This context comes from the book "Black Rednecks And White Liberals" By Thomas Sowell.

Being part of the Roman Empire meant that Western Europe had not only a common language—Latin—but a literate language, centuries before there were written versions of the various Slavic languages of Eastern Europe.

Definitions I found on Merriam-Webster:


    literate executives

  2. versed in literature or creative writing: LITERARY

    literate novelists


    a literate essay

Only the last definition describes something other than people but I somehow don't feel like this is the correct one. Off the context, it seems like it means "written language" but I can't seem to be able to find an appropriate definition.

I know that literate is also a noun that means:


2 : a person who can read and write

So maybe "literal language" means a language for a person who can read and write?

  • 2
    In context, I'm sure "a literate language" simply means a language with an established written form. It needn't necessarily imply a language in which literature can be written, though that would often be the case. Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 16:37
  • Check out instances of the sequence of literate languages in Google Books to see how the collocation is used. It's somewhat different to, say, He is a literate Anglophone. Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 16:43
  • @FumbleFingers: I can't find any definition for "literate" with the meaning "written or read". I know what the phrase means as the collocation of these two words based on my and the people's in this thread interpretation of the context. But what is the closest sense of the word "literate" in this sense? Can you provide a definition? Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 18:50
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    English is defined by usage, not by dictionaries! There are at least a dozen instances of the usage in my previous link, all from obviously scholarly / erudite writers. The "definition" they're working to is quite obviously as I said above, even though it's not necessarily common enough to justify its own dictionary entry (and native Anglophones don't learn English from dictionaries anyway! :). But if you're still not convinced, search in Google Books for usages of the sequence preliterate language (from which we trivially derive literate language). Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 22:54
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    I studied English language & literature to degree level, but it's quite possible I never encountered the collocation literate language before this question. I didn't look it up in a dictionary, though - I just "reasoned" the likely meaning from context (plus my prior knowledge of words like literature, literacy, letters,...). Then after posting my first comment, I checked Google Books for the collocation itself, which confirmed my assumptions about the meaning. Sometime after that, I realized that the far more common form preliterate language is crucially relevant. Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 10:22

1 Answer 1


It merely means a language that has a written form. The various Slavic languages at the time existed only as spoken languages.

This is reasonably clear from the context, and from the "literal" meaning of literate (ie relating to reading) and from general knowledge about Latin and Slavic.

Note how it contrasts the "literate language" with "Slavic languages with no written form". This kind of explicit context makes understanding in context straightforward.

Your dictionary hasn't captured this sense. Wiktionary does have it: "3. Which is used in writing (of a language or dialect)." A literate language is a language which is used in writing. A literate language is a language that is used by a literate culture.

  • Can anyone provide a definition for "literate" in this context which means "written or read"? Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 18:31
  • I know what it means based on context. You might infer that by the sentence "Off the context, it seems like it means "written language" I wrote in the post. Also, I can't find any definitions for "literate" in the sense of "literal" (meaning related to reading). Can you provide a link to such definition? Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 18:44
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    Wiktionary has this definition :" 3. Which is used in writing (of a language or dialect). 2005, Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, Harper: The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan even commissioned an alphabetic script for his empire, to be used officially for all its literate languages, Mongolian, Chinese, Turkic and Persian."
    – James K
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 19:09
  • Good going James!!! Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 0:59

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