Literacy is specifically a term dealing with the ability to read (those who possess literacy are literate, otherwise they remain illiterate). Many users also include the ability to write in their figuring (although even into the modern era the two do not necessarily go together) and occasionally the ability to perform basic arithmetic gets rolled in (although this is properly part of numeracy). By analogy, "literacy" also gets applied to basic familiarity with other disciplines (e.g. "computer literacy").
Unsurprisingly literacy depends on the existence of written language - and hence would seem to arise around 8000 BC, although early attempts seem to be mainly centred around pictographs distinguishing different items in inventories. Writing as "recorded speech" seems to have waited to around 2000 BC. For most of history, literacy was not widespread - most early cultures had a scribe caste, often linked to the priesthood, who would comprise most of their literate people and who looked after all of the record keeping and similar tasks … the only other people who might need to learn to read would be those who owned the things that the records were kept about, and even they might well rely on their scribes.
The exact form that writing took could have a significant bearing on the spread of literacy … generally speaking there are three broad styles of writing: alphabetical, syllabic and pictographic.
Pictographic writing is probably the oldest - certainly the oldest records yet found seem to consist of "stylised picture of a cow" + a number, "stylised picture of a measure of grain" + a number etc. Representing a thing with a picture of a thing makes sense… to begin with. Sooner or later pictograms appear for words that are not nouns - verbs ("send 10 cows"), adjectives ("send 10 red cows") and adverbs ("send 10 red cows quickly") and eventually for abstract concepts ("your tax assessment requires that you send 10 red cows quickly"). During this process, stylisation converts pictures into characters. Some cultures - notably the Chinese - have found pictographic writing entirely acceptable and took things no further. However, pictographic scripts can be hard to learn - since each pictogram must be learned individually - and tricky to reproduce as the characters are often complicated. Additionally, the meaning of a character is no guide as to how it is pronounced - this can allow the same written form to serve several spoken languages (as in modern Chinese) but does not aid literacy.
Syllabic scripts use each character to represent a specific spoken sound - a syllable - and so record spoken language quite exactly, often with the help of additional markings to indicate weight and rhythm. The most prominent example of a syllabic language in modern use is the Japanese kana system. Many of these systems evolve from pictographic writing, where the spoken sound of the pictogram supersedes its meaning in general use - this transitional stage can be a source of many puns and/or unintentional humour1. Syllabic writing struggles with a language which can generate a wide range of spoken syllables - it has been estimated that English would require over ten thousand characters to record correctly. Some flexibility can be obtained by using characters that represent part syllables, and it is usually this way that an alphabet evolves.
Alphabetical is the one you are using now … unless you've had this translated … writing is based on a fixed set of characters from which words are assembled. Each character has its own sound - although these may be adjusted by context and/or additional markings (such as accent marks) - and taken together the letters can be used to build syllables and full words. Whilst complicated to develop and often difficult for the learner to relate to spoken language, alphabetic systems are highly flexible and currently appear to be the best available technology in the field. Relating alphabetical scripts to spoken language becomes easier as orthography (correct writing) develops - standardised grammar, punctuation and spelling make reading far easier although they can be quite late in coming2
Literacy can be said to be a matter of degrees - pictographic scripts in particular can sort people by the number and obscurity of characters that they know and many users of more flexible scripts may well still recognise familiar words in writing and be able to speak them aloud without having any idea how to convert an unfamiliar one into speech3. Such partial readers are extremely prone to confuse similar words and likely stop dead at any unfamiliar word.
Writing is another thing altogether. Modern, developed world schooling more or less assumes that reading and writing are taught together, but this is something of a novelty. For most of history - and even in many places today - the ability to teach writing is hampered by the high cost and poor availability of writing materials. Whilst individual characters can be practiced on wax tablets, sand trays or in a handy patch of dirt, and individual words can be traced on chalk boards, bits of wood or even potsherds, really learning to write tends to require paper or, more expensive still, parchment, which is beyond the reach of some people today, and historically even more so. Add to that temperamental writing implements - an old fashioned quill pen might need to be trimmed two or three times a page and inked every few words and media (those used to modern pens have no idea of the nuisance of working even with fountain pen ink, let alone pre-modern blends of vinegar, oak gall and lamp-black) and it can quickly be seen why so few people might learn historically. Given a small number of readers, the proportion of those able to write will tend to be smaller still - studies of Tudor England have shown that, based on whether legal documents were actually signed with a signature (as opposed to a seal or mark against a name written by the draftsman) about 5% of men and about 1% of women were able to write. Presumably this fails to take into account those who, by dint of their low status, never came anywhere near a legal document and so actual proportions may have been even lower. "Making your mark", whether with a scrawled cross, a thumb-print or something similar4 persists to the present day in less literate places - indeed, many of those with the sort of "broken literacy" mentioned above will have learned to recognise their own names in print for this very purpose. Potentially, with the increase in the use of electronic devices, the ability to write by hand may begin to decline again leading to those who can only write with a keypad to hand and, if faced with a pen and paper, resort to labouriously drawing words from memory. The discrepancy in handwriting between those who mainly use keyboards and those who handwrite a lot is already quite commonly observed, but then even back in early societies the gap between the writing of a professional scribe - used to producing large volumes of tightly written prose - and someone less used to writing could be evident: "See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!" observes Paul the apostle in GAL 6:11 (NIV) as he takes over for a moment from the professional to whom he has been dictating. Unlike many of the Apostles, Paul was a highly educated man, trained to literacy, including writing, from a young age … and still was not writing at the standard of a professional scribe.
Game and Story Use
- It is entirely normal to handwave literacy for PCs.
- It is, however, much more fun not to.
- Broken literacy may be even more fun, as instead of the GM simply telling a PC "you have no idea", there is the opportunity for failed comprehension rolls to lead the would be reader off on some wildly entertaining tangents.
- It is realistic for even an illiterate character to be able to tell accounts from text, but equally for them not to be able to (until the arrival of modern book keeping, a page of accounts could look a lot like a page of text, and medieval accounts didn't even have the distinction between numbers and letters that came after the adoption of "arabic" numerals). Likewise, musical scores, poetry written as verse staves and dramatic scripts may puzzle. Perhaps IQ based tests might be in order for a vague idea of what the text looks like ("it looks like the writing you get in books" - serious texts, letters etc., "it looks like someone has been writing quite roughly" - notes or minutes, "there are lots of numbers" - accounts or records, "the words are laid out strangely, not how people normally write" - lists, poetry or similar, "there are strange pictures in between the words" - a technical, scientific or magical text, "the writing is highly decorated around the edges" - a prestige text, probably religious in the real world middle ages).
- "That game" traditionally assumed literacy for all classes except the Barbarian class. It remains rare for any notice to be taken of this in play from either direction.
- If enforced, it may help to improve "niche protection" for less martial PCs - once the wizard's one spell a day is used up, the very fact that he is the only person in the group who can read (again, assuming that we've not assumed that everyone but the bloke in the furry posing pouch can read) may give him some kind of roll besides that of a lampstand (or low-grade crossbow operator in later editions).
- Beware, however, that your carefully plotted scenario doesn't come unstuck because a vital clue is provided in written form and none of the players were compis mentis enough to spend the points on making their character literate.
- Of course, they could do the realistic thing and take the documents to someone who can read for analysis, but this requires them to either identify the documents as relevant in the first place (which might still taken "broken" literacy - and may be as much as that sort of competence can achieve), or have a very tolerant reader happy to sort through all kinds of nonsense when the PCs bring him every written thing in the dungeon on a precautionary basis.
- That said, the documents may be notable because they are the only written thing in the dungeon - if the PCs can't read, there's an excellent chance that the orcs won't be writing diaries and laundry lists for themselves either.
- Note that the introductory GURPS adventure "All in a night's work" includes an opportunity for an illiterate PC to be cheated out of several hundred $ by their fence, passing off some valuable documents as worthless.