Tongue-tied and illiterate?

What does it all mean?

Tile sample from Atik Valide mosque

Tile sample from Atik Valide mosque which was built by great architect Sinan in the 16th century in Uskudar (Istanbul / Turkey ). On the tile you can see a sample of Koran verses. (iStock photo.)

My wife and I have just returned from two weeks in Morocco.  It’s a remarkable country; with ancient traditions, medinas, the lunar landscape of the Sahara, the snow-capped high Atlas Mountains, the ochre-colored villages that blend into brown hills. There’s much to write about — my tourist’s ride on camel-back, a bargaining system where it’s an insult to pay an item’s asking price, the wind-swept silence of a tent, the courteous demeanor of our hosts. But because I’m a writer whose focus is language, I want to write about the lack of it instead.

In the world of Islam, it is forbidden to use “graven images” or display representational art. Photography’s permitted, and there are myriad photographs of Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco since 1999. But to these western eyes, the pattern of script is abstract, not instructional. I mean by this that the verses of the Koran — so beautifully inscribed on gates or the walls of Mosques— are not ones I could understand. (Religious iconography we westerners are used to — stained glass windows, sculpture, murals, triptychs, altarpieces, and so forth — has much to do with information, a way of telling a story to those who cannot read. A worshipper could see the Christ-child in a manger or on the road to Calvary or brought down from the Cross…). To my untutored eyes, however, the designs on walls in Morocco were not illustrative; I could appreciate the style and symmetry of letters and the elegance of inscription but not what the language conveyed.

Signs and wonders

The Berber Alphabet

(Image: Wikipedia.)

This held true as well of the Berber alphabet, the language of the original travelers to what became known as “the Barbary Coast.” The Berber tribes, who crisscrossed the country, (and made Jews, then Christians, then Muslims welcome) tell time-honored stories, but not ones I could read. I speak, read, and write both English and French (the French colonized Morocco, and road-signs and shop-signs attest to French influence), but for all practical purposes, my wife and I were functionally illiterate as to what these symbols might mean. Our guide was patient, generous, but our attempts at intonation and pronunciation of the few words he conveyed to us in Arabic or Berber felt foredoomed to fail. His English was of course up to the task of communication, since English has become the lingua Franca or sine qua non — both Latin terms — of the commercial world. The first suggests that the French tongue once was indispensable to worldly discourse; the second suggests that without English we’re nothing now, mere mutes. But what I mostly felt on camel-back or in the crowded souk was tongue-tied and inept.

We may “read” the sand or clouds or formations of rock for what they tell of water or weather or the prospect of shelter from storms. We may track hoof prints or the distant green of shrubbery for what they tell us of watering holes and the glad prospect of food. But a sign proclaiming “McDonald’s” or “Welcome to Iowa City” requires, of its reader, a different sort of skill. And much of our time in Morocco was spent in the attempt to decipher what was written on the wind and sand, but not upon a page. On the ancient camel route, the one sign I could read, in its entirety (and English): “54 days to Timbuktu.”


All this has set me to thinking about the plight of refugees who may well be fluent in Spanish but cannot answer in English to queries posed by bureaucrats. Or those who come to a new land without the local tongue. Or those who function at a fourth-grade level in the adult world of words. Two recent studies of literacy in America have raised disturbing questions about this very issue and what it implies for democracy.

In The Nation’s Report Card, which describes itself as “the largest ongoing assessment of what U.S. students know and can do,” there’s a disconcerting graph: 28 percent of matriculated students read at the 4th grade level, 27 percent at the 8th grade level, and only 27 percent are proficient at or above the level of 12th grade. In the “National Assessment of Adult Literacy” (conducted by the U.S. Department of Education), the results are much the same: 14 percent of the adults surveyed are below basic literacy level and only 13 percent are proficient. For a nation founded on the ideals of democracy, in which an educated populace determines its shared future, this is grim news indeed. Whatever your political leanings, illiteracy augurs ill. It’s difficult to overstate the value of reading comprehension, and what I felt while staring at the delicate inscriptions was the weight of my own ignorance and inability to parse the writing on the wall.

Repeat after me

Boustrophedon example.


It’s worth remembering, further, that the conventions of handwriting are various, not fixed. In medieval manuscripts, there’s scarcely any mark of where a sentence stops or starts. English “reads” from left to right, but Arabic and Hebrew read from right to left. Chinese and Japanese read from top to bottom, Mayan in pairs of vertical columns. There’s a form of sentence-composition called a boustrophedon, where the lines reverse themselves — proceeding, in the first instance, from left to right and then scrolling back on the page. And since our early documents were intended mainly to be read aloud, not in silence, the whole apparatus of spelling and punctuation is also subject to change.

A muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times daily from a minaret, and worshippers turn toward Mecca and perform their silent devotion on the streets or in a mosque. The rapid discourse of salesman and customer takes place in terms I can’t fathom, and the chatter of family members or friends is not for me to hear. When you scrutinize a wavy or an upright line and can make no sense of it you’re back to the circumscribed vision of childhood: What’s that? What’s this? What does it all mean?


  1. Doug Kelbaugh - A UM Professor, not a UM grad

    Nick Delbanco has once again hit the bulls-eye with his perceptive take on a country that my wife and I visited just weeks before he did. Morocco is a well-kept secret for world travelers. I felt at times like the first time I’d visited Italy as a college student – overwhelmed by the cultural and physical richness. Delbanco´s revelations on language and iconography have added another dimension to my sense of awe and ignorance.


  2. Theodore Hall - B.S. 1979, M.Arch. 1981, Arch.D. 1994

    I moved to Hong Kong for a postdoc fellowship in 1994. As you may know, Chinese writing is non-phonetic: hearing a word gives no clue about how to write it, and vice versa. Reading & writing, and hearing & speaking, are essentially two completely different language systems that don’t reinforce each other in any way. My apartment lease was written entirely in Chinese (so I had to trust my friend and recruiter that it was a standard and fair lease with no surprises). Looking at the labeling of the paragraphs, the characters for 1, 2, and 3 were pretty obvious: the said number of horizontal strokes. Ah, so I suppose these are numbers, and this next thing must be a 4, and so on through the digits — most of which were not obvious to me at all. Having learned the digits, I would read them on signs, and recognize nothing else, until one day I realized that the digits corresponded to the day, month, and year. So, I suppose these intervening characters are “day,” “month,” and “year.” And so it went, trying to deduce the meanings of characters from context. I didn’t get very far that way, even after 13 years, but it was a ceaselessly interesting exercise.


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