It explains a lot.
Hebrew writing is a special case, a consonantal script for a dead language that was brought back to life by European Zionists for use in Israel, where alphabetic script is also commonly used. But it’s no secret that the Arab world has a huge literacy problem, though most of us in the West are unaware of just how severe it is. Not only are very few books published in Arabic overall, virtually none are translated into Arabic from other languages. This intellectual starvation and isolation contrasts with the many millions of books published in, and the hundreds of thousands translated into, alphabetic languages each year.
Why Arabs Hate Reading
by Colin Wells (June 2015)
Though little reliable research has been done on Arabic literacy, the little that has been done is quite clear in one regard. As Johns Hopkins researcher Niloofar Haeri concludes in her contribution to The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy (2009), throughout the Arab world educated people find reading very difficult, don’t like to do it, and do as little of it as possible—even the librarians.
Why this uniformly strong dislike of reading?
Haeri’s answer is that Arabic literature is written in “classical Arabic,” the archaic language of the Quran, which is stilted, difficult, and often unfamiliar to speakers of the many modern dialects of spoken or “street Arabic.”
This may be true as far as it goes, but the argument that it’s the underlying obstacle to Arabic literacy is not persuasive. Similar gaps between written and spoken language (which are called “diglossias”) didn’t stop literacy from spreading in alphabetic cultures like that of Italy, where—to take a single example of this common historical process—written Latin was eventually replaced by written Italian.
Diglossia, then, doesn’t explain why spoken Arabic dialects haven’t become written languages in their own right, with robust literary traditions and wide readerships of their own, the way spoken Italian did after authors such as Dante helped establish it.
If you look up “writing” in the current Encyclopedia Britannica online, you’ll find an article by David Olson, a leading scholar of writing systems at the University of Toronto, where much of the most important research on literacy has been done over the past half century. Among the entry’s many interesting bits of information, one brief observation is easily overlooked: writing that has only consonants must be understood before it can be read, while writing that has both consonants and vowels reverses that process.