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Thoth’s Pill: An Animated History of Writing

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Legend has it that as soon as Thoth, an Egyptian god, invented writing, he shared his discovery with King Thamus. But the King was all but impressed with the new system because he believed that it would cause forgetfulness in students. Since they would no longer need to rely on their internal recall system, they would begin to depend on these external marks. The King saw it as an unnatural intrusion.

But what was actually unleashed with the invention of writing? Just take a look around you and notice how people are constantly writing. Whether it’s on paper, on a computer or on a phone, writing has become more important as civilization progresses.

Thousands of years ago, artists took to etching and painting images of the animals they saw around them. Since paper had not been invented as yet, their works of art were made in the walls of the caves where they spent their time. The pictures represented things that were of importance in their lives. Hence, pictographs, ideographs, and logographs were born.

Logographic systems emerged in the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mexico. Even after all these centuries, one can still pick out drawings on artifacts that can be read as words: head, jaguar, turtle, house, etc. The oldest of these that have been found to date are Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform, which are over 5,000 years old.

As time went on, people in other countries adapted the system to create something that would better reflect their own particular needs, beliefs, and culture. The Greeks, for instance, shifted around some of the symbols and came up with the idea of using one sound for each character. This way, every vowel and consonant was written out. This turned it into a pronunciation writing system that inspired many other alphabets both to the East and to the West. Eventually it reached the Romans, and they spread it to the world.

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