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On Transliteracy


Transliteracy defined as a cross-media ability misuses the word literacy, since the base competency of literacy is language rather than medium.


First — I regret my approach to the subject of transliteracy via twitter. As librarianbyday claimed, my initial criticisms were vague and perhaps unjust. Before proceeding I would first like to apologize if my meanings were unclear or personally hurtful. That was not my intention.

I insinuated transliteracy was “a bullshit made-up term for the same old stuff.” This isn’t entirely or necessarily my stance, given that my qualms with transliteracy stem from a poor common definition of literacy. The application of the term literacy across media, as such, was hasty since I myself had not defined literacy as pertinent to my argument. I apologize for this basic error.

Before proceeding to the meat-and-potatoes of my argument I would like to take this opportunity to point any readers to two blogs which I quite admire:

  • Libraries and Transliteracy — a collective effort from which I personally have gleaned insights and with which I bear no ill judgment
  • Agnostic, Maybe — a brave blog of contemporary opinions with which I frequently disagree (sometimes at a basic level) but with an author whose acceptance of alternate viewpoints I truly admire

First, define your terms

Or more correctly, “Define your terms, you will permit me again to say, or we shall never understand one another” as Voltaire wrote in Dictionnaire philosophique. It is in the ‘working’ definition of transliteracy that vague terminology originates apropos to this discussion.

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.

This definition is hasty because transliteracy is not an arbitrarily-coined word. As the authors of Transliteracy: Crossing Divides point out, transliteracy is an existing term stemming from the verb ‘to transliterate.’ Both they and Sue Thomas in her report on the Transliteracies conference quickly jump from talking about language to mentioning media, tools, and platforms.


Transliteracy in its original definition is well-defined and valid. It is the prefix trans- added to the word literacy, which has a strong denotation. Literacy here is the ability to read (and often write) in a given language. The test of whether one is literate as such is language-dependent. In practice, transliteracy would then be the ability to transliterate — commonly referring to a process by which one language with different character-to-phone rules is converted to another.

It’s important to treat the “same language” with different sensory and communicative characteristics as a different language. For instance, the “English language” can be represented via touch in braille. Someone who can interpret input (interpret being defined loosely here) in the form of raised dots is said to be literate in that given language’s Braille. English in Braille and common written English are not a 1:1 comparison; since Braille characters are larger than written characters for tactile purposes, contractions unfamiliar to readers of written English are used. While fluency in ‘English’ is implicit to one literate in English Braille, the change of format necessitates many real differences and presents real barriers that make these different language literacies and fluencies.


You may have noticed that I’m playing faster and looser with the word language than you may be accustomed. Straight from Wikipedia:

A language is a system of signs (indices, icons, symbols) for encoding and decoding information.

In the introductory paragraphs of that same article, distinction is made between spoken language and written language. I think this distinction is necessary, and grant that a permeable umbrella term “language family” can be used to refer both to historically-linked different languages of written or verbal form, but also to contemporary languages that are closely related across those barriers. For the purposes of this article I’d like to grant that spoken English, written English, English Braille, American Sign Language (to a less-clear extent), and others are part of the English language family. As a further look at language families will attest, there is a certain lack of taxonomic clarity to how language families are described.

Visual Language

An example of medium independence

Now we’re getting somewhere! Visual language has structural units, like any other language. Via Wikipedia:

Its structural units include line, shape, color, form, motion, texture, pattern, direction, orientation, scale, angle, space and proportion.

I contend that medium, if not directly a part of this list, is at least strongly intertwined with the other structural units. As such, medium is most connected to the visual language of a piece compared to other languages.

This is an important distinction because there is so much communicative variation within and across media. An LCD screen can be used for almost anything, and a huge range of information and emotion can be expressed as sound over air.

There is a dependency, as such, on the visual language for expressive purposes. Two artists could express the same concept with different visual languages in much the same way that a fluid column of text on a computer screen could communicate the same information as a fixed column on a printout. Visual literacy, then, is the ability to decode and encode information from visual language. Visual fluency is the ability to derive meaning from that visual information.

Interface Language

The signs, symbols, analogies, literals, and physical attributes of a given piece as they convey information pertaining to the usage of said piece.

In many instances the interface is rather passive. A painting on a wall is only interacted with in the sense that it is viewed. One could make the case that an ornate frame informs the user not to touch the piece. Not touching is an interaction vector.

A book’s binding, in conjunction with elements of written and visual language, inform the user on the method of turning pages. By interface convention, a book user may also naturally assume to find certain interface elements in commonly-found places: jacket, title page, verso, contents, index, etc.

A computer has a literal, physical interface language at the first layer. An ‘on’ button, a keyboard in a likely-familiar layout, a pointing device of some sort.

The on-screen interface prior to the GUI was essentially a programming language in the form of shell scripting.

Different GUIs have different interface languages. While Mac, Windows, and the common Linux windowing systems are the stand-out examples of this principle, it’s worth noting that different versions of an OS often contain striking differences in interface language.

Languages evolve.

The web is a curious sea of interface languages. At the very core, it’s a “frame story” of interfaces, in that the browser’s cues aren’t necessarily those of the base OS’s GUI (that was fun to write, btw). The ever-changing elements of hypertext are another layer on top of that. Then, site-and-or-page-specific styling via CSS enable a web designer (that designation used loosely here) to change the interface language much further.

Platforms and Tools

I’ve already placed media in the spectrum of language scopes where I believe it fits — that of visual language (or perhaps aural). Platforms and tools can be found much higher up the chain.

A platform — let’s use Windows XP as an example — is a combination of many languages, some not elaborated upon in this article. A user of the platform must learn certain interface language elements, many of which are composed of visual language elements that the user should also likely know. The interface is loaded with written language and various sound-based languages. What’s so interesting about this from a ‘transliteracy’ perspective is that there are degrees of iteration, inclusivity, and exclusivity to the necessary competencies.

A tool could really be anything, but let’s use Facebook as an example. It fulfills the laughable “digital social network” component of the original re-definition, which is a plus in my book. Sure, Facebook has very much become a platform as of recent, but since tools and platforms fall out of what I’m asserting is the scope of transliteracy’s definition, let’s just move forward with Facebook as a tool. It’s part of the previously-explained frame story. It can use its own interface language and interchange written languages, but abides by common web interface language conventions in order to promote usability.

The important part here is that platforms and tools are combinations of languages, while a medium is only part of a language.

Proposed Re-Re-Definition

Transliteracy is the ability to encode and decode information between or across languages.

I believe this definition meshes well with the original definition and works with the contemporary work done under the umbrella of transliteracy. It is perhaps necessary to better define the different types of languages and create a more-holistic model for their interaction, though.

A Caveat on Usage

Sorry Andy, I’m going to pick on your latest post a little bit. On his blog, he wrote regarding the future of libraries:

Personally, in the future, I think that the main focus of librarianship will rest on two areas: transliteracy and customer service. For me, transliteracy is the best umbrella concept to the multi-disciplinary knowledges that the future of information will require. With information storage occurring in a multiple of mediums (sic) (audio, video, and written recordings, for example), the ability to navigate the formats will become a necessity.

Personally, in the present, this doesn’t mean much. It’s essentially saying “I think the main focus of librarianship in the future will be knowledge.”

Without specificity when using the term (ie. “This is apropos to transliteracy because the user must be able to go across these specific languages in order to interpret the end-goal information”), it could conceivably refer to the entirety of human perception. That’s a huge umbrella that contains the past, present, and future of libraries, as well as the rest of the perceived and readily-perceptible universe.

Great care should be taken to convey scope as it pertains to transliteracy.

Further (Wikipedia) Reading

I’m no linguist, psychologist, philosopher, or artist. I know I’ve left out certain context for brevity (ha!) and have undoubtedly made unintentional mistakes. There’s been a ton of work that applies to this one term, of which I personally have only skimmed the surface. Here is a list of Wikipedia articles that I think will be useful for yours and my further study: