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ON THE ENGLISH ALPHABET.
ALPHABETIC writing appears to have been an 'outgrowth of that picture-writing which is still in use among savages. At first the writing was altogether pictorial — that is to say, the thing pictured was the thing meant.
Next, the thing pictured stood for the sound of its name, wherever that sound was required, whether to speak of that very thing or of some other thing with like-sounding name. This is the state of Chinese writing. It is as if (to adopt Mr. Tylor's illustration) a drawing of a pear were made to do duty for the words pare, pear, and pair, with signs to. guide the reader which sense he was to attach to the sound. This may be called the syllabic stage.
The third stage is where each figure represents only a consonant or a vowel, which we call the alphabetic system. Some national systems of writing have failed to arrive at this, and have remained stationary midway. Others, as the hieroglyphic, having gone through all the stages, seem to continue to be a mixture of all, not having become purely alphabetic.
Purely alphabetic as modern European writing is, there are still some slight traces of the pictorial origin of writing which remain in use among us.
The first four Roman numerals, I, II, III, IIII, for instance, are pictorial of that which is alphabetically expressed by the words one, two, three, and four. We may imagine that they represent so many fingers, or sticks, or notches, or strokes. It has been also supposed that the numeral V may have originated in a rude drawing of the open hand with the thumb stretched out and the fingers close together. Again, when we read in our almanacs 'O before clock 4 min.' and ') rises at 8h. 35min.' we have before us a mixture of the pictorial and the alphabetical, the most elementary and the most consummate methods of writing.
Our nation, in common with the the ations of western Europe, has adopted the Roman alphabet. This change began in the latter end of the sixth century, but it was not completed at a single step.
This alphabet was introduced into our island from two opposite quarters, from the north-west by the Irish missionaries, and from the south-east by the Roman missionaries, It is to be remembered that when our Saxon ancestors were pagans and barbarians, Christian life and culture had already taken so deep a hold of Ireland that she sent forth missions to instruct and convert her neighbours. Their books were written with the Roman alphabet, which they must have possessed from an early date, and to which they had already imparted a distinct Hibernian physiognomy. Of the two denominations of missionaries which thus from opposite quarters entered our island, one gained the ecclesiastical pre-eminence; but the other for a long time furnished the schoolmasters.
Hence it was that certain insular characteristics were
retained for centuries, and the Anglo-Saxon writing was after the Irish and not after the Roman model.
But another style of alphabetic writing had been in use among our Saxon ancestors from time immemorial—one that was not quickly to be superseded by clerkly penmanship, whether Irish or Roman. This was the RUNIC, a system of writing which had existed among the Gothic nations from an unknown antiquity.
The name RUNIC was so called from the term which was used by our barbarian ancestors to designate the mysterious letters of the alphabet. This was Run (singular), RUNE (plural), and also RUN-STAFAS, Rune-staves, or, as we should now speak, Runic characters. This word Run signified mystery or secret; and a verb of this root was in use down to a comparatively recent date in English literature, as an equivalent for the verb to whisper. In a "Moral Ode' of the thirteenth century it is said of the Omniscient,
• Elche rune he ihurð & he wot alle dede
He pur-sihð elches mannes þanc, þat scal us to rede.'
He sees through each man's thought, that shall us judge. In Chaucer's Friar's Tale (7132) the Sompnour is described as drawing near to his travelling companion,
• Ful prively, and rouned in his ere'; i.e. quite confidentially, and whispered in his ear. also much used in the mediæval ballads for the chattering and chirping of birds, as being unintelligible and mysterious (except to a few who were wiser than their neighbours),
• Lenten ys come with love to toune,
It was used also of any kind of discourse; but mostly
of private or privileged communication in council or in conference:
• The steward on knees him set adown,
With the emperor for to rown.'
Richard Coer de Lion, 2142 (in Weber's Metrical Romances). This rown became rownd and round, on the principle of N attracting a D to follow it; see below, p. III. As in The Faery Queene, iii. 10. 30:
• But Trompart, that his Maistres humor knew
In the following passage from Shakspeare, The Winter's Tale, i. 2. 217, the editor Hanmer proposed as a correction, whispring round :
• They're here with me already; whisp'ring, rounding.' Thus the word Run had a progeny something like that of the Latin word litteræ; whence ‘letter,’ ‘letters' ( = learning), literature,' 'literary.'
The Runes were in fact a short alphabet of sixteen letters only. They were shapen differently from the Roman characters, being almost free from curved or wavy lines, and a mere composition of right lines at various inclinations and elevations relatively to each other. It is not easy to present a pure and original Runic alphabet because of the early influence of the Roman alphabet upon it. There was also a certain tendency to mix up signs for whole words with signs for letter-sounds, so that a doubt is thrown over the nature of some of the characters.
The Runic literature is mostly carved on stones, arrows, axes, knife-handles, swords and sword-hilts, clasps, spearheads, pigs of metal, amulets, rings, bracelets, brooches,