Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes

Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes

by Elizabeth Hill Boone

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The history of writing, or so the standard story goes, is an ascending process, evolving toward the alphabet and finally culminating in the "full writing" of recorded speech. Writing without Words challenges this orthodoxy, and with it widespread notions of literacy and dominant views of art and literature, history and geography. Asking how

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The history of writing, or so the standard story goes, is an ascending process, evolving toward the alphabet and finally culminating in the "full writing" of recorded speech. Writing without Words challenges this orthodoxy, and with it widespread notions of literacy and dominant views of art and literature, history and geography. Asking how knowledge was encoded and preserved in Pre-Columbian and early colonial Mesoamerican cultures, the authors focus on systems of writing that did not strive to represent speech. Their work reveals the complicity of ideology in the history of literacy, and offers new insight into the history of writing.
The contributors—who include art historians, anthropologists, and literary theorists—examine the ways in which ancient Mesoamerican and Andean peoples conveyed meaning through hieroglyphic, pictorial, and coded systems, systems inseparable from the ideologies they were developed to serve. We see, then, how these systems changed with the European invasion, and how uniquely colonial writing systems came to embody the post-conquest American ideologies. The authors also explore the role of these early systems in religious discourse and their relation to later colonial writing.
Bringing the insights from Mesoamerica and the Andes to bear on a fundamental exchange among art history, literary theory, semiotics, and anthropology, the volume reveals the power contained in the medium of writing.

Contributors. Elizabeth Hill Boone, Tom Cummins, Stephen Houston, Mark B. King, Dana Leibsohn, Walter D. Mignolo, John Monaghan, John M. D. Pohl, Joanne Rappaport, Peter van der Loo

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Editorial Reviews

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"Here are writing systems that are visual to their very core, free from the march of linguistic sounds. In showing us how to read such writing, these authors lead us across the boundaries of archaeology, linguistics, ethnology, history, and art history, and treat us to novel experiments along the way. Anyone who enjoys challenges to ordinary modes of textual interpretation and ordinary ideas about the nature of writing itself is in for quite a treat."—Dennis Tedlock, State University of New York, Buffalo

"This is an exceptionally comprehensive and informative work on Pre-Columbian and early colonial recording systems in Mesoamerica and the Andes. The various contributions focus on a range of hieroglyphic, logographic, and mnemonic recording systems, and there are also excellent discussions of the effects of the introduction of European writing on native recording systems. The articles touching on this latter topic all make clear the complexity of links, and the subtle interplay of changes, between record-keeping and ideology. An important and challenging book."—Gary Urton, Colgate University

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Duke University Press Books
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Writing without Words

Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes

By Elizabeth Hill Boone, Walter D. Mignolo

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7926-3


Stephen Houston

Literacy among the Pre-Columbian Maya: A Comparative Perspective

Literacy, the ability to link language and script, forms one of the most important topics in twentieth-century linguistics (e.g., Ong 1982). On a practical level literacy relates to matters of pedagogy and societal development (Cipolla 1969; Sanderson 1972; Street 1984), and on a theoretical level to the interaction of spoken and written language and the intensity of cognitive change (Chafe and Tannen 1987; Goody 1987: 263). Still undeveloped, however, is an understanding of literacy in the Pre-Columbian world, particularly among the Maya of Mesoamerica, where scribal arts reached an extraordinary degree of accomplishment and complexity. This essay explores the Maya evidence for literacy against a backdrop of comparative information from other parts of Mesoamerica and the Old World. Its aim: to present a perspective on literacy that goes beyond the particulars of Maya culture, yet enriches the debate on ancient literacy and its consequences with evidence from a region that has been persistently neglected or misunderstood by writers on the subject (e.g., Goody 1987: 22, 23).

Perspectives on Ancient Literacy

The subject of ancient literacy presupposes several questions: Is there a universal definition of literacy, or should literacy be defined in highly variable and culturally determined ways? How does reading depart from writing—that is, to what extent does a text record a complete message, to be studied at leisure in a setting divorced from the oral recitation of that message? By their nature do certain writing systems, particularly those of a logosyllabic kind, inhibit the growth of widespread literacy and reflective mindsets? And how many could read and write in the ancient world?

What makes these questions difficult to answer is the nature of the available evidence. Unlike modern linguists, who have the benefit of living speakers to survey and interview, we cannot study ancient literacy by direct means. In archaeological terms, this stems from the problem of inadequate sampling. Often, the relative lack or abundance of inscriptions reveals little or nothing about literacy, about how many people could write, who could write, and to what degree. Other forms of writing simply failed to survive, so that negative evidence cannot be interpreted as a sign of limited literacy (Harvey 1966: 586, 590; Mann 1985: 206; Johnston 1983: 66). We can escape from this impasse by dealing with the few direct clues that survive and by examining indirect clues—expectations derived from the study of comparable writing systems, from what the ancients themselves said about literacy, and from an understanding of how scripts functioned in society.

Defining Literacy

With such evidence we can address the first question: What are the definitions of literacy? The more abundant data from the Old World reveal an enormous range of meanings (Schofield 1968: 313-314; Thomas 1989: 19-20, 33-34). In the first place, the ability to read was not necessarily the same as the ability to write (Clanchy 1979: 183; Harris 1989: 5), since the latter often involved greater preparation and skill. Ironically, in some societies of Late Antiquity, a person could be regarded as "literate" or even be termed a "scribe," yet show minimal competence; that is, some people could write but not read! The scribes from Fayum, Egypt, barely able to scrawl their names or copy another's script, are notorious in this regard (see also Troll 1990: 113-114); yet witness their anger when characterized as illiterate (Youtie 1971: 248), a situation that compelled the Emperor Justinian to avoid confusion in his notarial system by recognizing various degrees of literacy (Youtie 1971: 254, 261). At the other extreme lies the Chinese conception of "full literacy" (Rawski 1979: 4-5). In imperial China, literacy presupposed a thorough grounding in Confucian learning. Nonetheless, more objective measures of literacy in China signal the widespread ability to use Chinese characters as early as the fifth century A.D., although exegetical skill is likely to have been limited in all periods (Rawski 1979: 5).

The essential point here is that literacy was often defined in cultural terms and in ways that make it difficult to evaluate the meaning of ancient references to the numbers of people who could read or write. For this reason alone, we should adopt a flexible definition of literacy. Attempts to define "full" literacy in rigid terms, such as Eric Havelock's emphasis on a personalized literary tradition recorded in alphabetic script (e.g., Havelock 1982: 6, 27, 57), cast the term in ways that seem tendentious, leading to invidious comparisons with Classical Greece. By liberating the word from Havelock's Classical grip, we can acknowledge not so much different kinds of literacy, as a continuum of scribal practice that ranges along two axes.

The first axis is production ("writing"), which extends from the Fayum scribe's crude signature to the calligraphic masterworks of Chinese mandarins. The second axis charts the response to an encoded message ("reading"), ranging from the bare perception of meaning or sound to a facility with detailed exegesis. States of literacy may be illustrated graphically by imagining a two-dimensional coordinate system, with production on the x axis and response on the y. If ascending competence is charted from left to right, and from top to bottom, then the lower left and upper right corners represent, respectively, the nadir and pinnacle of scribal accomplishment; the terms of reference are not an absolute standard of literacy, but lie within the tradition itself. A person capable of fluent reading and exegesis, but incapable of effective draughtmanship, would fit into the lower right corner; a craftsman carving a Maya text or a Medieval scribe copying a passage composed by another would fit a slot in the upper left.

There is another point to keep in mind. The biaxial continuum of production and response touches on literacy at both the personal level and within the scribal tradition as a whole. Just as ability shifts within a person's lifetime (not always progressively!), so does the level of scribal expertise change within a single society. In the case of ancient Egypt, such changes occur in response to moments of political and economic transition (Baines 1983: 583). Accordingly, the trajectory of literacy within a single lifetime can be illustrated by a series of positions within the continuum, yielding a distinctive "signature" that might be compared with those of other individuals. On a broader scale, changes within the scribal tradition would also present a distinctive form. By employing the chart for the purposes of qualitative comparison, we have also addressed the question of defining literacy. An acceptable definition is neither binary (literate vs. illiterate) nor inflexible, such as a definition insisting on substantial numbers of people engaged in the habitual reading of literary material (Boring 1979: 1). Rather, literacy varies along the dimensions of reading and writing, and in ways delimited not by universal standards, but by the standards of individual scribal traditions.

Orality and Literacy: The Limits of Writing

Another vital question concerns the relationship between oral performance and writing. In theoretical terms, this question has been with us since Milman Parry first discerned the oral, bardic basis of Homeric poetry (Parry 1971). According to Parry, Homer "improvised," not wrote, the Iliad and the Odyssey by following strict guidelines of meter and poetic allusion. In other words, although the epics were eventually recorded in alphabetic script, their composition originated in performance; the repetitions, the metrical rigor, assisted the memory of a nonliterate poet composing for an audience in Dark Age Greece.

More recently, Eric Havelock has reemphasized the oratorical nature of early writing (Havelock 1982, 1986), although with a recognition that the Homeric epics represent not pure oral composition, but an attempted reconciliation between spoken poetry and a novel system of writing. To Havelock, literacy was an "act of interpenetration of letters into an oral situation (Havelock 1982: 45). Even early alphabetic script embodied "recitation literacy" (Havelock 1982: 5): reading was not silent, and a tradition of oral discourse, of reciting from memory and of public performance, still represented the principal means of aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction (Balogh 1927; Harvey 1966: 588; Knox 1968: 435; Cartledge 1978: 28; Robb 1978: 32; Stoddart and Whitley 1988: 762-763).

Other evidence suggests the prevalence of recitation literacy in the Classical and pre-Modern world, regardless of the script being used. The earliest Greek writing is likely to have functioned at first as a mnemonic device (Johnston 1983: 67), a means of stabilizing memory. But at the same time feats of memorization continued to be highly prized (Harris 1989: 30-32). In fact, Plato and other authors noted with regret that writing brought "not improved memory but forgetfulness, by providing the literate with an external device to rely on" (Harris 1989: 30; see also Ong 1982: 15; Thomas 1989: 32-33). A similar preference for the spoken word occurs in medieval Europe, where documents were often regarded suspiciously (oral witness being in most cases preferable), and dictation still served as the primary vehicle for literary composition (Clanchy 1979: 211, 219; Doane 1991: xii-xiii). Dictation and vocal reading had the added merit of permitting the nonliterate to participate (Clanchy 1979: 219).

Recitation literacy has other implications as well, the most important being the partial nature of written communication. To many, the chief significance of written texts is that they are compact, canonical, and authoritative (Harris 1989: 39). Direct refutation of their meaning is impossible, for, after "absolutely total and devastating refutation, [a written text] says exactly the same thing as before" (Ong 1982: 79). Yet this understanding places insufficient emphasis on the interplay between writing, reading, and exegesis (as well as being in itself an ill-founded notion, for, as an anonymous reviewer points out, "Texts, all by themselves, don't say anything at all"). Often, recorded texts serve as points of departure for performances or further elaborations of their message. They do not stand alone, but, rather, must be read by someone with a comprehension of the context and broader meaning, by someone who will take cues from the script. For example, alongside Sumerian cuneiform, there apparently existed a strong oral tradition in which "literate knowledge depended ultimately on oral reformulations of that knowledge (Chafe and Tannen 1987: 397; Heath 1986; Civil 1972). Accordingly, written texts were not so much transliterations of utterances as schematic messages to be fleshed out by recitation and performance (Civil 1972: 21). In practical terms, this meant that, to understand a text fully, the reader of an early Sumerian document had to be familiar with unwritten but tacit information (Civil and Biggs 1966; Larsen 1988: 187). The same holds true for Buddhist scripture, which also depends on oral elaboration. By careful attention to performance and exegesis, the reader gains the full spiritual benefits of the text (Scollon and Scollon 1981: 45).

The conclusion that recitation literacy characterizes much early writing recalls the work of Walter Ong (e.g., 1982), who has proposed the existence of "primary orality" (Ong 1982: 11). This concept pertains to cultures untouched by knowledge of writing or print (McKitterick 1989: 1). Cultures of primary orality transmit messages by bodily behavior and by speech or other sounds (Havelock 1986: 65). By definition, no society with writing can exist within this framework. Yet, to judge from the information assembled above, at least part of the mindset may have continued to operate at different times and varying intensity within much of the Near East and the Classical world (Ong 1982: 11; Thomas 1989: 283-286). The key difference was the presence of writing, which removed by incremental degrees at least some of the pressures to memorize. Eventually, such changes would have resulted in modifications to oral discourse (Havelock 1986: 101), although probably not to the extreme suggested by Ong (1982: 59).

Writing and Technological Determinism

One of the more controversial aspects of Havelock's work (Havelock 1982), as well as that of Goody and Watt (1963; Goody 1977, 1987: 55–56; see also Ong 1982: 78), is their insistence on the revolutionary impact and cognitive consequences of certain scripts. According to Havelock, who, unlike Goody, failed "to modify and qualify as well as expand his earlier views" (Halverson 1992: 301), the alphabet was unique in its sophistication and potential. For the first time it permitted a "wealth of detail," "depth of psychological feeling," personal reflection, and even analytical abstraction (Havelock 1986: 11; Logan 1986: 20-24) that had not been recorded before. The alphabet made this possible through its efficient recording of sounds, its lack of ambiguity, and its ability to relieve the burdens of memorization (Havelock 1982: 61). The result: a form of writing capable of divorcing itself from oral discourse, from public as opposed to internal, private thought—in short, a writing system that created "thinkers" out of "bards" (Havelock 1982: 11). The cognitive impact of the script would be felt gradually, as the link with oral performance became more and more tenuous. In Havelock's opinion, the mere fact that writing was present did not mean the society was "literate"; rather, literacy was a state of mind enabled by a new kind of scribal technology (Havelock 1982: 57; Chafe and Tannen 1987: 392). A second result of the alphabet was that writing became "democratized," since its simplicity permitted ready adoption by an ever-larger circle of people (Havelock 1982: 83; Goody 1987: 55; Cross 1989: 77-78).

Havelock believed the reverse was also true. Other scripts, especially syllabaries, inhibited change, or at least modulated thought in restrictive ways. Their very form, their lack of efficient communication and inferior analysis of sound, made the scripts unwieldy and unlikely to be used by non-elites (Cross 1989: 77). In Chinese, for example, proficiency required a disciplined memorization of complex shapes (Havelock 1982: 52), and the emphasis on calligraphy "narrowed the field of expertise which can recognize and use the script" (Havelock 1982: 53). With syllabic writing it was impossible to escape an attachment to orality; it inevitably paraphrased oral originals, simplified statements or narratives into easily recognizable forms, encouraged an economy of vocabulary, and led to a "cautious restriction of sentiment" (Havelock 1982: 75, 96; 1986: 8-9). This is why translations of syllabic originals into an alphabet are misleading, for they blur and conceal the inherent deficiencies of syllabic script (Havelock 1982: 72).

There is much to criticize here. In the first place, Havelock has clearly been influenced by Ignace Gelb's evolutionary scheme for the development of writing systems (1963). Like Gelb, Havelock views the alphabet as the pinnacle of scribal achievement, a triumph made possible by earlier innovations in the Near East. When he and Gelb discuss other, especially non-Western scripts, they do so with the aim of demonstrating either the derivative nature of these writing systems or their weaknesses relative to Near Eastern and Mediterranean writing (e.g., Gelb 1963: 59).

The result is often misguided and ethnocentric. For example, Havelock takes the position that, for the Japanese, "purely oral habits of thought and experience ... have survived more tenaciously in ... Japan" (Havelock 1982: 348) and that "the free production of novel statement in (their) own script will remain difficult" (Havelock 1982: 347). Since Havelock fails to provide any citations to support these remarks, we must assume that he is revealing more about his preconceptions than about his familiarity with the Oriental evidence. In any case, the cultural achievements of Chinese and Japanese civilizations make it difficult to accept the view that Oriental scripts imposed insuperable limitations on analytic thought and philosophical reflection (Gough 1968: 83–84; DeFrancis 1989: 244–47). Remember: it was a logosyllabic script that recorded the Heian Tale of the Genji, an account full of exquisite dissections of emotional and aesthetic states (Morris 1964: 183–210).

Other evidence further undermines the hypothesis of technological determinism. Usually it is society, not script, that determines who can read and in what way. In Heian Japan, women used syllabic kana because the prestigious Chinese characters were deemed more suitable for "serious" writing (Morris 1964: 212). Despite the inherent difficulties of Chinese script, there is ample evidence that many people were literate (Rawski 1979: 22-23; Sampson 1985: 162), not least because the high prestige of the writing encouraged people to learn it (Keightley 1989: 192). Conversely, the alphabet, which, according to Havelock, democratized literacy, had effects that were neither uniform nor predictable (Stoddart and Whitley 1988: 771). The Spartans used the alphabet, but sparingly, since they did not have the same political uses for writing that the Athenians did (Cartledge 1978: 25; Harvey 1966: 623, 628). In other words, literacy did not come about because a script compelled it, but because auspicious social conditions favored the adoption of reading and writing (Cartledge 1978: 25). Even in areas with the alphabet, the extent of literacy and the rate in which it expanded or declined varied tremendously through time and space (Johnston 1983: 64; Stoddart and Whitley 1988: 771). In all likelihood, these variable patterns were the product of historical and social processes, and not intrinsic to the script itself (Finnegan 1988: 158-159).


Excerpted from Writing without Words by Elizabeth Hill Boone, Walter D. Mignolo. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Elizabeth Hill Boone is Director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

Walter D. Mignolo is Professor in the Department of Romance Studies and the Program in Literature at Duke University.

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