The Appearance Of Literacy
The word goes back first to the Latin litteratura (writing, grammar) and litteratus, which denote learnedness derived from writing, or literacy, and then to littera, or letter. (The French littérature has the same roots.) It is conjectured that the Greek root of the Latin littera is diphthera, meaning a leather hide prepared for inscription. In his Institutio oratoria, Quintilian (c. 35–c. 100 C.E.) uses the word litteratura as a translation of the Greek grammatikē (Wellek). As such, it represents the art of the letter (gramma), which would denote the ability to read and write and hence the rules or "grammar" governing this ability. But the Greek word for writing, grammata, also means "scratchings"—its Indo-European root, gerebh-, means "to scratch." The English verb to write derives from the Germanic wrītan, also meaning "to scratch." The English word Scripture, like the German Schrift (a Schriftsteller is a literary person), can be traced back to the Latin verb scribere, "to write," and then to the Indo-European root skeri-, from which come a host of words having to do with cutting. The Indo-European skeri- has a variant form krei-, denoting separation, sifting, and discrimination, from which comes the Greek krinein, meaning "to judge," and later English words such as critic and criterion. One of the meanings of sker- is excrement, hence something worth knowing how to avoid. One can discover in literature's philological beginnings nascent forms of nearly the entire family of ideas that would come to be associated with the word literature: letters, writing, literacy, learnedness, discrimination, distinction, criticism, and judgment. Because, almost everywhere, writing and reading—unlike speech, acquired in infancy—were skills that demanded time and effort to acquire, literature, more or less by its nature, had its beginnings among groups that not only were socially empowered to make distinctions (priests, scribes, bards, chiefs) but also were socially distinguished by the very fact of being literate.
As Barry Powell observes, it has long been a puzzle why the narratives generally considered the oldest examples of Western literature, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, have all the structural characteristics of advanced, literate societies yet contain no mention of writing itself. The one reference to "baneful signs"—not yet grammata, or writing—in the story of Bellerophon (Iliad 6.157–211) came to Homer from the Levantine East, as did many other elements of the Homeric epics, and it may suggest that the poet whose version of the Iliad was finally written down did not yet understand what writing was. Literature in any guise came late to the West: the written forms of the Homeric epics date from around the time of the invention of the Greek alphabet, c. 800 B.C.E., while reference to written documents appear regularly in much older narratives from Egypt and the Near East, c. 1800 B.C.E.
The oxymoron oral literature has been used to describe unwritten compositions in story, poetry, or song, transmitted with many variations over time, though the rubric remains mired in much dispute (Lord). People have most likely told stories about themselves, their gods, their heroes, and the creatures, both real and imagined, surrounding them from the beginnings of language, and such storytelling is still an integral part of what is meant by the term literature. But the process by which supposedly oral compositions like Homeric epic poetry came to be written down is unknown. Similarly, while the extant Bible is largely a mix of documents assembled piecemeal from preexisting (and now lost) documents, oral accounts must have been part of many biblical stories. Abraham may have existed as early as 2000 B.C.E., Moses around 1200 B.C.E., but no written account of them survives from before the sixth century B.C.E. Well before the Latin word litteratura existed, Homer's epics and Hesiod's Theogony already included what is now recognized as a wide range of genres or modes of writing, from the skillfully entertaining to the legal, philosophical, historical, and religious. If oral traditions that survived into the modern period are any guide, oral performances designed for entertainment employed a range of structural devices and tropes that helped define what came to be called "literary" language. A general consensus arose in the late twentieth century that alphabetic writing made possible whole ways of thinking not available to nonliterate societies (for different approaches, see Ong and Goody). Certainly literacy seems to have facilitated military conquest and administrative authority. But it is hard to know precisely how the psychological or cultural consequences of alphabetic writing in the West, beginning in Mesopotamia, differed from those of writing in China, which had a quite distinct history; or how much of what is called the "literariness" of novels, poems, and plays ultimately derives from preliterate oral performance or perhaps from the innate structure of human consciousness.
In Sumeria and Egypt and in China written documents and ways of talking about writing appear earlier. Writing first appears in Sumer c. 3400 B.C.E. with the inscription of shapes into clay for the purpose of counting objects, though the use of smaller objects themselves as tokens is much older. At a certain point, perhaps first via pictures (pictograms) and then via increasingly abstract symbols, phonetic units came to be linked to written ones, and writing came to be considered the legible form of speech. It can be said that the earliest (cuneiform, logographic) literary texts could not actually be "read," since one still needed aural instruction to be able to pronounce the radically incomplete sequence of signs. The epic story of Gilgamesh survives in several different language families (Sumerian, Semitic, and Indo-European) and scripts (cuneiform and Luwian), the longest version from the seventh century B.C.E., the earliest from perhaps the fourteenth century; the hero-king himself seems to have existed in the third millennium. Chinese script may be even older than the Sumerian and certainly dates from at least the second millennium. In Chinese, unlike the phonetic writing that developed in Sumeria and then in the Greek and Latin alphabet, one finds in the same sign a phonetic element and a nonphonetic element, or semantic "radical."
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