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Literacy rate in the ancient world

  1. Nov 19, 2005 #1
    I am looking to find some statistics on literacy( or illteracy ) in the ancient world. I am interested in ancient societies where there were a high literate population.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 20, 2005 #2

    arildno

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    There wasn't. Why do you think so?
    The vast majority of the population in the ancient world lived in the country-side and was illiterate; literacy was primarily an urban phenomenon.
     
  4. Nov 20, 2005 #3
  5. Nov 21, 2005 #4

    arildno

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    Just a note:
    The very fact that "the scribe" was a distinct profession in ancient Egypt is highly indicative of a very limited level of literacy overall. If everyone could read&write, only the lazy&rich ones would employ scribes, or scribes would only manage to gain a living by say, having a better skill in kalligraphy.
     
  6. Nov 22, 2005 #5

    jim mcnamara

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    I'd say arildno is being overly generous.

    It's probably closer to the staticitics to say that literacy was so rare that it almost was undetactably rare. If you'd like to project these charts back in time to 1200 BCE.

    http://www.gongol.com/research/economics/growthstages/

    Prior to about 7000 BCE there was no written language, therefore we were all illiterate - see 'Earliest writing'

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2956925.stm

    I think you'd agree that perhaps one person in 50,000 could read or write until well into historic times. The reason history favors them is that they DID write stuff down. For everyone else living back then we depend on
    information about them from forensic antropology - or whatever discipline you think does the best job.
     
  7. Nov 22, 2005 #6

    Keep in mind that the egyptian written language was horrifically complicated compared to modern written languages. Symbolic pictographic languages pretty much require a class of professional scholars.
     
  8. Nov 23, 2005 #7

    selfAdjoint

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    The Sumerians even had a special god, Nabu, for the scribal class. I think the rate of literacy in their cities would be of the 1 in a few hundred range. My reason is that many of the recovered texts are business correspondance (so-and-so many goats from this town to that one, etc.), unlike the purely priestly texts of the early Egyptians.
     
  9. Nov 26, 2005 #8
    The anicent egytian langyage was unnecessary complicated, so it is most possible that it was restricted to a very limited class in that society. I believe that class and eduation was intimactly connected in the ancient world. It so than society with high literacy( or low literacy) might signal a greater upper to lower class ratios. It is much more interest to understand societies where the the languages were relatively easiler to learn. I think literacy rate might also correlated well with virbrancy and innovational output. I once heard in television that the literacy rate in anicent roma, or greek was 5-10%( i do not know high valid is this claim).
     
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2005
  10. Nov 26, 2005 #9

    selfAdjoint

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    I'm assuming that by language you mean the script, or writing system. Of course everyone learned their native language in childhood.

    The hieroglyphic system wasn't any harder to learn than Chinese characters, and there was always a pretty high literacy rate in those thanks to the competitive confucian exams. I think it's as much what writiing is used for as how hard it is that promotes literacy.
     
  11. Dec 8, 2005 #10
    egyptian hieroglyphic was much eazyer to read
    pictures of stuff mostly bird cat hill water sun ect
    thats sounded like it looked so eazyer then the highly stylized Chinese characters
    now formal written laws or religious works maybe beyond the average
    person to create but reading simple stuff could be larger in scope

    builders [work crews] left their own written records on the odd stone

    but I would think greek and romans had a higher % who could both read and write
     
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2005
  12. Dec 8, 2005 #11

    selfAdjoint

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    This is just in the eye of a foreigner who knows neither. The pictures in hieroglyphics did not mostly denote the words (picture of a bird = "bird") but through variuous punning mechanisms they denoted phonetic sounds which were combined to make words. The principle was very similar in the two scripts, and while hieroglyphics remained the property of the priestly class, Chinese script is nowadays taught to the people with success.

    Were these writings or just marks?

    Higher than the Egyptians? Oh I would agree!
     
  13. Dec 8, 2005 #12
    story I heard was the only record of who built the great pyramid
    was a builders graffiti
    " Harvard's George Reisner found workers' graffiti early in the twentieth century that revealed that the pyramid builders were organized into labor units with names like "Friends of Khufu" or "Drunkards of Menkaure."
    written in hieroglyphics now if these guys could write a book I have no idea but they could write their gangs name

    they used phonetic symboles that could be sounded out by a person of very limited training
    ie someone knowing the proper sound of bird or type of bird in the picture
    in their language
    and have a limited ability to copy
    so could write a few words like his name andor the gang/labor unitname
    a true literate no but somewhat able to read and write
     
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2005
  14. Dec 9, 2005 #13
    Does anyone know how Egyptian hieroglyphic writing compares to the South American? It sounds from the little thats been said here they might be more similar to each other than either would be to some other ancient writing.
     
  15. Dec 9, 2005 #14

    selfAdjoint

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    All these pre-alphabetic and pre-syllabaric scripts work on the same principle. Pictures of things are used as puns to generate sounds or as icons to denote meaning, and these (sound denoters and meaning denoters) are combined in various ways to suggest the words. Maya glyphs, Chinese script, and Egyptian hieroglyphics are all of this type. Sumerian era cuneiform was too. The point is that there are almost no "spelling rules"; nearly evey word is a separate construction.

    The fact that we can't easily see the pictures in the conventional Chinese characters is not important because as I said before, the relationship of the pictures to the words is conventional in all these systems and just has to be memorized.
     
  16. Dec 10, 2005 #15
    I didn't realize Chinese and Cuneiform were like that, too. This suggests there's something more obvious about this method than about phoenetic spelling if you're starting from scratch.
     
  17. Dec 10, 2005 #16

    selfAdjoint

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    Punning must be very ancient. People used symbols they already had kicking around in various ways to represent words.

    As an example consider "I <heart> NY". The symbol could reference either the sound HART or the word it denotes: LOVE. So if you used C<heart> to represent a word you would have an ambiguity: which interpretation did you mean, chart or clove? You could solve this by putting another symbol with the word. Either a scroll (a paper curling at top and bottom) for the map or a plant (a stem with two leaves) for the clove. Strategies like these are what iconographic systems are all about.
     
  18. Dec 10, 2005 #17

    Evo

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  19. Dec 10, 2005 #18
    Thanks, Evo. An interesting read.

    SelfAjoint, All those systems do seem to have that strong rhebus element. It does seem to suggest that the people who started figuring out ways to "write" things down were punsters.

    This is speculation but it could mean written language was frequently pioneered by people with Asperger's. Most of them are very attracted to puns and are good at finding them. They are also frequently fascinated by the mere sound of words and tend to play around with them, breaking them down into component sounds. Most Asperger's people have excellent pronounciation and enunciation as a result of this common, for them, attraction to the sound of words. I wouldn't be surprised if hieroglyphics started out as someone with Asperger's playing around with a way to visually represent their puns.
     
  20. Dec 19, 2005 #19
    yeah man! thats why it sucks. i am taking chinese classes these days, and i heard it have thousands and thousands of characters all different. you miss a dot in any one of them, you get a diiferent meaning. yet one can communicate well by only mastering about 3000 characters. but i love the grammer and styles. sometimes you can mean a long sentence in just a four character sentence. we can reader faster so there.
     
  21. Dec 19, 2005 #20

    selfAdjoint

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    The great power of the Chinese script is just that it doesn't correspond to the phonetics of the underlying language. This means that, say, the Confucian classics can be read by people who speak another language entirely. Koreans and Japanese, although they have developed phonetic systems for their own languages, use pure Chinese characters for the "classic literature" studies. It has been noted that Korean public buildings have inscriptions in Chinese characters, just as those in the West have incriptions in Latin.
     
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