Friday, 22 November 2013

Literacy: Is it truly necessary?

The letters are easy, yet read the names and words and see that their pronunciation and usage are anything but easy
Many of us schooled in India, perhaps even elsewhere in the world have been told that a good percentage of the population of India is still illiterate. They are literally unable to 'write'. Most of us (at least within the groups I have spoken to) have been taught that the "lack of schools" or the "lack of primary education" is the primary cause of illiteracy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Indian systems of writing were extremely well developed and evolved. Evidence of a 7th Century CE carving here, shows the "engineered" Grantha script - ('Grantha' literally means script, and is a phonetic script that can ideally be used to represent any language.)  Those who made these carvings that remain today are unlikely to be royalty or even priestly folk suggesting that language was available to artisans and craftsman. Further written scripts were to be taught after the fundamentals of speaking a language was taught.

Phonetically ambiguous or dubious scripts

The "Abcedarium" (greek/latin alphabet) finally evolved into the English/Latin alphabet to comprise only 26 symbols. Although the symbolic version is quite easy to learn, the phonetics that can be pronounced, once written in this alphabet are not designed well.

sounds - zh (could mean zh, or a stressed 'l'). As for 'cart', 'Caesar' - the English pronunciation of 'C' varies, Latin pronunciation remains 'k', and words like 'knife' further complicate it. Clearly learning and understanding this script did not impart the ability to comprehend a language with any certainty. The alphabets though are just 26 symbols that can be learned in sequence.

Phonetically Designed Scripts

Grantha Carving (7th Century CE)

This script is (even by today's standards) quite difficult to read if you don't have an understanding of the script and its design itself. It evolved from Indian "Brahmi" which has vague similarities to "Phoenician" that was the root of several semitic 'Abugida' scripts.

Despite good design, these scripts aren't designed for a very young mind (think of a kid going to Kinder Garten) to digest. The simplicity is hidden in design and not form. The elegance of this design is the fact that you can learn it at any age, unlike many other writing systems that have to be learned with multiple phonetic aberrations. 

These scripts were designed to represent sounds that were present in different forms of Sanskrit (-rddhya, -rdhva, -rdhra ) with enough accuracy that anyone who knew the script could not mispronounce it.

I find the "spelling bees" strange. They may be a test of comprehension of the word (in the second part), but you would find the pronunciation (the misleader) of the word or sometimes multiple pronunciations being ambiguous - and therefore the source of error. This is evidence of badly designed phonetic script.

Tulu: Derived from Grantha for Simpler Carving

Tulu script (15th Century CE)
Here is a table of Tulu, a Grantha derivative. I would rather not delve into Grantha in one blog post as it's engineering finnesse would be lost.

Devanagiri and similar forms came in later, when writing became easier. Some letters in Devanagiri are directly from the original Brahmi alphabet. It is far easier to learn an Indian script as a phonetic representation.

The Grantha phonetic alphabet and its derivatives (like Tulu alphabet - 15th Century CE) were designed specially to be suitable for carving. Unlike Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Hieratics, these could be directly carved on stone or such surface without having to first use clay tablets. Modern 'Malayalam' script bears very strong resemblance to a hybrid version of Grantha and Tulu, while 'Kannada' script seems to have been re-engineered. There is also an individual Pallava script that was later rendered into present day 'Tamil' script while 'Telugu' is written in a variant of the 'Kannada' script (which has evolved.)

Indian scripts were represented neatly as 'consonants', 'vowels', 'diacritics' and positional modifiers. Hence writing a complex vowel 'eau' would only require you to write the vowel of 'e' (as the main vowel) and below it the 'au' vowel as the modifier.

Lingual sounds including 'r' (ra) were treated as vowels as their pronunciation in the beginning of a word and end of a word could cause significant difference in how it is pronounced or perceived, though the 'tongue' movement would remain constant.

It uses a simple mathematical modifer system of symbols, elegantly designed (even the form of the letters are a hint as to whether the tongue is to touch or not, whether the mouth must first open or not, whether it should end with the mouth open or closed.) I've also found the source of the arabic numberals (also used in the 'South Arabic' script - which is in disuse today and replaced by a cursive script) in the Grantha script where there is no ambiguity between the symbols representing '6' and '9' (which could easily be misread.) 

Writing wasn't even taught to all the Temple High Priests (in India) until the 5th Century CE as a system to record writing over a long period of time was not invented. The investment of learning a concept was in rote memory, (in later Christian teachings they would label this as 'catechism') which can be later recalled verbatim to decipher its meaning. The meanings of sentences (especially in complex text like the Vedas) would be multi-fold. A simpler meaning to quickly memorize them, and a far more complex meaning after one learned enough sciences.

Semitic Writing Systems

These systems were far more complex to learn, because they had phonetic ambiguities and a mirror image of a symbol could easily result in dire errors. The result was to use "xiphos" (dubbed the ABBA encoding system), the (Atbash) folding cypher and the first use of checksums to verify writing. Here's a page in classical Hebrew (less ambiguous than a system like Aramaic scipt.)

To the right is the Greek writing system which would make anyone wanting to read it decidedly drop th idea unless perhaps they had no other choice. Modern Arabic attempts to maintain is comprehensibility by using tonal or sung representation used often in poetry. Early Greek was also "sung" before it was recorded in the same format it was sung as another technique to preserve it. These were patches (like software patches) to resolve the phonetic ambiguity and the fact that errors could creep into written text much faster than a picture or painting attempting to convey one or more meanings.

Hieroglyphs and Hieratics

Egyptian Hieroglyphs were also thus limited as their symbolic interpretation without a phonetic representation was most difficult. Hieratics were derived from the original Hieroglyphs and are yet more complex, because they make little sense without knowledge of the Hieroglyphs themselves.
Egyptian Hieratic / Phonetic representation of Hieroglyphs

Is Literacy as in Writing and Reading symbols necessary?

Is literacy necessary to communicate? For one-to-one communication and for lectures, strangely, the answer is a 'no'. Today our memory lies in disuse only because we take comfort in the fact that there is a written form (as a book or a textbook or notes or a reference table [mathematics esp.] that could be referred to.) For long distance communication where one must relay a message through multiple parties, a literate form may preserve the message but be open to disruption. This was in itself the reason for the invention of cryptography. Writing in itself was a form of information encoding. The usage however was limited, and even traders began using symbols and stamps of such symbols specific to their trade to avoid ambiguous interpretation.

If you have been part of the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides - you may have played a "Communication Game" - which shows that within 4-6 conveyors (of the same story), information can easily drift and get modified to the point of severe error. Hence written communication, if preserved, could be useful to avoid this lexical and semantic drift when multiple conveyors are present within the message.

The Revival of Audio/Video Multimedia

On the Internet, many of us prefer to watch videos or listen to Audio books for the same reason now, that reading/writing may no longer be such a necessity as they were at the time information had to be conveyed exclusively through books. Taking notes as pictorial infographics is therefore more sound. Recording a conversation directly as "Audio" that can later be transcribed (if necessary) is used often by Medics.

This would explain why demonstrative classes/lectures on "Youtube" hold far stronger value than dictated ones in a classroom. The human brain, designed to switch off upon hearing too much noise, naturally adopts a sleep state during such dictate lectures. However, most schools and higher education institutions are terribly short-staffed that none of the teachers can afford to spend time to avoid such lectures (which sometime to their own selves is known to be boring.)

The phenomenon of why movies appeal stronger than books to the present day younger generation would be a strong indicator of how our emphasis on symbolic writing and symbolic reading  for conveying ideas may still be flawed.

The scout game dilemma can easily be resolved today by recording a play-acted version of the story and providing it to multiple parties. Although perspectives may vary, the final group can still play-act or screen the video to convey the information.

Measuring Literacy of a Population to grade its well-being

The folly of "Literacy" measurement lies in the premise that 'written symbolic forms' are necessary for the conveyance and import of knowledge.

It is far too easy to teach kids the 'abecedarium' (also known as the 'abracadabra') without truly imparting them any knowledge. Part of the error today is the adoption of English as a primary language with the teaching of the original Latin script without the 'classical' latin pronunciation ('c' - ka, 'k' - ya [seldom used]). Hence we see a quick switch to the Montessori system - where learning by practicing actual skills is instead adopted.

"Enforced" literacy is the same as forcing someone to eat when they are not hungry. Naturally, you see kids with poor grades and averages. Lexical disorientation is often symbolic and in some cases phonetic - a flaw that can easily be fixed if the technique of comprehending the symbol is changed. The next folly of the "Literacy" campaign is the 'one size fits all' paradigm, where everyone is expected to know one standard. This might at first look to be simple, unfortunately no two individuals can comprehend one symbol in the same manner.

The entire system of adopting a theory once it is accepted by a majority has the major failing in that the minority may yet have the true perspective. Such a theory of acceptance by majority (when Scientific theories are to be concretely accepted as proved or disproved) is against the very motto of our nation which says "Satyameva Jeyate!"

Memory Atheletes

There are several people with memory records. If you have ever been to one of their demonstrations or coaching classes they would reveal that the usage of symbols involving color or audio to represent sequential data becomes their tool to remember volumes of information.

Before you ask me the question, "What then is the point of writing such a lengthy blog rather than record a video or symbolic infographic?" - Here's a video from BBC's "Sherlock" demonstrating his mnemonic mind palace:

The following is a 33 second video shared via Youtube and is from the newly conceived episode of the BBC: Sherlock, "Hound of the Baskervilles".

I had previously analysed Stagnating education in India in a blog post looking at reasons for the failure of the system. It would seem that I had missed upon this key point that forced literacy is a huge factor in stripping children of interest in education. There is also the idea of the mother tongue, though it is still founded upon literacy and has a higher probability of succeeding owing to early usage of such a language in a familiar and friendly environment.

Binary - the very break-down of Writing

Breaking all languages into the simplest form of two symbols '0' and '1' has been the best way to avoid symbol ambiguity. This in itself is the genius of the design. If there were more symbols and each machine or human could end up interpreting it in multiple ways, the same lexical/semantic drift would result in garbage. Yet, of course there are file formats and file interpretation techniques that can still cause lexical/semantic drift or obfuscation. We have therefore started out with complex and ambiguous systems of writing like the Latin/English alphabet or the Semitic alphabet or the Greek alphabet (Amharic, Arvantic, Ugaric and enough variants to keep you guessing including Russian) and ended up inventing the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA.) Further we have also published NATO phonetic codes for "Radio communication" to ensure accurate pronunciation. Morse was the first true "binary" representation based on a Huffman frequency distribution of symbol usage, although it was used to convey written language and not its spoken variant.


Memory, verbal communication, the ability to think, solve puzzles is sufficient for any population to grow in today's world with the availability of complex technology. Literacy of being able to read symbols and write symbols is therefore not a "necessity" but merely a diktat and a practice of society.

No longer does anyone have the power to command all of us on earth saying, "To us is not to reason why" - because asking "Why" for each and everything that is being fed to us as "basics" or "necessities" is a sure way to get rid of things that are unnecessary but being marked so.