World map indicating literacy rate by country in 2015 (2015 CIA World Factbook) Grey = no data
World illiteracy has halved between 1970 and 2015
Brain areas involved in literacy acquisition

Literacy is traditionally defined as the ability to read and write.[1] In the modern world, this is one way of interpreting literacy. A more broad interpretation is literacy as knowledge and competence in a specific area.[2] The concept of literacy has evolved in meaning. The modern term's meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge, solve mathematical problems and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.[3] The concept of literacy is expanding across OECD countries to include skills to access knowledge through technology and ability to assess complex contexts.[3] A person who travels and resides in a foreign country but is unable to read or write in the language of the host country would also be regarded by the locals as illiterate.

The key to literacy is reading development, a progression of skills that begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text. Reading development involves a range of complex language underpinnings including awareness of speech sounds (phonology), spelling patterns (orthography), word meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and patterns of word formation (morphology), all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension.

Once these skills are acquired, the reader can attain full language literacy, which includes the abilities to apply to printed material critical analysis, inference and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought.[4] The inability to do so is called illiteracy or analphabetism.[5]

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society".[6]


Illiteracy rate in France in the 18th and 19th centuries

Prehistoric literacy

Origins of literacy

Literacy is emerged with the development of numeracy and computational devices as early as 8,000 BCE. Script developed independently at least five times in human history Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus civilization, lowland Mesoamerica, and China.[7][8]

Bill of sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, Sumerian tablet, circa 2600 BC

The earliest forms of written communication originated in Serbia (Vinča culture), followed by Sumer, located in southern Mesopotamia about 3500-3000 BCE. During this era, literacy was "a largely functional matter, propelled by the need to manage the new quantities of information and the new type of governance created by trade and large scale production".[9] Writing systems in Mesopotamia first emerged from a recording system in which people used impressed token markings to manage trade and agricultural production.[10] The token system served as a precursor to early cuneiform writing once people began recording information on clay tablets. Proto-cuneiform texts exhibit not only numerical signs, but also ideograms depicting objects being counted.[7]

Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged from 3300-3100 BCE and depicted royal iconography that emphasized power amongst other elites. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was the first notation system to have phonetic values.

Writing in lowland Mesoamerica was first put into practice by the Olmec and Zapotec civilizations in 900-400 BCE. These civilizations used glyphic writing and bar-and-dot numerical notation systems for purposes related to royal iconography and calendar systems.

The earliest written notations in China date back to the Shang Dynasty in 1200 BCE. These systematic notations were found inscribed on bones and recorded sacrifices made, tributes received, and animals hunted, which were activities of the elite. These oracle-bone inscriptions were the early ancestors of modern Chinese script and contained logosyllabic script and numerals.

Indus script is largely pictorial and has not been deciphered yet. It may or may not include abstract signs. It is thought that they wrote from right to left and that the script is thought to be logographic. Because it has not been deciphered, linguists disagree on whether it is a complete and independent writing system; however, it is genuinely thought to be an independent writing system that emerged in the Harappa culture.

These examples indicate that early acts of literacy were closely tied to power and chiefly used for management practices, and probably less than 1% of the population was literate, as it was confined to a very small ruling elite.

Origins of the alphabet

According to social anthropologist Jack Goody, there are two interpretations that regard the origin of the alphabet. Many classical scholars, such as historian Ignace Gelb, credit the Ancient Greeks for creating the first alphabetic system (c. 750 BCE) that used distinctive signs for consonants and vowels. But Goody contests, "The importance of Greek culture of the subsequent history of Western Europe has led to an over-emphasis, by classicists and others, on the addition of specific vowel signs to the set of consonantal ones that had been developed earlier in Western Asia".[11]

Thus, many scholars argue that the ancient Semitic-speaking peoples of northern Canaan (modern-day Syria) invented the consonantal alphabet as early as 1500 BCE. Much of this theory's development is credited to English archeologist Flinders Petrie, who, in 1905, came across a series of Canaanite inscriptions located in the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem. Ten years later, English Egyptologist Alan Gardiner reasoned that these letters contain an alphabet, as well as references to the Canaanite goddess Asherah. In 1948, William F. Albright deciphered the text using additional evidence that had been discovered subsequent to Goody's findings. This included a series of inscriptions from Ugarit, discovered in 1929 by French archaeologist Claude F. A. Schaeffer. Some of these inscriptions were mythological texts (written in an early Canaanite dialect) that consisted of a 32-letter cuneiform consonantal alphabet.

Another significant discovery was made in 1953 when three arrowheads were uncovered, each containing identical Canaanite inscriptions from twelfth century BCE. According to Frank Moore Cross, these inscriptions consisted of alphabetic signs that originated during the transitional development from pictographic script to a linear alphabet. Moreover, he asserts, "These inscriptions also provided clues to extend the decipherment of earlier and later alphabetic texts".[12]

The consonantal system of the Canaanite script inspired alphabetical developments in subsequent systems. During the Late Bronze Age, successor alphabets appeared throughout the Mediterranean region and were employed for Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic.

According to Goody, these cuneiform scripts may have influenced the development of the Greek alphabet several centuries later. Historically, the Greeks contended that their writing system was modeled after the Phoenicians. However, many Semitic scholars now believe that Ancient Greek is more consistent with an early form Canaanite that was used c. 1100 BCE. While the earliest Greek inscriptions are dated c. eighth century BCE, epigraphical comparisons to Proto-Canaanite suggest that the Greeks may have adopted the consonantal alphabet as early as 1100 BCE, and later "added in five characters to represent vowels".[13]

Phoenician, which is considered to contain the first "linear alphabet", rapidly spread to the Mediterranean port cities in northern Canaan.[12] Some archeologists believe that Phoenician scripture had some influence on the developments of the Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets based on the fact that these languages evolved during the same time period, share similar features, and are commonly categorized into the same language group.[14]

When the Israelites migrated to Canaan between 1200 and 1001 BCE, they also adopted a variation of the Canaanite alphabet. Baruch ben Neriah, Jeremiah's scribe, used this alphabet to create the later scripts of the Old Testament. The Early Hebrew alphabet was prominent in the Mediterranean region until Chaldean Babylonian rulers exiled the Jews to Babylon in the sixth century BCE. It was then that the new script ("Square Hebrew") emerged and the older one rapidly died out.[13]

The Aramaic alphabet also emerged sometime between 1200 and 1001 BCE. As the Bronze Age collapsed, the Aramaeans moved into Canaan and Phoenician territories and adopted their scripts. Although early evidence of this writing is scarce, archeologists have uncovered a wide range of later Aramaic texts, written as early as the seventh century BCE. Due to its longevity and prevalence in the region, Achaemenid rulers would come to adopt it as a "diplomatic language".[15] The modern Aramaic alphabet rapidly spread east to the Kingdom of Nabataea, then to Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula, eventually making its way to Africa. Aramaic merchants carried older variations of the language as far as India, where it later influenced the development of Brahmi scripture. It also led to the developments of Arabic, Pahlavi (an Iranian adaptation), "as well as for a range of alphabets used by early Turkish and Mongol tribes in Siberia, Mongolia and Turkestan".[16] Literacy at this period spread with the merchant classes and may have grown to number 15-20% of the total population.

The Aramaic language would die out with the spread of Islam and with it, its influence of Arabic.

Ancient and post-classical literacy

Until recently it was thought that the majority of people were illiterate in ancient times.[17] However, recent work challenges this perception.[18] Anthony DiRenzo asserts that Roman society was "a civilization based on the book and the register", and "no one, either free or slave, could afford to be illiterate".[19] Similarly Dupont points out, "The written word was all around them, in both public and private life: laws, calendars, regulations at shrines, and funeral epitaphs were engraved in stone or bronze. The Republic amassed huge archives of reports on every aspect of public life".[20] The imperial civilian administration produced masses of documentation used in judicial, fiscal and administrative matters as did the municipalities. The army kept extensive records relating to supply and duty rosters and submitted reports. Merchants, shippers, and landowners (and their personal staffs) especially of the larger enterprises must have been literate.

In the late fourth century the Desert Father Pachomius would expect literacy of a candidate for admission to his monasteries:

they shall give him twenty Psalms or two of the Apostles' epistles or some other part of Scripture. And if he is illiterate he shall go at the first, third and sixth hours to someone who can teach and has been appointed for him. He shall stand before him and learn very studiously and with all gratitude. The fundamentals of a syllable, the verbs and nouns shall all be written for him and even if he does not want to he shall be compelled to read.[21]

In the course of the 4th and 5th century the Churches made efforts to ensure a better clergy in particular among the bishops who were expected to have a classical education, which was the hallmark of a socially acceptable person in higher society (and possession of which allayed the fears of the pagan elite that their cultural inheritance would be destroyed). Even after the remnants of the Western Roman Empire fell in the 470s literacy continued to be a distinguishing mark of the elite as communications skills were still important in political and Church life (bishops were largely drawn from the senatorial class) in a new cultural synthesis that made "Christianity the Roman religion,".[22] However, these skills were less in needed than previously in the absence of the large imperial administrative apparatus whose middle and top echelons the elite had dominated as if by right. Even so, in pre-modern times it is unlikely that literacy was found in more than about 30-40% of the population.[23] The highest percentage of literacy during the Dark Ages was among the clergy and monks who supplied much of the staff needed to administer the states of western Europe.

Post-Antiquity illiteracy was made much worse by the lack of a suitable writing medium. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the import of papyrus to Europe ceased. Since papyrus perishes easily and does not last well in the wetter European climate, parchment was used, which was expensive and accessible only by the Church and the wealthy. Paper was introduced into Europe in Spain in the 11th century. Its use spread north slowly over the next four centuries. Literacy saw a resurgence as a result, and by the 15th century paper had largely replaced parchment except for luxury manuscripts.

The Reformation stressed the importance of literacy and being able to read the Bible. The Protestant countries were the first to attain full literacy; Scandinavian countries were fully literate in the early 17th century. The Church[which?] demanded literacy as the pre-requisite for marriage in Sweden[when?], further propagating full literacy.

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Geletterdheid
العربية: محو الأمية
aragonés: Alfabetización
asturianu: Alfabetismu
azərbaycanca: Savadlılıq
bamanankan: Balikukalan
বাংলা: সাক্ষরতা
Bân-lâm-gú: Bat-jī
башҡортса: Уҡый-яҙа белеү
беларуская: Граматнасць
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Пісьменнасьць
भोजपुरी: साक्षरता दर
български: Грамотност
bosanski: Pismenost
català: Alfabetisme
čeština: Gramotnost
Cymraeg: Llythrennedd
eesti: Kirjaoskus
Ελληνικά: Αλφαβητισμός
español: Alfabetización
Esperanto: Legoscio
فارسی: سواد
Fiji Hindi: Literacy
français: Alphabétisation
한국어: 문해
हिन्दी: साक्षरता
hrvatski: Pismenost
Ilokano: Literasia
Bahasa Indonesia: Melek aksara
interlingua: Alphabetisation
íslenska: Læsi
עברית: אוריינות
ಕನ್ನಡ: ಸಾಕ್ಷರತೆ
къарачай-малкъар: Къара таныу
қазақша: Сауаттылық
Кыргызча: Сабаттуулук
latviešu: Rakstpratība
lietuvių: Raštingumas
Lingua Franca Nova: Alfabetisme
la .lojban.: tcidu
lumbaart: Alfabetizaziun
magyar: Írástudás
मैथिली: साक्षरता
македонски: Писменост
മലയാളം: സാക്ഷരത
मराठी: साक्षरता
Bahasa Melayu: Celik huruf
नेपाली: साक्षरता
नेपाल भाषा: साक्षरता
日本語: 識字
нохчийн: Йоза хаар
norsk nynorsk: Lesekunne
occitan: Alfabetisme
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Savodlilik
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਸਾਖਰਤਾ
پنجابی: پڑھن لکھن
Piemontèis: Alfabetisassion
polski: Alfabetyzm
português: Alfabetização
română: Alfabetizare
русиньскый: Ґрамотность
русский: Грамотность
संस्कृतम्: साक्षरता
Scots: Leeteracy
Simple English: Literacy
slovenčina: Gramotnosť
slovenščina: Pismenost
српски / srpski: Писменост
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Pismenost
suomi: Lukutaito
svenska: Läskunnighet
Tagalog: Mangmang
తెలుగు: అక్షరాస్యత
тоҷикӣ: Саводнокӣ
Türkçe: Okuryazarlık
українська: Грамотність
اردو: خواندگی
Tiếng Việt: Biết chữ
Winaray: Inadman
吴语: 识字
ייִדיש: ליטעראט
粵語: 識字
žemaitėška: Raštingoms
中文: 識字