Chris Rollston has a fascinating post “The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet: Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus.” On the whole it is clear and convincing. But I want to take issue with a side issue. In section II. “Literacy in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean” he is concerned to show that the inventors of the alphabet were most likely to have been members of the elite. Among his arguments he seeks to show that literacy was never a mass phenomenon in the Ancient world. In doing so he poo poos notions that the introduction of the alphabet expanded the availability of literacy so widely as to be able to be seen as a social revolution.
Some have suggested that with the invention of the alphabet, literacy rates rapidly became quite high, with both elites and non-elites writing and reading (note: these two skills are related, but quite different). For example, during the middle of the twentieth century, W.F. Albright stated that “since the forms of the letters are very simple, the 22-letter alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student and in a week or two by the dullest.” And he proceeded to affirm that he did “not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in various parts of Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges” (Albright 1960, 123). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, R. Hess made similar statements. For example, regarding ancient Israel, he states that there is “continually increasing evidence for a wide variety of people from all walks of life who could read and write.” In addition, he states that he believes “the whole picture is consistent with a variety of [literate] classes and groups, not merely a few elites” (Hess 2006, passim 342-345).
Now, the Albright quote is wildly exaggerated, and Hess’ claims are probably also over-optimistic. But the literacy estimates quotes show that:
for Egypt, literacy rates are often estimated to be at ca. one-percent or lower, and confined to elites (see Baines and Eyre,1983, 65-96; note that even at Deir el-Medina it is elites that are writing). For Mesopotamia, Larsen believes that one-percent is also a reasonable figure (see Larsen, 1989, 121-148, esp. 134).
While the rates he quotes for societies using alphabetic scripts his estimates are between five and fifteen percent:
Rather, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the population was not literate. Note, for example, that W. Harris (1989, 114, 267, 22) has argued that literacy rates in Attica were probably ca. five percent to ten percent and those in Italy were probably below fifteen percent (note: within this volume [passim], Harris has cogently critiqued those that have proposed high(er) rates of literacy).
If, as an approximation, we took the middle of this range, the result is that the move from Cuneiform or Hieroglyphic may have merely increased literacy by a factor of ten, or by one thousand percent! My guess is that an increase in literacy levels this dramatic, or even at the lowest level Rollston’s figures suggest (a factor of five or five hundred percent), is quite high enough to produce exciting social consequences.