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Kress, Literacy, and Language

October 18th, 2009 3 comments

There has always been a discussion of whether the language of the people controls the standards of the dictionary or the standards of the dictionary control the language of the people.  This can be argued either way, up and down, and ad infinitum.  Our dictionary gives us a set of words with their agreed-upon meanings (or I should say, strongly suggested meanings), and we go about our lives happily using those words.  I can only guess that most of the time, we use them appropriately and correctly, like we have been in this blog.  It’s foolish to think that the dictionary holds all we have to use.  Our language is changing everyday, thanks largely to new things to name and new ways of naming things.  For instance, crunk is now in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Issue, as well as ginormous.  They both were two of 100 accepted entries.

Word meanings change when we want them to.

I still have trouble (and still don’t like) considering image to be text.  I simply don’t expand my definition of text to include images.  I also still consider Pluto to be a planet and I don’t consider indigo to be a rainbow color that I have to memorize.  So just because an assumed authority defines a word as such doesn’t mean the public will listen.  Still, our words have definitions.

Kress appeared to be struggling to define that ugly word of today, literacy.  What felt odd about that chapter (What is Literacy?) was that for a learned man, a professor at the University of London, he approached a definition of literacy from a surprisingly simple angle, broke down the terms, and played with them for a while.  Only images and text were discussed while many other forms of literacy were left untouched.

When I was in middle school, I thought of literacy as pertaining only to images and text.  Now I’ve entered a world in which text doesn’t just mean actual text, where the screen dominates, where everyone needs a cellphone, where watches are becoming useless, where Pluto is now just a dwarf planet, and where literacy is rocking on a fence that runs between obsolesce and useless generality.  The world has changed so much in my measly twenty five years, so why are we still clinging to this clearly abstracted term?

But can’t the same situation be said of the word animal?  It’s also an umbrella term, underneath which lies six other classifications (phylum, class, order, family, genus, species).  Through this classification, we can identify and name every living thing we encounter.  It seems to me that this scientific approach would help us with this struggle.

Linda Dubin, a reading specialist at West Bridgewater University, has on her website the most reasonable definition of literacy that I’ve been able to find:

In broad terms, literacy is the ability to make and communicate meaning from and by the use of a variety of socially contextual symbols.

I hope we can embrace the largeness of this term as something of importance while creating under it a classification system for the various literacies.

We need to gain a little control over how we name things in our world.