From Orality to Literacy to Transliteracy

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What is Transliteracy?

Hieroglyphics on pinkish stone appeared very early in humanity's journey toward Transliteracy“Transliteracy” is a term increasingly used by new media communicators. The concept was originally developed by Prof. Sue Thomas and colleagues at De Montfort University.

Those original practitioners have gone on to various bigger and better things in their transliteracy journeys and the site is no longer maintained, but Transliteracy.com still hosts their definition:

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.

The statement reflects awareness of the rich heritage of human communication via sound, symbol and sign, and a desire to retain the gifts of older forms of communication even as we delight in new ones.

Becoming transliterate

It’s a tall order. Acquiring skills in Transliteracy requires constant learning. And there is far less time to focus on each platform, tool and medium than when most people specialised in only one, e.g. writing for print.

In a post on Transliteracy.com I suggested it helps to think of transliteracy as “partly an attitude …, rather than an accumulation of a minimum number of skills… the willingness and desire to transition between media, learning what one needs to know as one goes… .”

I graduated with an MA in Creative Writing and New Media in November 2009. I had spent an intense year studying the tools and implications of transliteracy. Despite attaining a distinction, I was left feeling overwhelmed; feeling there is still so much to learn!

I still feel it. But the following whimsical story (first published on Tiatalk) came to me then. It helped me to gain perspective and accept that I will always be on this journey:

When Orality met Literacy

One day, young Taran was hunting lizards and rats in the desert with some friends.

They trod softly and whispered as they walked, so as not to startle their prey. With practised ease, they stalked and circled, wasting no motion as they whirled their slings and released precise, stony death upon their unsuspecting lunch.

The sandy crags were abundant with surprising life and by midday their belts were bulging with enough fresh meat to feed their entire tribe that night. With time on their hands, they ran to find water and shade, to sit and sing until the sun retreated from its ravaging.

As they approached the glistening desert lake, Taran spotted a woman sitting in the shade of the only tree at the oasis. Their tree. Their oasis. Her silver hair rippled in the breeze as she bent forward. She was making strange marks in the sand near her feet. He confronted her:

“Who are you?”
She smiled, “I am Shanaya. I am a writer.”
“What is a writer?”
“A writer is one who writes. As I am doing here… writing.”
“What is writing?”
“Ah. Writing is …. the rendering on a surface of symbols representing sounds or words.”
“Hmmm. That’s… interesting… I suppose. What is writing for?”
“Writing is for communicating!”
“Communicating what? To whom?”
“Anything! Everything! To anyone! Or even to a machine!”

Taran did not know what a machine was, but he tried to make sense of what she said. “So if I make some marks on a surface to represent some sounds or words, I’ll be communicating?”
Shanaya smiled mysteriously. “Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that!”

She went on to explain about sentences, paragraphs, spelling, grammar, punctuation, reading, target audiences, lexicons, assumed knowledge, style, translation, record-keeping, letter-writing, creative writing, technical writing, analytical writing, history, plays, poetry, novels, short stories, newspapers, film, TV, computer programming, e-mail, blogging, online networking, texting, e-poetry, hypertext writing, video games, multimedia stories, cross-media narratives, Alternate Reality Games and transliteracy.

It was a long day.

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