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Never Hold a Pencil:
Rhetoric and Relations in the Concept of "Preliteracy"

John Duffy


The category of preliterate has been applied to cultures in which reading and writing practices are said to be nonexistent or restricted. This article argues that preliterate can be understood as a rhetoric or a socially constructive narrative (a) that devalues the cultures and peoples to whom it is applied by situating them within a 19th-century narrative of primitiveness and (b) that mystifies understandings of how literacy develops by representing the absence of literacy as an expression of inherent cultural values rather than an outcome of relationships among cultures of unequal power. This article considers the case of the Hmong of Laos, a people commonly described as preliterate, to illustrate that the widespread absence of written language in Hmong culture is not an expression of cultural values but an outcome of Hmong relationships with the Chinese, French, and Laotian governments and the United States Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War.

* Written Communication, 17(2), pp. 224-258, 2000.

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