Its Latin root literatura/litteratura (derived itself from littera: letter or handwriting) was used to refer to all written accounts, though contemporary definitions extend the term to include texts that are spoken or sung (oral literature). The concept has changed meaning over time: nowadays it can broaden to have non-written verbal art forms, and thus it is difficult to agree on its origin, which can be paired with that of language or writing itself. Developments in print technology have allowed an evergrowing distribution and proliferation of written works, culminating in electronic literature.
Literature can be classified according to whether it is fiction or non-fiction, and whether it is poetry or prose. It can be further distinguished according to major forms such as the novel, short story or drama; and works are often categorized according to historical periods or their adherence to certain aesthetic features or expectations (genre).
The quest to discover a definition for "literature" is a road that is much travelled, though the point of arrival, if ever reached, is seldom satisfactory. Most attempted definitions are broad and vague, and they inevitably change over time. In fact, the only thing that is certain about defining literature is that the definition will change. Concepts of what is literature change over time as well.
Definitions of literature have varied over time: it is a "culturally relative definition". In Western Europe prior to the 18th century, literature denoted all books and writing. A more restricted sense of the term emerged during the Romantic period, in which it began to demarcate "imaginative" writing. Contemporary debates over what constitutes literature can be seen as returning to older, more inclusive notions; Cultural studies, for instance, takes as its subject of analysis both popular and minority genres, in addition to canonical works.