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Ancient Illiteracy?

Citation: Woolf, Greg (2015) Ancient Illiteracy? Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 58 (2). pp. 31-42.

Ancient IlliteracyFINAL.pdf

Creative Commons: Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0

Ancient writing is conventionally approached as a counterpart of speech, as in the dyad orality/literacy. Alphabetical writing systems are often regarded as superior precisely because they are better able to record speech. This paper takes inspiration from the work on ancient Near Eastern writing systems and considers ancient literacy as a general competence in handling sign systems that are often as much about numbers and quantities as about phonetic transcription. Means of recording proper names assume a special importance in transactions between strangers, and in documents that circulate without much context. But judged in terms of a capacity to handle numbers, signs, diagrams, and other symbols the debate over ancient literacy, and illiteracy, looks rather different. The paper argues that relative to their need to handle sign systems of this kind, very few members of the ancient world can be considered as functionally illiterate. Moving away from orality/literacy also raises questions about the widespread (but incomplete) spread of alphabets and abjads in the last and first millennia.

Creators: Woolf, Greg (0000-0003-3470-9061) and
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Subjects: Classics
Divisions: Institute of Classical Studies
  • 21 December 2015 (published)
  • 29 September 2015 (accepted)


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