Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/The Evolution of the Alphabet

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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 bones and reindeer horns decorated with designs and sculptures, which sometimes represented veritable scenes. These designs, besides being mnemonic aids, are capable of transmitting thought as well as of preserving it. The day that these pictures were changed into recitals, man was ready to write. A scene engraved on a rock at Skebbevall, in Sweden, helps us to witness a landing of adventurers and their establishment in the country. Beside scenes of pursuit and piracy, are files of boats which we can count, with the braves aboard of them. Disks and groups of points above the scene indicate the time of the year or of the moon when it took place. Here the design is only in outline. Most of the boats are represented by two concentric curved lines, diversified with slight parallel strokes representing the braves. From this time the figure, abridged and truncated, is transformed into a sign, and that is a mark of writing. Man after this manifested that power of abstraction which is his privilege, and which consists in holding to that which is essential in things, and suppressing the rest. Man is, perhaps, the cousin of the monkey; but a chimpanzee will never be anything but a novice in abstraction, and that is why he will never take it into his head to speak or write.

Writing, as M. Berger says, is the art of fixing speech by conventional signs, traced with the hand, which are called characters. These characters may represent ideas or spoken sounds. That writing which aims to represent ideas directly is called ideographic, and the characters it employs are figurative. Some hieroglyphics are shortened images in which we can recognize, without too much effort, the sun, the moon, a mountain, a snake, a flower, a shoe, or a mirror. Then we deal with abstract ideas, we have recourse to symbols. A man kneeling, with his hands raised, conveys the idea of adoration; a hanging lamp, that of night; an open eye signifies vigilance and knowledge; an ostrich feather gives the idea of justice, because the wing feathers of that bird are all equal. The characters of phonetic writing, on the contrary, represent, not objects but the sounds composing the words that stand for those objects; and the writing is called syllabic or alphabetical accordingly as the characters express complex articulations or simple sounds, syllables or letters.

This distinction between the two methods is only theoretically correct. In reality nearly all systems of writing have, by a curious fatality, sooner or later come to syllabism. This occurred in the five great ideographic systems of the ancient world—the Chinese, the cuneiform writing of Assyria, Media, and Persia, and the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Egypt did not stop there, but pushed the analysis of the elements of speech still further, and, having disengaged the syllable, then disengaged the letter; and from the sixth dynasty, or three or four thousand years before the Christian era, the inhabitants of the valley of the Nile had twenty-two different articulations, and used one or more alphabetical signs for each of them.

The Egyptians did not employ these alphabetical characters to the exclusion of all others. They also preserved some ideograms and a considerable number of syllabic signs, of which M. Maspero gives the list in his Histoire Ancienne. Thus, their writing was one of the most learned and most perfect, but also the most complicated, that could be imagined. The Phœnicians charged themselves with the duty of simplifying it, and they kept of the immense quantity of signs only those which corresponded with simple articulations, or consonants, and obtained twenty-two characters, which were sufficient to represent all the sounds of a language and all their possible combinations. Some Orientalists have looked for the origin of this alphabet in the cuneiform or Cypriote writing. M. Berger, discussing their theories, holds in the end, with Champollion, M. de Rouge, and M. Maspero, that the twenty-two signs were borrowed from the Egyptian writing, as it also came by natural development from the ancient pictographic writing. Greece adopted these characters, but not without adapting them to its limpid and sonorous language, which could not be satisfied with a writing exclusively composed of consonants; and, after having retouched them, it added a few signs expressive of the vowels. It gratefully acknowledged its indebtedness to the Phœnicians. It boasted of many things, but never boasted of having invented the alphabet. It called the primitive letters whence its classic writing was evolved, Phœnician or Cadmean characters, and showed its appreciation of Cadmus by making him a son-in-law of Jupiter. The Phœnician alphabet spread gradually through Asia as well as Europe, supplanting everywhere the cuneiform and hieroglyphic characters. Only China was the exception to this rule, and shut its doors against the alphabet. It has been discovered that even India, so proud of its chimerical antiquity, was indebted to the Phœnicians; and that the Sanskrit alphabet was not indigenous, but is derived, if not directly from the Phœnician, from one of its derivative alphabets, the Aramaic alphabet. "Nothing," says M. Berger, "is so imposing as this march of the alphabet to the conquest of the world. There is in it something of the irresistible and fatal character of the great invasions. In the face of the migrations of peoples which periodically precipitated the East upon the West, the Phœnician alphabet went against the current. Having established itself in the Mediterranean basin, it penetrated to the center of Asia from three sides at once; while its derivative, the Indian alphabet, occupied gradually the whole country south of the Himalayas and diverged into Thibet, and the Syriac alphabet advanced directly across the central plateau. In the North, again, the Græco-Italian alphabet, after having gone the round of Europe, in advance of modern travelers, penetrated into the plains of Siberia. All the alphabets in use on the earth are derived from the twenty-two letters of the Phœnician alphabet. It would be hard to find in the history of discovery another example of an invention that has had so extraordinary a fortune." This prodigious success is easily explained. The Phœnicians found at the first stroke the formula for universal writing. They understood that the real purpose of the art of writing was to express the sounds of speech by visible signs; and those sounds being nearly the same everywhere, the same letters, slightly modified, have served for writing all languages.

The love of the human species for the complicated is strikingly illustrated in the story told by M. Berger. The simple comes after it, and has to wait its time with enduring patience. The history also shows how easily men may dispense with real goods while setting a high store upon imaginary ones. The world had already grown old, and had written for a long time, when the alphabet was invented, about 1500 b. c. Why did it hold during so many centuries to complicated and laborious systems of writing? Because they were better adapted to its wants. Writing served in ancient times for three purposes—for engraving inscriptions on stone, for correspondence with the absent, and for fixing the winged words of the poet. Inscriptions are of much less evident utility than correspondence and books; yet, epigraphic writing was the only use of which men then felt the need. The more monumental and decorative it was, the more it pleased them; and it must be acknowledged that the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians make a better showing on a wall than the twenty-two letters of the Phœnician alphabet.

The art of expressing ideas by simple traits was long an occult science, the exclusive property of a caste, of a sacerdotal caste, of a corporation of learned men and clerks. It did not matter that inscriptions were not understood by the multitude: those who had the key to them were charged with their explanation, and could give such interpretations of them as suited their interests. There are, in northern Africa, a large number of inscriptions, of various dates, some of them being several centuries old, and others quite recent. This writing, which is still partly in use among the Tuaregs, is intelligible only to the initiated, particularly to certain women, who keep it as a family secret.

A savage, who was shown his name written in characters that could be read, exclaimed in astonishment: "Where are my legs? where is my head? I see nothing there that distinguishes me." The profane crowd to whom the initiated explained the meaning of an inscription may have been equally astonished, and would attribute a miraculous virtue to the written word. In the Edda Brynnhild teaches Sigurd the supernatural power of the runes: "Write the runes of victory if you would have victory; write them on the hilt of your sword; write others on the blade, speaking Tyr's name twice; write the runes of the storm if you wish to save your ship amid the roaring of the breakers; write the runes of thought if you wish to become wiser than others. Odin himself invented these runes."

It was not in northern countries only that men persuaded themselves that the word signifying power was powerful by nature, and the one giving the idea of God was divine. It was held as an article of faith in all countries that a written prayer had a sovereign efficacy, and that a curse engraved on stone had infallible effects. There are few epigraphic texts among those cited by M. Berger that do not end with a curse. It has been remarked that nothing is rarer than a proclamation of police that authorizes anything; not less rare is an ancient inscription intended to bless any one.

If the human race had never employed writing except to engrave inscriptions on stone, it would never have needed the alphabet. The prime merit of writing on stone was to be architectural, and unite mystery with majesty. But when commerce sought to utilize the art to facilitate business transactions it was necessary to simplify it, and place the occult science within reach of the multitude. The object was no longer to perpetuate sentences and memorable events, but to write in the easiest way the day's thoughts, for which posterity would not care. Paper and the calamus were substituted for stone and the chisel-point, and the cursive writing appeared, which is favorable, as M. Berger remarks, to idleness of the hand, inasmuch as it permits it to make with a single running line what had been made with many distinct lines, and is conformable to the law of the least effort.

Of the systems of writing derived from the Phœnician alphabet the most cursive found most favor, and made the most rapid progress abroad. The Aramaic system held this place in the Oriental world, and was accepted by all the Semitic peoples. The Egyptians, though not a commercial people, felt the need of an easier way of writing than by hieroglyphics for the common affairs of life, and formed a current hand from the hieroglyphics, which is called the hieratic. This was further simplified between the twenty-first and twenty-fifth dynasties, and the popular or demotic hand was invented for contracts and documents, for common use. But the Egyptians did not abandon their syllabic signs and ideograms, their homophones and polyphones, and the simplest of their writings was still complicated. They had scruples against giving it up, and were inculpable of sacrificing their traditions and the love of the mysterious to the conveniences of life. After it had become the universal tool of commerce, writing put itself at the service of writers and poets. Yet literature did without the alphabet for several centuries. The oral method sufficed for it, and verses and stories, in whatever dialect they were composed, passed from mouth to mouth. But the discovery, once launched upon the world, made a revolution in it. Suppress the alphabet, and all would be changed in the history of the human race. Three great religions, which have had a decisive influence on its destiny, would have been smothered in their cradles if the cursive writing had not served as a vehicle to carry them to distant points, and secure entrance for them. The Hebrews were acquainted with letters, and had a current writing. They were destined to be the people of one book. The law of the gospel must be a written law. Mohammed was to write, the world was to be governed by books, and these books were to make the fortune of the alphabet used in writing them. The Latin Bible, as much as the genius of Rome, carried the Latin alphabet into all western Europe. The Greek liturgy imposed the Byzantine alphabet on the Slavic peoples; and if all Africa ever learns to write and read, it will be indebted to the Koran for its knowledge of those arts.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.