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A letter is a written message from one party to another containing information. Letters have been sent since antiquity and are mentioned in the Iliad  by Homer (lived around 7th or 8th centuries B.C.) and works by both Herodotus and Thucydides mention letters.
History of letter writing
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Historically, letters have existed from the time of ancient India, ancient Egypt and Sumer, through Rome, Greece and China, up to the present day. Letters make up several of the books of the Bible. Archives of correspondence, whether for personal, diplomatic, or business reasons, serve as primary sources for historians. At certain times, the writing of letters has risen to be an art form and a genre of literature, for instance in Byzantine epistolography.
In the ancient world letters were written on a various different materials, including metal, lead, wax-coated wooden tablets, pottery fragments, animal skin, and papyrus. From Ovid, we learn that Acontius used an apple for his letter to Cydippe.
As communication technology has diversified, posted letters have become less important as a routine form of communication. For example, the development of the telegraph drastically shortened the time taken to send a communication, by sending it between distant points as an electrical signal. At the telegraph office closest to the destination, the signal was converted back into writing on paper and delivered to the recipient. The next step was the telex which avoided the need for local delivery. Then followed the fax (facsimile) machine: a letter could be transferred electrically from the sender to the receiver through the telephone network as an image. Today, the internet, by means of email, plays a large part in written communications; however, these email communications are not generally referred to as letters but rather as e-mail (or email) messages, messages or simply emails or e-mails, with the term "letter" usually being reserved for communications on paper.
The study of letter writing
Due to the timelessness and universality of letter writing, there is a wealth of letters and instructional materials (for example, manuals, as in the medieval ars dictaminis) on letter writing throughout history. The study of letter writing usually involves both the study of rhetoric and grammar.
Advantages of letters
Despite email, letters are still popular, particularly in business and for official communications. Letters have several advantages over email:
- No special device is needed to receive a letter, just a postal address, and the letter can be read immediately on receipt.
- An advertising mailing can reach every address in a particular area.
- A letter provides an immediate, and in principle permanent, physical record of a communication, without the need for printing. Letters, especially those with a signature and/or on an organisation's own notepaper, are more difficult to falsify than an e-mail and thus provide much better evidence of the contents of the communication.
- A letter in the sender's own handwriting is more personal than an e-mail.
- If required, small physical objects can be enclosed in the envelope with the letter.
- Letters cannot transmit malware!
The letter delivery process
Here is how a letter gets from the sender to the recipient:
- Sender writes letter and places it in an envelope on which the recipient's address is written in the centre front of the envelope. Sender ensures that the recipient's address includes the Zip or Postal Code (if applicable) and often includes his/her return address on the envelope.
- Sender buys a postage stamp and attaches it to the front of the envelope on the top right corner on the front of the envelope. (For large volume mailings, postage stamps are not used: a franking machine or other means are used to pay for postage.
- Sender puts the letter in a postbox.
- The national postal service of the sender's country (e.g. Royal Mail, UK; US Postal Service, US; Australia Post in Australia; or Canada Post in Canada) empties the postbox and takes all the contents to the regional sorting office.
- The sorting office then sorts each letter by address and postcode and delivers the letters destined for a particular area to that area's post office. Letters addressed to a different region are sent to that region's sorting office, to be sorted further.
- The local post office dispatches the letters to their delivery personnel who deliver them to the appropriate addresses.
Types of letter
There are a number of different types of letter:
By writing both across and down, the sender of a letter could save on postage.
A hand-written letter of Cesare Borgia.
A child's letter to Santa Claus.
An invitation letter to the ground-breaking of the Seattle Space Needle, 1961.
The resignation letter of Richard Nixon, 1974.
- Letter box
- Pen pal
- Secrecy of letters
- Snail mail
- Gary Blake and Robert W. Bly, The Elements of Technical Writing, pg. 125. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0020130856
- Homer, Iliad, 6. 167–70.
- Ebbeler, J. (2009) "Tradition, innovation, and epistolary mores" in Rousseau, P. (ed.) A companion to late antiquity. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 270. ISBN 978-1-4051-1980-1
- "Epistolography" in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1991, p. 718. ISBN 0195046528
- Ovid, Her. 20
- Carol Poster and Linda C. Mitchell, eds., Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present (Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina Press, 2007).
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