February 04, 2004


As Sally Thomason mentioned in her post on William and Mary Morris, an important theme of some language pundits as well as other people who like to criticize other people's language and spelling is that deviation from the norm, as they perceive it, is a sign of "illiteracy". Its pretty clear that they don't just mean that these people can't read; they mean this as a negative judgement of their value as human beings. Often they aren't talking about the ability to read at all; "illiterate" is simply shorthand for "the wrong kind of person": poor, rural, uneducated, Black, Jewish, Asian, or whatever. Sometimes they really are referring to literacy, or at least to limited education. Whether or not illiteracy is used as a euphemism for something else or is really what is meant, the idea that literacy is a measure of a person's value is mistaken and offensive.

The first illiterate person I met, or at least, knew that I had met, was in China. I didn't realize that she was illiterate until one day we were talking and, my Mandarin being poor, I encountered something I didn't know how to say. Since I knew how to write it, as is customary in countries where Chinese characters are used, I began to draw the character with my finger. I was taken aback when she cut me off, saying "I can't read." Her inability to read had nothing to do with any failing on her part. It wasn't because she was lazy or unwilling to learn. She was a peasant, and female, and as such would not in the best of circumstances have had much access to education. Her childhood was a time of constant warfare: depradations by warlords and bandits, civil war, and the invasion by Japan. By the time the fighting was over, she was grown and had to go to work. She couldn't read because she had never had the chance to learn.

Some of the other illiterate people I know are Indians in British Columbia. They can't read because the only chance they had to learn was in boarding schools run by the various churches on behalf of the Government of Canada. These schools were designed for the express purpose of destroying their culture and making them into second class white people. The children were forbidden to speak their own language and taught that their culture was backward and evil. The schools were deliberately built apart from the native communities so as to minimize contact. The children's families were allowed to visit only on Sundays and only briefly. The children were poorly fed. The schools were physically brutal, and in many of them, there was extensive sexual abuse. The people I know who are illiterate were hidden by their families so that they wouldn't be taken to school. Their families didn't want to be separated from them for months at a time, didn't want them to suffer, and didn't want them to lose their culture and fail to learn their traditional livelihood.

Throughout the world, the overwhelming majority of illiterate people are illiterate because they haven't had the opportunity to learn to read. They haven't had that opportunity because they are poor or female or the wrong ethnic group. People who talk about illiteracy as if it were a moral failing or character flaw demonstrate ignorance and arrogance, not sophistication.

Posted by Bill Poser at February 4, 2004 01:58 AM