Pictographs are very simple pictures that represent a word or idea. This artwork is the earliest known form of writing, with archaeological discoveries of pictographs dating back to 3000 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Scholars believe that pictographs developed independently in many different parts of the world, including the Middle East, China, and Mesoamerica. Because early pictographs were meant to resemble physical objects, they tended to represent nouns that referred to concrete things, but as pictographs in the ancient world became visually simpler and more abstract, they stopped representing actual objects. Instead, they began to represent abstract concepts and phonetic sounds. In time, pictographs became the basis for modern writing systems.
Narrator: Now, listen to a lecture in an art history class.
Professor: You might be surprised at how close the link between those ancient symbols and our current writing systems actually is. Let me show you some really neat examples from the Roman alphabet to illustrate.
Take the letter “A.” It looks, uh…kind of like a triangle with two sticks underneath it, right? …Well, those sticks used to actually be horns on a drawing of a bull. “A” started out as an ancient Egyptian pictograph of a bull’s head—this naturally stood for the word “bull,” or a, uh, a similar creature. But over generations, the eyes and other details on the bull’s head disappeared, until the head just looked like a triangle… And the horns just looked like sticks. Voilà.
The next example is a bit...a bit more distorted. But uhh… the letter “E” has a very similar story. This one started out as a stick figure, an image of a person praying. A line down the middle represented the legs, body, and head, and then two arms extended out on either side. But over time, the symbol was rotated—rotation like that is pretty common, historically—and a part of the image was lost… Now, the three horizontal strokes of the “E,” those are what’s left of the two arms and the head of that person in prayer.
Narrator: Using examples from the talk, explain how pictographs changed to become modern writing.
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