Read and Review – Dr Katharina Zinn | Literacy in Pharaonic Egypt (2018)


For this week’s task I have to review Katharina Zinn’s article ‘Literacy in Pharaonic Egypt: orality and literacy between agency and memory (2018)’ in 250 words. I include her abstract below:

“The article presents a new conceptual framework for understanding literacy in ancient civilisations to conceptualise ‘literacy’ more broadly as a cultural and social practice. For this it is necessary to focus on the complex relationship between orality and writing, accentuate the materiality of writing as well as questions of agency and acknowledge the social role of texts and writing as part of Egyptian memory culture.” Accessed via Academia (08/12/2019)


Citing UNESCO standards, Zinn helps to change the understanding of what Literacy is: “According to UNESCO, four theoretical understandings of literacy can be differentiated: literacy as an autonomous set of skills, as applied, practised and situated, literacy as a learning process and finally, literacy as text” (Zinn (2018) 69). This modern starting points allowed Zinn to delve into an argument that redefined what literacy can be; mainly that the oral and visual power of literacy need to be considered. The UNESCO standards also ground the research, showing that even today the concept of literacy is still incredibly nuanced and not at all binary.

The idea of ‘collective-literacy’, that the oral and visual aspects of literature are consumed by the majority, is interesting as it gives new insight into how the Egyptian consumed the material that surrounded them in their day to day lives. Zinn suggests that this aspect of literacy helped to create a unified identity built around the myths and ideology that are conveyed to them.

Thinking about literacy in Roman Britain, with the use of abbreviated Latin and spelling mistakes by stonemasons, approaches that challenge binary literacy are important. The Romano-British example showing that not understanding full words doesn’t mean you don’t understand the whole message presented.

I believe Zinn’s approach is really interesting, but due to the jargon making the text clunky to read, further research and publication is needed to make this topic clearer to general readers.


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