Literacy in the Days of Old

Gutenberg (Johannes, not the much loved Steve of Zeus and Roxanne fame) is hailed as the father of the printing press and consequently, the movement towards literacy. Well, to put it quite simply, let’s give God a big hand for striking good ol’ Johannes dead before he could see what has become of literacy in modern day America. Myself included, words such as “totz” and intentional ebonics such as the ever popular “fo sho” have steadily begun to creep into the vocabulary of everyday Americans. However, this isn’t some plea for common decency and the return to traditional English. I’ll leave that to the more noble publications. On the contrary, this is a question about the origins of the written word and the evolution of language.

More specifically it is the question of how the hell did they understand anything that was written? I’m being entirely serious. This was a time that was ruled by the upper class and even more so, the clergy. Now, this isn’t an attack on religion, but it has clearly been proven that those who instill as much faith as these men, who were basing laws on the scripture, are pretty damn stupid. But let’s forget about that for a moment. Let’s entertain the notion that those people back then were just as smart as people are nowadays. Even then, I still don’t really get how they understood it… I mean, I’m in my 2nd year of college, graduated from my high school with honors, but could I tell you half of what Shakespeare was saying in his plays? Well, yes, I could but only after reading it, like, 3 times or reading it in one of those No Fear Shakespeare books where one page is Shaespearean text and on the other page is the translation. Now, I’m not saying I’m a genius, but if serfs were gettin’ it and I need a couple run throughs, that just says something to me, that’s all. And serfs were pretty much recognized as the lowest of the low, given no opportunities for education or advancement, but they’re getting this stuff? Doesn’t quite do wonders for the self esteem…

But what it does do is make one think. If peasants in the Middle Ages are getting this shit, what happened? I mean, are we really as smart as we think? I know that the language used in older texts was closer to how people spoke back then, but assuming written text is an accurate depiction of the language of a time period, it kinda makes one wonder just what the fuck happened to get us to this stage where “z” is an appropriate substitution for the letter “s”? Okay, maybe that’s just something that I do, but still… Are we smarter now just because we can graft a baboon’s ass onto a woman’s face? At least, I think we can do that… although why you’d want to is a whole nother issue. Somewhere alone the timeline, we lost touch. I don’t know what it was or when it happened, but if high school graduates still use Spark Notes (the website of course, because the paperback ones still kinda resemble a book) as a substitution for actual reading, something had to have happened to get us off track.

Another definite possibility is that the whole previous paragraph is irrelevant. Maybe we are just as smart as we say we are. I mean, with all the technical and medical advancements (technical being first and foremost as evidenced by Time naming the iPhone the invention of the year, beating out the medical advancement of the discovery of a bacteria that can convert any blood type to type O aka the universal blood type) we’ve got to be doing something right. The question is, are we doing it for the right reasons? Gutenberg’s printing press was such an advancement because it made knowledge accessible to the masses. It came about in a time when people craved knowledge as much as kids craved Furbies in the 90s and people crave iPhones these days. Now, the inventions that receive the most attention are the ones that offer the quickest route to instant gratification. We’ve already met our needs, gorged ourselves on knowledge, and now seems to be the time to sit back and let the accessories and trivialities take over.

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One thought on “Literacy in the Days of Old

  1. Wouldn’t it slightly be because of technology like the printing press that we made it to substituting z for s? In fact, isn’t that the entire 20th century? Now, I’m not going to try and act like I know for sure what I’m talking about, but as far as I’ve seen and been told, the 20th century has been major only in that it technologically advanced far beyond most centuries before it. Shortening our words up is sort of telling of how classical music went from super long, complex orchestrations to three-minute verse-chorus-verse pop songs. It might’ve been there all along, but now we have the technology to record and disperse this into the masses and affect culture. People were substituting z’s for s’s since it seemed edgy back in the 80s, but it’s more prevalent and affecting now since a lot of us talk through the internet and use text messaging. It’s short, and kind of vapid, but it’s telling of what technology has actually done. Technology has changed the way we do things, so it changes the way we approach everything that is being done. If Joe Schmo can write a book, so can I. It took those tools out of the hands of the major few and gave it to everybody. Even film, a notable invention that, while not coming around in the 20th century, certainly came to fruition in the 20th century, has still fallen into the hands of youtube. You’d think television certainly dumbed it down until the age of viral videos. I’m sure Orson Welles would faint if he saw “Shoes” or a “Leave Britney Alone.” Although I don’t know if I’d call it necessarily dumb, and the end result, as you said, seems to be entertainment.

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