Archive for Literacy

African (il)literacy

The following article is so revelatory, at least for me, that I wish I could copy it entirely.  Since that's not what we do at Language Log, I will just quote the opening portion (probably less than a quarter of the total essay), while pointing to a few additional highlights, and encourage others who are interested to read the whole piece (4,700 words):

"Africa writes back:  European ideas of African illiteracy are persistent, prejudiced and, as the story of Libyc script shows, entirely wrong", Aeon (6/17/21), by D. Vance Smith, edited by Sam Dresser

Four different writing systems have been used in Algeria. Three are well known – Phoenician, Latin and Arabic – while one is both indigenous to Africa and survives only as a writing system. The language it represents is called Old Libyan or Numidian, simply because it was spoken in Numidia and Libya. Since it’s possible that it’s an ancestor of modern Berber languages – although even that’s not clear – the script is usually called Libyco-Berber. Found throughout North Africa, and as far west as the Canary Islands, the script might have been used for at least as long as 1,000 years. Yet only short passages of it survive, all of them painted or engraved on rock. Everything else written in Libyco-Berber has disappeared.

Libyco-Berber has been recognised as an African script since the 17th century. But even after 400 years, it hasn’t been fully deciphered. There are no long texts surviving that would help, and the legacy of the written language has been one of acts of destruction, both massive and petty. That fate, of course, is not unique. It’s something that’s characteristic of modern European civilisation: it both destroys and treasures what it encounters in the rest of the world. Like Scipio Africanus weeping while he gazed at the Carthage he’d just obliterated, the destruction of the other is turned into life lessons for the destroyer, or artefacts in colonial cabinets of curiosities. The most important piece of Libyco-Berber writing was pillaged and sold to the British Museum for five pounds. It’s not currently on display.

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Indonesia's multitudinous scripts, ethnicities, and identities

A friend called my attention to this intriguing article:

"This man can read and write 30 ancient Indonesian scripts, some as old as 500 years", by Kiki Siregar, Channel NewsAsia / CNA (3/6/21)

Thirty years old Diaz Nawaksara says, “I started in 2012 by studying the Javanese script first.”

Today, he can read and write over 30 ancient Indonesian scripts. He understands fluently about half of the languages associated with these scripts.

It is a rare ability considering that most Indonesians can only read one or two scripts.

Most Indonesians can read Latin, the script used for the national language Bahasa Indonesia as well as English. Others also know Arabic for reading the Koran or Chinese.

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Acquiring literacy in medieval Dunhuang

This semester, I'm teaching an advanced graduate seminar on Dunhuangology.  Below, I will explain what that means, but first let me post photographs of one of the manuscripts from Dunhuang that we will be studying in the class:

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On the origin of the term "hanzi"

[This is a guest post by Nicholas Morrow Williams]

I recently came across this article on the first occurrence of hanzi 漢字 ("Chinese character; Han character; Sinogram; Japanese: kanji; Korean: hanja; Vietnamese: hán tự/chữ hán漢字/漢"):
 
Wang Yong 王勇. "'Kanji' tanjō no isseki: 'bonzi' kara 'kanji' e" 「漢字」誕生の一齣――「梵字」から「漢字」へ.
Bukkyō shigaku kenkyū (The Journal of the History of Buddhism), 56.1 (2013): 1-11.
 

It's obvious when you think about it, but of course there was originally no need to write the word hanzi when Chinese characters were the only game in town, writing-wise. Wang first refers to some earlier identifications of the earliest use of hanzi dating to the Song (960-1279) or Yuan (1271-1368), and then points out that the Japanese monk-scholars Kūkai 空海 (774-835) and Saichō 最澄 767-822) seem to have used it in their works, though the details are a bit complex. The clearest single usage seems to be in a text completed by Saichō in 818, entitled the Jugokoku kaishō 守護国界章. But then Wang further points out the Fànyǔ qiānzì wén 梵語千字文 by Yijing 義浄 (635-713), which explains in its introduction that it uses hanzi in correspondence to each Sanskrit letter. The overall point is clear: the term hanzi first came into common usage among Tang-era (618-907) monks as it was required to distinguish Chinese writing from Sanskrit. This insight does not seem to have been incorporated into all the standard reference works yet (my Hanyu da cidian identifies the earliest usage in the Song).

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Candida Xu: a highly literate Chinese woman of the 17th century

Throughout history, female literacy in China was extremely low.  It was only in the 20th century that sizable numbers of women were able to read.  An exception to this general rule was Candida Xu (in Chinese called Xǔ Xú Gāndìdà, 许徐甘第大, Xǔ Xú shì 许徐氏,Xǔ Gāndìdà 许甘第大,Xú Gāndìdà 徐甘第大, and Gāndìdà 甘第大 [source]).  The double surname Xǔ Xú 许徐 — highly unusual for a woman in premodern China — derives from her marriage to a man named Xǔ Yuǎndù 许远度, to whom she bore eight children.  They observed the Catholic custom whereby the husband did not take concubines.

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Pinyin for the Prez

Watch what happens at the tail end of the 24 second video clip in this Twitter post:

https://twitter.com/sszyz1758/status/1054376432762216448

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Julie Washington on Dialects and Literacy

Read here now: the fine profile of my friend and research collaborator Julie Washington in the April issue of the Atlantic magazine. It’s been out for a while but you might not have seen it if, as in Madison WI where I live, it’s still February (we had the biggest snowstorm of the season this week). Julie is a professor at Georgia State University and the head of their program in Communication Sciences and Disorders. She’s an expert on the structure, acquisition, and use of African American English (AAE), and her research focuses on how use of the dialect affects reading achievement and educational progress, the assessment of children’s language and reading, and the identification of developmental language and reading disorders. The article describes her view that children who speak AAE in the home and community will make better progress in learning to read, and in school, if they can code switch between AAE and the mainstream dialect, often termed (though not by her) "standard" American English.

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Help our spam journal to a healthy grow

I continue to be astonished by the sheer volume of the junk email I get from spam journals and organizers of spamferences, and by the linguistic ineptitude of the unprincipled responsible parties. I have been getting dozens per month, for a year or more: journal announcements, calls for papers, requests for conference attendance, subscription information, and invitations to editorial boards. Today I got a prestige invitation that began thus:

After careful evaluation and reading your article published in Journal of Logic, Language and Information entitled “On the Mathematical Foundations of", we decided to send you this invitation.

Clearly the careful evaluation and reading did not enable them to get to the end of my title (it does not end in of). And what was the invitation?

In light of your remarkable achievements in Critical Care, we would like to invite you to join the Editorial Board of Journal of Nursing.

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New York high school Chinese test

Zhuang Pinghui, in the South China Morning Post (1/18/17) has an article that is truly baffling:  "US high school Chinese test stumps internet users in China".

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The perils of literacy

I see this on zdic (online dictionary of Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese) from time to time:

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More bovine excrement to rebut

Recently someone who runs some sort of online discussion forum wrote to ask me about the accuracy (or otherwise) of two bipartite claims. One said that "Language became prominent only after printed word entered our consciousness" and that "This caused the externalization and objectification of 'knowledge'," and the other said that in non-literate cultures "people have more verbs in their language" while we English speakers "have more nouns," and that "Our language [= English] is actor centered and their language is action centered."

I feel I have to make an effort to aid the benighted, so I responded to this cry for help. I made a few false starts on drafts containing phrases like "utter raving nutball" and "toxic, festering, postmodernist bullshit," which I then erased, and finally I settled down to write a kinder, gentler response. I didn't manage brilliantly — what I wrote won't win any prizes at a kindness-and-gentleness show, if they have such things — but I reined myself in a little (not voicing my suspicion that the writer's brain had been poisoned by reading Derrida, for example, because I think the accusation that someone has read Derrida is always offensive), and what I wrote back was as follows.

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Say what?

Mike Miller received the text below via WeChat recently, where it seems to be making the rounds:

Gěi dàjiā jiǎng yīgè gǎnrén de gùshì: Yīgè qiāng kōng hé jī shè jī cǎn chǐ dú ē, túrán, chài yī líng diàn máo bīn qǐ, lí yuè miè chán…ránhòu jiù sǐle. Tài gǎnrénle…! Zhè gùshì jiào “yīgè wénmáng de bēi'āi”. Dàjiā wǎn'ān, míngtiān jiàn!

给大家讲一个感人的故事: 一个戗箜翮齑歙畿黪褫髑屙 ,突然,虿黟囹簟蟊豳綮,蠡瀹蠛躔…然后就死了。 太感人了…! 这故事叫《一个文盲的悲哀》。大家晚安,明天见!

Let me tell everybody a touching story:  A blah blah blah blah.  Suddenly, blah blah blah, blah blah….  After that he died.  This is so touching.  This story is called "The sorrow of an illiterate".  Good night, everybody.  See you tomorrow.

VHM:  Pinyin transcription and translation added by me.

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Manchu illiteracy

Devin Fitzgerald, who works on Qing manuscripts at Harvard, posted an image on Twitter showing some of the difficulties that pre-conquest Qing archivists had with Chinese characters:

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