Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/257

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THE EVOLUTION OF THE ALPHABET

THE EVOLUTION OF THE ALPHABET.
By M. G. VALBERT.

STUDENTS of considerable merit have published solid and important studies on the writings of the Oriental world and the alphabet. Their work is now supplemented by the Histoire de l'écriture dans l'antiquité, of M. Philippe Berger (Paris, 1891), in which the attempt is made to give a comprehensive view of the whole subject. M. Berger has long been a careful student of Semitic languages and religions, and is engaged in the editorial work of the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum. He is habitually careful in investigation, attentive to the facts alone, and is scrupulous to distinguish between what is proved and what is only half proved or has only begun to be proved. While he gives the highest credit for the introduction of the alphabet to the Phœnicians, he goes beyond them to the origin of writing in the primitive and crude processes to which thinking or almost thinking beings resorted in order to represent their mental conceptions by material and visible signs. He speaks of the notched sticks used by the Scythians and the Germans for correspondence and divining; of the wampum of the Iroquois—belts or necklaces of shells, the combinations of which formed geometrical figures, and which sometimes included as many as seven thousand pieces; of the quippos of the Peruvians—collections of woolen cords of different colors, in which knots were tied at different distances. Each color, and every peculiarity in the form of the knots, had its meaning. The Peruvians had employed another method before inventing the quippos. "It is curious," wrote the Spanish Jesuit Acosta, in the sixteenth century, "to see decrepit old men learning the Pater Noster with one round of pebbles, the Ave Maria with another, and the Credo with a third, and to know that that stone means 'conceived of the Holy Ghost,' and that other 'suffered under Pontius Pilate'; and then, when they make a mistake, taking them up again, looking only at the pebbles." The Iroquois made as good use of their wampum. The shells stood to them for ideas and phrases. Their messengers could convey with the aid of wampum entire speeches, which they would recite word for word on reaching their destination. But these, as M. Berger remarks, are not writing, but mnemonic expedients, methods by which an artificial memory was created. We do not write when we tie a knot in our handkerchief to keep from forgetting anything.

A closer approach to writing is pictography, or the art of exhibiting to the eyes what the mind sees or believes it sees. Man of the Quaternary epoch already practiced this art. We possess