Pre-Literate Peoples: Proposing a new term

Ellsworth Faris
The University of Chicago

Conservatism in terminology is always desirable. An indiscriminate coinage of new words is not to be undertaken lightly, for this involves a waste of time and effort, impairing the continuity of scientific writing. Science has been called funded knowledge, and if each one gives free rein to his desire to use new words, it is difficult to add to the edifice of our predecessors, or to insure that those who follow us will profit by what we have done. In the matter of a term for designating those peoples who are the subject-matter for ethnological research, there is, however, an apparent need for a better term than those now current.

For some time the writer has been using in lectures and class discussions the term "pre-literate" to designate the peoples of the sociétés inferieurs, as Lèvy-Bruhl calls them. This article is written to suggest the term to scholars at work in the fields of ethnology, sociology, and psychology as a more objective word than any of those now current. The term is obviously suggested by Lèvy-Bruhl's word "pre-logical," and it seems even more defensible than that very questionable word. The need for a new terminology is apparent upon a very cursory consideration of the writings in this field. Goldenweiser has recently broken away from any attempt to make a distinction and entitles his book Early Civilizations, treating as civilized the Eskimos, Australians, Central Africans, and Iroquois. This use of the word "civilization" has been criticized as an unwarrantable extension, robbing the word "civilized" of any content, for indeed if all peoples were civilized, we shall need a new word to indicate the great difference in culture that separates us of the modern tradition from the societies found in Melanesia, Central Africa, and Greenland.

The history of terminology in this field is long, but need not be recounted in detail. It would include, among others, the words "pagan," "heathen," "barbarian," "savage," "primitive," "lower

( 711) races," nature peoples," and several others. The etymology of these words reveals them to have been objective in origin, though they have acquired a content which ethnocentrism has turned into depreciation. We know that the pagan was originally merely a villager; that the heathen was at first merely a plainsman, and that the savage was originally only a forest-dweller. These words have, however, all acquired a meaning which has led to their gradual abandonment as scientific terms. How recent this development is, will appear from recalling the title of one of Dewey's epoch-making papers which he called the "Interpretation of the Savage Mind."

The most widely used word now is "primitive," by which men from Herbert Spencer to Boaz, including some of our most valuable literature, designate those peoples and cultures which I propose to speak of as "pre-literate." The most recent book in this field, that of Lèvy-Bruhl, which appeared in English in 1923, is called Primitive Mentality.

The objections to the term "primitive" are several. It is ambiguous. There was a primitive man, and concerning him much has been written. The myths all describe him, and Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and many more have set down in detail the picture of him which they conceived. The primitive man of Hobbes was the hypothetical, primordial being who was presupposed in a political theory. Rousseau described another one, quite opposite in character, but imaginary. Herbert Spencer in accordance with the preconception, which we no longer entertain, identified contemporaneous peoples of pre-literate cultures with primitive man, and since Spencer the word has been widely used to denote the Bantus, the Polynesians, the Negritos, and all those peoples outside the cultural influences of Europe and Asia.

It needs no argument to show that primitive man so designated is not really primitive. Their culture is very old, their languages are complex and highly developed, and their inheritance goes back very far. They are often referred to now as "so-called primitive peoples." "Pre-literate" seems a far better word. It is neutral, connoting no reflection of inferiority, and is, therefore, objective and descriptive. Moreover, it may well be that the introduction of a written symbolic language is the chief differentiation between the culture of city-dwellers and those who belong to the "lower societies."

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But whether this be true or not, it is evident that none of the peoples we include in the term "savage" or "primitive" possess a developed, written language. This is not because they cannot learn to read and write. Missionaries and teachers have proved that letters are not impossible to them. They have simply not had the opportunity to learn. They are not literate, nor illiterate. They are pre-literate.

Pre-literate man is, then, one in whose culture there is no written literature. And it is obvious that such a person is in a very different situation, culturally, from an illiterate person, by whom we mean a man who cannot read what other members of his society have written and can read.

It would be interesting to attempt to set forth the changes in a culture which the introduction of writing brings about. For writing means record, and the records of a vanished generation make possible a continuity of culture otherwise impossible. Literate people have a history; pre-literate peoples have only oral tradition. And the difference is analogous to the possession by a person of memory. To lose one's memory is to lose one's personality. And something analogous takes place when the records of the past give us an attitude toward our ancestors otherwise impossible. Moreover, written instruments transcend not only time but space, and make possible the integration of societies into larger units, thus adding a new dimension to life. It is no accident that civilization is derived from the word "city," for pre-literates do not really have cities. At the most they have large villages.

Literature begins with Egypt, and in spite of many differences between the civilizations of China, India, Greece, Rome, Babylon, and medieval Europe, one is constantly being impressed with the fact that all of these civilizations have many points in common which differentiate them clearly from that large outer group whom we speak of as pre-literate.

Modern man may be differentiated by several cultural elements, but science in the sense of controlling nature is perhaps the most outstanding one. For this we go back very far to get the germs, but the full expression is a matter of only a few generations. Mathematics, objective science, and humanism differentiate us from the ancients. A written language differentiates both us and the ancients from those who have not yet learned to write-the pre-literates.


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