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History of Letters

Pictographs are assumed to be the beginning of most alphabets. A pictograph is a symbol that is a simplified picture of an object. So it’s a picture? Uh-uh.

So, why do Throg’s ancient charcoal scrawlings qualify as a pictograph, while Gak’s is just a funky stick figure? The distinction is sometimes hard, but it has to do with simplification, standardization and repetition. Pictographs are agreed-upon shorthand drawings. While primitive, they actually proved useful in the face of many linguistic barriers. They also marked the end of prehistory.

Here are ancient pictographs for ox and mountains. Clearly these are simple pictures of the actual things that they represent.

Pictogram - Ideogram - Rebus

The ideograph above combines the ox and mountain pictographs to symbolize the idea of a wild ox, as opposed to a herded one. It’s not just a literal representation of an ox running free in the mountains.

The last example above, of the pictographs of the sea and the sun, is a rebus. The phonetic sound of each “word” of the rebus is put together to make a new compound word: seasons.

Written language gained sophistication with the advent of the ideograph, two or more pictographs joined together to form a meaning different from that of their individual parts. They opened the door to action and subjective ideas rather than just noun representations of things.

Next in the evolution is a rebus (pronounced reebus)—the formation of phonetic combinations from symbols that meant something entirely different. This is closer to the writing system we’re used to: letter symbols representing sounds that form words which then convey meaning.

Character evolution

You can see here the evolution of two symbols starting as pictographs, which were then turned on their side as a step in the evolution of the writing system, then made more abstract in Cuniform and then almost unrecognizable in Assyrian.

An important thing to remember is that every system of writing ever devised was preceded by spoken language. The letter exists to serve the lip.

Gee Whillickers!

The Oldest Known Advertisement


An interesting relic of design and marketing history survives in the ruins of the ancient city Ephesus, once capital of Roman-controlled Asia, in what is now known as Turkey.

Get ready for a large dose of irony: The world’s oldest known advertisement is for the world’s “oldest profession.” The ad is a carving in the marble pavement outside a brothel, nearly 2,000 years old. It shows a footprint pointing the way, along with some images clarifying what it is pointing to. Step right up!

Near the carving, some partial text could also be found, which actually translates as, “You deserve a break today … so get up and get away….” Possibly additionally providing us with the oldest recorded jingle. It is truly strange that you could easily throw those words against a modern tune and run it in a commercial today.

Oldest ad