September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO on November 17, 1965. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities, and societies. On International Literacy Day each year, UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. Celebrations take place around the world. About 775 million adults lack minimum literacy skills. According to statistics that are not especially reliable because what counts as “minimally literate” varies from culture to culture, one in five adults is not literate and two-thirds of them are women. The fact that twice as many women as men are illiterate is largely attributable to gender inequities in education in many regions of the world.
I have many thoughts about this subject, some of which will not be popular. At the outset I would like to challenge the unthinking notion that literacy is universally a GOOD THING. Obviously, in the modern developed world being literate has many more advantages than being illiterate. Even so, at what age and in what manner children should be taught to read is an ongoing debate. The great educator Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf schools, felt that 7 was soon enough for children to start learning how to read. He wanted them to experience purely oral culture first. That way they could enjoy the sheer pleasure of language – songs, poetry tales etc. – in oral form only. Therein lies the rub. Cultures that are literate gain something and lose something. Cultures that are non-literate (have no system of writing), are not inferior to ones that are literate; they are different.
There are things that non-literate cultures can do that literate ones cannot. It is believed, for example, that Homer (if he actually existed) was a bard who could not read or write. His epics were probably composed orally and subsequently written down by scribes. Compare his epics with, let’s say, Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil is all right, but the Aeneid is scholarly and stuffy, whereas the Iliad and Odyssey are free flowing and imaginative. To compose an epic orally you have to have the kind of memory that is rare in literate people.
Literacy is thought to have first emerged with the development of numeracy and computational devices as early as 8,000 BCE. Script developed independently at least four times in human history in Mesopotamia, Egypt, lowland Mesoamerica, and China.
The earliest forms of written communication probably originated in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, about 3500-3000 BCE. During this era, literacy was the product of expanding empires that required permanent records of laws and finances. Later, the notable accomplishments of the elite were recorded by scribes. Writing systems in Mesopotamia first emerged from a recording system in which people used impressed token markings to manage trade and agricultural production. The token system served as a precursor to early cuneiform writing once people began recording information on clay tablets. Proto-cuneiform texts exhibit not only numerical signs, but also ideograms depicting objects being counted.
Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged from 3300-3100 BCE and focused on the activities of power elites. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was the first notation system to have phonetic values.
Writing in lowland Mesoamerica was first put into practice by the Olmec and Zapotec cultures around 900-400 BCE. These cultures used glyphic writing and bar-and-dot numerical notation systems for purposes related to royal activities and calendar systems.
The earliest written notations in China date back to the Shang Dynasty in 1200 BCE. These systematic notations were found inscribed on bones and recorded sacrifices made, tributes received, and animals hunted, which were activities of the elite. These oracle-bone inscriptions were the early ancestors of modern Chinese script.
There are three basic systems of writing that vary in their difficulty in learning and usage — alphabetic, syllabic, and logographic. Alphabetic systems developed early in Mesopotamia, and are now extremely widespread because of their ease of use. A mere 26 letters give you the whole English language. The Roman alphabet used for English is not as phonetic as one might like. This is the fault of history not of the alphabet per se. English has never had an official academy to govern spelling so that it accurately mirrors standard pronunciation. Thus we end up with spellings like “was” “knight” “aisle” and “thorough” which give no clue as to proper pronunciation. The spellings reflect archaic pronunciations and have never been corrected. Most European languages do better, but they need accents and other diacritics for assistance.
At the other end of the scale is Chinese which is commonly known as a logographic writing system (although this is misleading). Chinese characters stand for morphemes, units of meaning that can be concepts or words. Learning to read them takes a very long time, as I can personally attest. After 2 years of study (1 in China), I know about 1,000 characters. Defining basic literacy in Chinese runs into political arguments. Are you basically literate if you know 2,000 or 5,000 characters? The upper number is probably the more accurate, but the government likes the lower one. By a personal estimate I’d say it takes about 10 years to be minimally competent in reading Chinese – and I mean minimally. Scholars in imperial China are known to have learned in excess of 50,000 characters. This leaves aside the even more vexing point that knowing how to pronounce the characters is no guarantee that you have a clue what the writer is saying. There is a system of writing Chinese, known as Pinyin, that uses the Roman alphabet, that comes in handy for phone texts or beginners. But no one in China wants Pinyin to replace characters. Too much meaning would be lost. Take the pronouns “he” and “she” for example. They are both pronounced /ta/ and written tā in Pinyin. But the characters are different 他 (he) 她 (she) reflecting the unspoken, but implied, gender difference.
So . . . is learning how to read a universally GOOD THING? If you want to survive in the modern, developed world it is. What it comes down to is whether the modern, developed world is a GOOD THING. Great minds differ on this. It’s certainly not obvious that Western culture and its values should be adopted universally. Children in non-Western, non-literate cultures, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are increasingly forced to go to school “for their own good.” Is it, though? Enforced schooling radically disrupts traditional cultures – permanently. There is ample evidence that such enforced enculturation leads to an impoverished life, both materially and socially. You may say that it’s all well and good for me, a white, educated, privileged male to decry such things. Fair comment. It may well be that traditional cultures are doomed anyway. At least I am asking the question: “What have we done?”
I could write a whole lot more but you get the point. I can’t complain too much about literacy because it allows me to write this blog. At least I’ve given you food for thought. And speaking about food, let’s talk about recipes. The survival of written recipes from a vast array of historical periods and cultures is a great boon, but it is also limited. If you are a long-time reader you’ll be familiar with my constant complaints about problems in interpreting old recipes, based on only the written word. Too much information is missing. What is more, you really can’t learn how to cook from books alone. Somewhere along the line you need to watch other people cooking and/or take instruction from someone else – orally. The written word is a supplement. There’d be no need for cooking classes if you can get all you need from books. I’ll readily admit that books are extremely useful for ideas, but I rarely follow a recipe directly.
So here I face a quandary. Do I celebrate literacy by writing down a recipe for you? Or do I indicate the limits of literacy by using a video? I’m going to go with the latter. Here are three instructional videos I made to demonstrate the preparation of an Argentine tortilla – so you’ll get to hear my voice.
Part 1 is the most useful because it concerns making a basic egg batter for a variety of dishes such as English pancakes, Yorkshire pudding, and a whole lot more. This recipe is so useful that I’ve included it in my HINTS section (upper tab). Here’s the thing. I’ve made 100s of tortillas over the years. They are one of my favorites because they are quick, easy, and immensely versatile. I can make a perfect tortilla in a heartbeat without thinking. But communicating my knowledge is very difficult. I cooked dozens for my ex-girlfriend in her kitchen with her watching, and supervised her in cooking them several times. Hers were then, and still (as far as I know), awful – edible, but hardly worth the effort. She’s a good cook, but there’s a skill she’s missing and I can’t convey in words spoken or written. You have a try.
Part 1 (The batter)
Part 2 (The filling)
Part 3 (The tortilla)