Did the letter start it all?

Did the letter start it all?

The invention of writing, as Jack Goody’s interesting book (referenced below) points out, made a profound difference to social organisation and all forms of communication associated with it. Succinctly, things were/are different with writing than without it. But what was the original form that writing took? Was it letter-like, as in the legal pronouncements of the great King Hammurabi (shown here); was it edicts carved on a stele which cowering populations might not have been able to read but certainly knew the meaning of; or was it, as seems more likely, lists in the form of inventories of war booty, trade and the like? The note is a truncated form so it is perhaps not to be considered in this respect. However, although public laws, edicts, and inventories each have some letter-like aspects, when did something recognisably the letter itself come into being? It certainly preceded the Romans and the Greeks and goes back to the reign of Persian ruler Darius or perhaps even that of Cyrus, but just how long ago and in what place? This is perhaps the wrong question to ask, and instead it should be contemplated that letter-like aspects – I to you or you to me when we are apart – came into being as a component of all the early forms of writing, and it was only later that different trajectories or genres of writing came about.

Jack Goody. 1986. The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society. Cambridge University Press.

Last updated: 13 February 2020


ESRC_50th-ANNIVERSARY-LOGO-RGB-blue-white-gold