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Redefining Transliteracy

Weird communication


This is a long-ish essay about transliteracy that I’ve been editing for a few months now. I’ve asked for feedback from the Libraries and Transliteracy group (full disclosure: you can read the discussion here. I come off as arrogant, but luckily, not wrong) and Sue Thomas, and have based this version on their responses. Thank you to everyone who helped in getting this essay ready.


The working definition of transliteracy, as defined by PART (Production and Research in Transliteracy):

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 both internally and externally inconsistent. The combination of problems requires a re-definition of the term such that transliteracy can be an effective interdisciplinary field of study.

Working Definition Inconsistencies

The definition mentions signing, orality, handwriting, and other things claimed to be platforms, tools, and media. Questions naturally emerge: Is handwriting a platform, tool, or medium? What about orality? It is unclear whether the things in the list are platforms, tools, or media at all, and if they are it is not clear in which category any one of them belongs.

A second problem follows. If handwriting is a medium and orality a tool (purely for example), how does one go across them? The trans- prefix of transliteracy means across or between; how does one go across not just different things, but different types of things?

Additionally, “signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” is imprecise. There are ostensibly infinite platforms, tools, and media that fit into the framework. Listing a random, partial set of supposedly-included concepts is not how definitions are written.

The list also appears to assert a hierarchy, as if signing is somehow primitive compared to online social networks. Since the list is not purely alphabetical or chronological (TV comes before radio and film), it appears haphazard at best and literacy-elitist at worst.

It is also unclear why interaction is listed with reading and writing as it is redundant. Interaction is merely a series of reading and writing acts.

The biggest problem, and the one that leads to a solution, is that literacy is not the ability to read, write, and interact on a particular platform, tool, or medium. Literacy is the ability to encode and decode (since reading and writing are handwriting-centric activities) information in a particular language. Surely _trans-_literacy should then be

an ability to encode and decode information between or across languages.

This definition can be shortened to

an ability to communicate across languages

for most purposes. However, this iteration is less precise since the concept of communication often includes meaning, which is addressed later in this essay.

Defining Assumptions

The ability to encode and decode information in a particular language is not a definition for literacy in any known dictionary. Owing to its precision, it should be in the future.

The most common dictionary definition of literacy is concise: “The ability to read and write.” What is it that the literate person reads and writes? Information.

What does the literate person read and write information in? A passer-by on the street, asked if they were literate in the English language but not the Russian language, would be able to confidently answer yes or no to the query. Languages themselves are defined as systems for encoding and decoding information. Language as the base unit of literacy thus follows inductively from the vernacular and deductively from the definition of language.

Literacy purists may scoff at switching from reading/writing to decoding/encoding. There is a hearty debate as to whether understanding a spoken language constitutes a literacy. It is simple enough to agree that it does, with the caveat that generalizing makes the concept deviate slightly from the vernacular form.


Must an English-literate person learn English Braille? When someone first learns to understand spoken English, are they conclusively literate in English?

No. Very few people can be considered completely English literate. Spoken English, written English, and English Braille are all different languages. They are different systems of signs and symbols for encoding and decoding information. Surely they share similarities to the point that they can be considered in the same language family, but each facilitates communication using a different method. A person who understands spoken English is spoken English literate. Even to that point their literacy may not be comprehensive, as the English lexicon is huge and constantly-growing, and various spoken dialects of English exist that differ significantly.

Visual language works the same way. People can use different visual dialects with different visual grammars to communicate the same message. This is the terminology that artists and designers use to talk about their crafts. If transliteracy studies seeks to be interdisciplinary, using linguistic terminology is a great start.

The Medium is the Message(‘s Partner)

When someone communicates, they go through a process of encoding information into a language. The message travels on the medium to its destination. In this sense the medium is synonymous with the term ‘channel’ as it applies to the transmission model of communication.

For the purposes of talking about transliteracy, the important endpoints in a model of communication are where people either encode messages onto a medium or decode them from one. However, the medium itself only carries the message and is, as such, one of the two components of language.

Multiple messages can be encoded onto the same medium at the same time. A business memo can deliver in written language one message, while providing another via the typeface.

In a similar way, the same message can be delivered via two different media at the same time. A person shrugging while saying “I don’t know” illustrates this notion.

In both circumstances, two separate communications acts are being performed simultaneously, despite the sharing of a common component. Since language comprises both message and medium, a change in either changes the language and its encoding and decoding processes.

Is Transliteracy Meaning-less?

Some models of communication put emphasis on the concept of meaning. The sender intends to attach a certain meaning to the message and the receiver derives their own meaning upon decoding the message. Often these meanings do not agree. The meaning-making process occurs outside of the encoding/decoding process, however.

This appears to be a cold notion, that meaning is outside the scope of transliteracy. However, it meshes well with the original divide between transliteration and translation. A person who transliterates is able to do a literal, meaning-independent task. A person who translates takes meaning into account such that the completed translation is not a literal comparison to the original work.

It is worth noting, since the examples provided are placed in the context of the transmission model of communication, that the transmission model is often criticized for not explicitly addressing meaning or action. In both cases, such criticisms are unwarranted. Since meaning-making occurs before the encoding process or after the decoding process, a separate meaning-making process can be attached to a sender or receiver where applicable. Similarly, action is often a separate communication act. Communication acts of a common thread may be daisy-chained, ran parallel, and branched using the components of the model to illustrate concurrency and causes and effects.


It is also worth noting that a general definition of literacy, and by relation transliteracy, should be as compatible with other definitions of both general and specific nature as possible. This facilitates interdisciplinary discussion and a useful pedagogical framework. For instance, a commonly-cited definition like

(the) ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.

as set forth by UNESCO, should be reconcilable with the general notion of the base literacy definition used to define transliteracy. “The ability to communicate in a particular language,” to use the short form, has no prima facie incompatibilities. The UN definition is broad. Likely this is by perceived necessity to include areas where bilingualism is prevalent. It also does not explicitly group literacy competencies by language, though this characteristic does not make the definitions incompatible since “varying contexts” is suitably ambiguous.

As previously explained, the vernacular form of literacy is text-centric. This is a necessary consideration for a body that uses its internal definition to measure worldwide literacy rates. However, the concept limits the perception of language to a particular sensory set of signs and symbols when such a distinction is unnecessary and potentially-biased. The UN, as such, may rank areas with verbal or other communicative emphases lower than print-prevalent areas.

All literacies should be treated equally. The printed word should not be considered superior by fiat. The ability for a person to communicate effectively in common cultural contexts to an extent that makes them a functional member of society does not necessarily mean having native written language literacy. In many cultures illiteracy in the area’s official written language may make it difficult for a person to function in society. In other cultures it may not. This functional distinction is a necessary lens for measuring base literacy of a country, region, or person.

Other Literacies

Media Literacy, Multimedia Literacy, Computer Literacy, Digital Literacy, and many others fail the test of being language-based. Thankfully, the OED steps up to offer a solution:

  1. competence or knowledge in a specified area

Many of these literacies, as such, can continue to be defined as they are without hurting anything. Without too much effort, though, the situation can improve: by making all of these literacies plural.

Computer literacies would then be all the language (the cool, system-for-transferring-information kind) abilities involved with using computers. Wine literacies would be the language skills necessary for the theory and practice of Oenology. This simple semantic change makes the second definition of literacy superfluous and makes the umbrella term transliteracy easier to wrap around existing literacy models.

Finally, the term “Information Literacy” must die. Since all literacies are information literacies, the plural form “Information Literacies” would encompass the entire namespace of knowledge. Information Literacy cannot be a single literacy, either. Information itself is not a language. Information must be encoded into useful forms via language for people or other things to use it.

The concepts presently under the umbrella of Information Literacy are valid and useful. The practice of teaching the skills and abilities currently associated with Information Literacy should continue. Those skills and abilities should just be called something that makes sense. Information Literacy (or Literacies) is not the right term.

So What?

If Transliteracy is to be an academically-respectable field of study, it needs precise, discipline-compatible language for its core concepts.