Ottenheimer Chapter 7 Writing and Literacy



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Ottenheimer Chapter 7
Writing and Literacy
Writing and Symbolism

  • Not all universal symbols are universal.

    • Author gives the example of her bathroom experience and the universal symbol for women’s room

    • Note the skirt that she saw as a symbol for women, but that a Comoros man saw as a sign for men.

    • Men in many Pacific Island countries also wear a “skirt”

  • She goes on to discuss the NASA plaque launched with the Pioneer 10 in 1972.

    • It was intended to be a universal form of communication

    • The raised hand, for instance, was intended as a signal of friendship

  • But, visual symbols that we use to are to a great extent arbitrary (just like we have talked about for spoken language)

    • For instance, different languages have different-sounding words for a small, furry house pet that ‘meows’.

    • English it is cat, Shinzwani it is mpaha, and in Japanese it is neko

  • As you learn a new language you are likely to want to learn how to write it.


What is Writing?

  • Writing is not language because:

  • We do not need to teach language (it is innate), but writing is taught.

  • Not all cultures have writing; it is not universal as is language.

  • Language is ancient, writing is recent.

  • Writing is considered to be:

    • A way of recording language by visible marks

    • A system of graphic symbols that can be used to reflect any thought.

    • System of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer.

    • The first of these three definitions talks about recording ‘language’ and the second is about conveying meaning and thought and the third reminds us that we record utterances

  • While it not necessary to think of writing as representing spoken language, that is the general view.

    • Writing (the graphic representation of language) is considered secondary to speech

    • Most scholars differentiate complete writing systems from partial writing systems

      • Complete writing systems allow you to record any and all thoughts and words

      • Partial writing systems are limited in what they can convey

        • “Picture writing systems such as the bathroom signs, NASA space probe are partial

        • They convey only what they can picture, and are limited by cultural understandings.


How Does Writing Work?

  • Suggestion: If the vocabulary of this chapter is confusing, visit our library and watch the this film: The Writing Code: The Greatest Invention.

  • Writing systems work by using symbols to represent sounds as well as ideas or meanings. There is no general agreement on what to call each of these types of symbols.

  • Option 1 (Phonetic signs):

    • Words like phonetic, phonographic, and sonographic have been suggested for the symbols that represent sounds.

    • Phonetic sign is a graphic mark that represents one or more sounds of a language

      • A bit different from a phonetic symbol; the linguistic transcription of a single sound

      • The phonetic sign is the mark you make on paper

        • Use <> for signs, and [ ] for symbol

        • Single sound example: In English is [s], but in Arabic one writes < س >

        • Group of sounds example: In English is [ks] or Japanese one writes < > for [sa]

      • Signs read differently in different languages: may be [ʃ ] in French as in chaise, [x}] in German or Czech as in Bach, or as [tʃ ] in English as in chair

  • Option 2 (Semantic signs):

    • Words like semantic, pictographic, logographic and ideographic have been suggested for the symbols that represent meaning.

    • A semantic sign may or may not also represent sounds, but representing sounds is not the focus of a semantic sign

    • The primary focus is to represent meaning.

      • For instance, <2> represents the idea of a specific number in many languages. The actual pronunciation of this idea is not specifically coded in the sign.

      • In English it is two, it is deux in French and so forth

  • Option 3: Some writing systems use phonetic and semantic signs in the same written word.

    • In English, we write <2nd> for [sɛkənd], and in French it is <2e>

    • The Internet site called L337 (an urban dictionary, is another example


Kinds of Writing 1

  • Both writing systems based on phonetic signs and/or on semantic signs are equally complex and neither is used by more ‘advanced’ cultures.

    • Old-fashioned classifications were based on predominance of sign types

      • Semantic vs. phonetic signs

      • Ideographic/logographic vs. syllabic/alphabetic systems

    • Assumed progression from semantic to phonetic

    • Are now understand this path to be ethnocentric

  • We will briefly discuss each of these systems listed here: 1) Pictographic; 2) rebus; 3) logographic; 4 syllabic; 5) logosyllabic; and 6) alphabetic.

  • Pictographic “Writing”

    • Pictographic writing uses pictures or images represent things; most early attempts at keeping records were pictographic

    • Generally, the pictures look something like the things they represent

    • This symbol ( ☼ ) could represent the sun

    • Pictographs alone are not complete writing systems in that pictographs generally can only represent what they draw. One solution is that meanings can be extended:

        • ☼ can now mean warmth

        • Extensions require cultural context


Kinds of Writing 2

  • Rebus Writing

    • Rebus writing uses a single picture to represent words that sound the same

      • This is a way to move away from the concrete limitations of pictographs. For example, in English the words I and eye sound the same. Also in English the words sun and son

      • Rebus writing allows for sentences like: Eye sea ewe, Eye c u, Got 2 go

    • Can be applied to any symbol not just pictographs.

      • Example the English <2> can stand in for two, too, or to

      • Much of texting using this type of writing

    • Rebus writing was a major breakthrough in writing, which was independently discovered in Sumeria (3,000 BCE); China (1,500 BCE) & Mayan America (0 BCE)


Kinds of Writing 3

  • Logographic Writing (Also called Ideographic writing)

    • Logographic writing uses graphic signs to represent words or ideas associated with those words

      • Logographs are the signs in a logographic system

      • Logographs are semantic signs in the fullest sense of the word.

      • While this type of writing is called both logographic and ideographic these words mean slightly different things:

        • Logograph means “word-sign”, and Ideograph means “idea-sign”

        • Your author prefers logograph to represent both words and ideas

    • Many logographs may have evolved from pictographs, but they became more abstract over time.

      • Rebus writing allows for a single sign to represent more than one word, logographs move beyond this and assigns individual signs to individual words.

        • ☼ = the spoken word “sun” [sǝn]

        • @ sign = “at” (in English), “herring” (in Czech)

      • They generally do not look like the word or idea they represent after a time

  • Unlike rebus writing, the symbol used does not have to sound the same as the word/idea being represented


Kinds of Writing 4

  • Syllabic Writing

    • Syllabic writing uses graphic signs to represent individual syllables

    • This was a significant development for writing systems

      • This means signs can be used phonetically as well as (or instead of) semantically.

      • Writing can also be more efficient.

    • Hypothetical examples in English

      • If we let @ stand for the sound of the syllable [æt] we could write cat as , catch as and so forth

      • Or if ☼ is the sign for the syllable “sun” [sǝn]we could write ☼ken, ☼der, ☼dry, ☼shine

    • Syllabaries (syllabic writing systems) work best in languages with mostly CV, VC, and V syllables (C is consonants and V as vowels) Can be a problem as in scratch: CCCVCCC!

      • They work best for languages such as Chinese, Cherokee, Mayan, Inuit, Vai and so forth

      • They work worst for languages such as English, Czech and Russian

    • One of the best known Syllabaries is that of Cherokee (see next page).

    • Japanese uses two different syllabaries: Hiragana is the more commonly used one; Katakana is more for formal documents or for borrowed words.


Cherokee Syllabary (Click to see image)


Kinds of Writing 5


  • Logosyllabic Writing

    • Signs carry both semantic and phonetic information

    • A combination of logographic and syllabic signs

  • Best known of these is cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing of Sumeria, the Mayan glyphs and contemporary Chinese characters.

    • Until recently each of these was thought of as entirely logographic, but now we know they are a combination

    • Example: In cuneiform, ka is the semantic sign for mouth, the phonetic sign [me] you create the word for tongue, pronounced [eme]

    • Example 2: In cuneiform, ka is the semantic sign for mouth, the phonetic sign [nun] you create the word for lip, pronounced [nundum]

      • Note that [ka] does not contribute the way these words are pronounced.

      • [ka] is acting as a semantic sign, helping you to think of other words related to mouth

      • Both [eme] and [num] are acting as phonetic signs

  • A logosyllabic system is useful in differentiating two or more words that sound the same.

    • Chinese [yaŋ] = “sheep” & “ocean” --Same phonetic sign for both, but add the semantic sign for water and it clarifies

    • Chinese [tʃan] = “to divine” & “to moisten --Same phonetic sign for both, but add the semantic sign for water and it clarifies

    • Chinese [ma] = “horse” & “to mother --Same phonetic sign for both, but add the semantic sign for woman and it clarifies


Kinds of Writing 6

  • Logosyllabic Writing (continued)

    • Scholars use the term determinative to describe a sign added to another sign used to clarify meaning or create new words.

      • Phonetic determinatives help to suggest related words that are pronounced differently

        • English <2> = “two” “second”

        • Phonetic determinative produces “second”.

      • Semantic determinatives help to separate different words that might be pronounced similarly

        • The examples above of tongue and lip in Sumeria.

  • The ancient Mayan glyphs are especially interesting for the way that they combine logographic, syllabic, and logosyllabic strategies all in the same writing system.

    • The king named Pakal can be written several ways: logographic, syllabic and logosyllabic

      • See the drawings on page 205.

      • Fun: Decode a stela


Kinds of Writing 7

  • Alphabetic Writing

    • Alphabetic writing uses graphic signs to represent individual consonants and vowels.

      • English strings signs together, one after the other

      • Arabic and Hebrew place the vowel signs above or below the consonants.

        • For instance, one writes [ka] with two signs: < س > & < َ >

        • The first sign is for [k] and the second is for [a] to create:

    • While the ideal alphabetic system would be one of a one sign to one sound this does not always happen. Example: x = ks

    • Debate as to whether the Phoenicians (Akkadians) or the Greeks were the first to invent the alphabetic system.


Kinds of Writing 8

  • Khipus

    • All the examples to this point have been about making signs by placing marks on paper, clay, stone, the computer screen and other surfaces, there is one kind of record-keeping that is not like these

    • The Inka (Inca) system of khipu is one where knots are tied into cords

      • Once thought to be a simple mnemonic for keeping track of things such as the days of the week or number of items.

      • The early Spanish conquistadores spoke to their use for historical, mythological and astrological events.

      • Today, with the use of computers, it is becoming more clear that this was a system of writing

    • So far it is not completely deciphered! MIT is trying to crack this code

  • Issues of classification

    • Read about the issues on pp. 207-208 if interested

  • Decoding a Writing System


What Does it Mean to Have Writing?

  • Having Writing

    • There is a stereotype that if a culture does not have writing it is uncivilized.

    • It is less clear than one might think as to whether a group has a writing system

      • The Lahu of Thailand have several writing systems developed for them by outsiders

      • Does an introduced writing system “count?”

  • Words on Paper

    • The process of putting spoken words onto paper is called entextualization It is more than putting words onto paper.

      • For instance most people do not speak in separate words

      • Example: {dijt yεt] is how we tend to speak “Did you eat yet?”

    • Writing systems are not perfect representations of speech, but how to explain differences between from ?

      • This example is more about ‘categories of people’ and our expectations about them

      • More educated as compared to folksy.

      • Remember Sarah Palin controversy over her speaking style? Listen to Labov on NPR

  • So the question are about power and who controls writing, what stereotypes exist, and what is correct?


Literacy and Literacies 1


Literacy and Literacies 2

  • Are there benefits to literacy? Does it change the way you think and reason?

    • Autonomous theorists say ‘yes’. That literate people see themselves and the world differently than oral peoples

    • They argue that literacy is needed to think abstractly and critically!

    • We are going to challenge this one!!!

  • Literacy and orality

    • We will use the term orality to discuss the ability to hear and speak

    • Walter Ong (professor of English literature) saw differences between those who are ‘non- or pre-literate’ and those who are literate.

    • Obviously Western-biased, maybe even bigoted

    • See pp. 219-222 for examples that counter Ong’s ideas.


Literacy and Literacies 3

  • Literacy and permanence

    • Another suggested benefit of literacy is permanence

      • If something is written down it is there forever, in this view

      • This is a comment on the ‘lack of permanence’ of oral traditions

    • But, as anyone who has crashed their computer knows, permanence is not always a part of literacy!

    • Also, written documents can be changed/revised.

    • Spoken words are becoming more permanent with recordings and such

    • Photographic records can also act in place of written words (see the example called “Photographic Truths” on pp. 224-225).

  • Literacy and linguistic awareness

    • The civilizing effects of literacy have been linked only to alphabetic literacy and not to the other kinds of literacy we outlined earlier in this chapter.

    • Obviously wrong, but literacy can alter how we are aware of the elements of language as a consequence of how we represent them.


Literacy and Power 1

  • By now we are aware of the many ways to define literacy and the many ways to read and write.

  • The ethnography of reading

    • How these different literacies play out in different cultures is gaining the attention of researchers.

    • The ethnography of reading is inspired by Hymes ‘Ethnography of Speaking (Chapter 5)

      • Shirley Brice Health used Hymes model to develop the ethnography of reading.

      • She looked at literacy events: The occasions in which individuals attempt to read and/or write

      • She found that peoples in different communities approached the task of reading in different ways.

      • A complete discussion of her findings is on p. 214.

  • As we have seen certain kinds of literacy are rewarded and others are less acceptable. This statement reveals a power relationship with literacy

  • Issues of access: Who should read?

    • In the Middle Ages, it was appropriate for the elite to be illiterate; scribes did this work

    • During the Enlightenment, Western attitudes changed and the elites were literate, but feared the masses if they were literate.

    • This idea was then applied to African American slaves in the US.

    • At the end of the 18th century, limited literacy of the working classes was seen as more efficient in the new industrialized world.

    • Public schools grew out of charity schools and had a significant impact on US populace.

    • Immigrants were seen to be assimilated through education.


Literacy and Power 2

  • Issues of colonialism: Denying literacy, imposing literacy

    • Referring back to the Spanish conquest of the Maya, the conquerors were puzzled.

      • They had only had experience with non-literate groups and so thought all non-Western were not literate.

      • They defined the Mayan writing as pagan and tried to stamp it out.

      • Cracking the Mayan Code

      • The Mayan shifted to an oral tradition

    • Another example of imposed colonial ways is seen in New Guinea.

      • Among the Kaluli, the missionaries imposed a writing system they developed.

      • Books became a new type of authority, which challenged discussion and consensus.

      • The result is a new elite: Those who can read

  • Issues of standardization: How to spell

    • With people we see that spelling can differ

      • versus for instance

      • Remember prescriptive and descriptive grammars? (Chapter 4)

    • For Europe, attempts were made as early as the 8th century

      • Written Roman became the standard throughout the Roman Empire.

      • Romance languages were a product of applying writing to local venaculars, rather than using the ‘correct’ Roman forms.

    • The standardization of a writing system and an a spelling system often legitimates particular dialects.

      • This is often a political issue

      • In the US, the Midland dialect is the standard

      • Standard American English



Literacy and Power 3

  • Issues of reform: Changing spellings, reforming scripts

    • At American independence, there was the suggestion that we create an independent spelling system.

    • Webster slowly ‘Americanized’ the spelling of English words

      • He promoted the use of over in words like defense

      • Also instead of in words link


      • Other examples can be read on p. 219

    • Spelling can become linked to cultural identity; we know if a writer is American or English by the spelling.

    • Ukrainians and Russians by the re-introduction of or [g] back into the Ukrainian alphabet

    • There was a Turkish scriptal reform from 1928-1931 when the Arabic alphabet shifted to Roman.

      • One effect of this shift was a change in the number of literate persons

      • Due to required coursework, 75% of men and 43% of women were literate in the Roman script (as compared to the 9% in Arabic prior to the shift)


Ways of Reading, Ways of Writing

  • Is the new electronic communication changing the way we read?

    • It is blurring the line between written and spoken communications.

    • Writers use asterisks, capital letters and such to interject spoken intonation. (I learned this when I capitalized an announcement in my OL class, meaning to make it stand out, and learned I had shouted at everyone!)

    • The new abbreviations in electronic discussion boards are moving into speech (lol, for instance)

  • Linear versus Multimodal reading and writing

    • She is talking about whether you are a person who reads from start to finish (Linear) or one who bounces between tasks (Mulitmodal, or what I would call a multitasker)

    • Interestingly, she talks to the trouble multimodals have with the creation of outlines (which are linear)

    • She mentions a website I love: The Machine is Us/ing Us

  • Public versus Private reading and writing

    • Reading and writing are often thought of as a solitary activity

    • Public reading and writing are being developed

      • Blogs is one example, but look more like slowed-down conversation

      • An example of an attempt at communal writing shows that this type of writing is likely to be limited

        • Michael Stephens tried to write a book online and asked for feedback

        • In 2006, he retreated to his office to ‘digest’. Back to the solitary writing.

      • Wikipedia and other wiki’s

        • Here is an interesting site: How to be a model Wikipedia contributor

        • Who writes Wikipedia?

      • A different example: A vision of students today




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