It is thought that writing grew from pictures, which became simplified and stylistic with time and use. The letter A was originally symbolic of an ox or aleph in Phoenician. It was the first letter of the alphabet because to the ancients the ox symbolised strength and energy. Thus the symbol came to represent these abstract ideas as well as a physical animal. Originally, the letter was a picture of a whole ox but through metonymy it came to be represented by only the head of an ox. This simplified into the Greek Alpha and the Latin A. This process of picture, symbol, letter formed all of the Greek and Latin alphabets.
A major step from these pictographs was the Egyptian initiative to make them represent sounds, often in the form of syllables, rather than ideas. This developed from acrophony: symbols for ideas or objects coming to represent the initial sound of that word. This change eliminated much of the ambiguity of symbols and gave writing the full complexity of speech. In the Cratylus, Plato speaks about writing as a form of imitation, as a representation of the spoken alphabet rather than visual elements. The first alphabetical scripts were developed from hieroglyphs in Egypt and Cuneiform in Uruk. From these systems, close to all of the modern alphabets evolved.
Writing has served many different cultural functions. It is thought to have sprung from mundane necessities such as commerce and debt but when its power was realised, it quickly became the duty of scribes and those who had the time and wealth to afford education. In such cultures as ancient Rome, It became a social divider; those who could read could get a job high paying enough to afford to teach their children to read. Literacy was widespread in free males in 5th century Athens. In some cultures, such as Egypt, writing took on a mystical role, perhaps due to its perceived divine origins. Herodotus coined the term “hieroglyphs” from “hieros” meaning sacred. The Greek word for alphabet, stoicheia, also means “elements” and as such, the letters were considered the building blocks of the cosmic order. It also became a symbol of cultural unity; the entire area of what we now call “Ancient Greece” was a collection of separate city states united only by language.
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