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Literature and Writing


ancient India, earshot, hearer, body of knowledge, specializations

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Writing, a way of recording language in visible form and giving it relative permanence. Until the invention of audio recording, speech was limited to those within earshot or on the other end of a telephone, and it faded away immediately, except in the memories of speaker and hearer. Writing overcomes this limitation and allows not only the storage of immense amounts of information but its transmission to wherever a written message may be conveyed.

Writing is, therefore, a powerful instrument for transmitting culture from generation to generation. It plays a crucial role in the development and continuation of complex civilizations, with their elaborate technologies and economies, bodies of literature, codes of law, and other specializations, each with its own body of knowledge to be preserved and transmitted. Some civilizations, such as that of ancient India and of Viking Scandinavia, preserved amazing quantities of verbal material with remarkably little change over long periods of time through sheer painstaking memorization. But such a process has severe limitations, and the expenditure of human energy is immense.

Despite its advantages, writing was a very long time in being invented. Humans have written for about 5,300 years, a very short time in the span of human history.


Gelb, Ignace Jay, Ph.D.

Late Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor of Assyriology, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago. Author of "Study of Writing". Contributor to the "Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago".

Whiting, R.M., Ph.D.

Research Associate, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

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