabetic literacy from the earliest centuries of the spread of Buddhist writings in Sanskrit, and later Tibetan, Uighur and Phagspa.”

    I’m thinking specifically of the debates that occurred about a broad range of Western ideas and inventions during the European colonial expansion in Asia. One of the primary proponents of making China more like the West in the Qing court wrote something to the effect of, “In China it takes years and years to learn to read, even before one can begin the long task of reading important works. In the West their system of writing allows one to learn to read quickly and begin the important work sooner.” Obviously, this was wrapped up in debates about issues like whether Chinese manufacturers should try and replicate Western guns and whether or not trade with the West was advisable, but I believe there was some very serious discussion about the alphabet in the midst of all of this.

  17. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 9, 2011 4:01 am


    Thanks for that quote. It doesn’t surprise me, but I had not read it before.

  18. November 11, 2011 9:10 am

    I would like to narrow this down to the simple question of whether the characteristics of the Aramaic writing system [… were] significant in influencing Aramaic to replace Akkadian…

    I address this and related questions in my first book (In The Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language).

    While researching the book, I learned that the Hebrews probably added vowels to the Phoenician writing system, creating what I call the first alphabet, though some people call Greek the first alphabet, because it was the first to have separate symbols for consonants and vowels. Either way, the Aramaic writing system probably came from the Hebrews. And Greek probably got the alphabet from Aramaic.

    Returning to your question, I note that there is hardly a spot on earth untouched by the Hebrew Bible, while most people have never read a word of anything written in Phoenician. I believe this is because the Hebrews had the alphabet and the Phoenicians didn’t.

    So my general answer to your question is that I think writing technology is enormously important.



  1. Weird Bibles 1: Archaic Aramaic script « BLT

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