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90. Alphabetic writing appears to have been an outgrowth of that picture-writing which is still in use among savages; and of which there is a poetical description in the Song of Hiawatha, Canto xiv. At first the writing was altogether pictorial—that is to say, the thing pictured was the thing meant, either simply or symbolically. When Charles Dickens was at Harrisburgh (Pennsylvania) in 1842, he saw a number of treaties which had been made with the Indians, and their signatures were rough drawings of the creatures or weapons they were emblematically called after. This picture-writing is commonly spoken of as hieroglyphic.
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 tends towards the formation of a syllabarium, which is a set of phonetic characters, not of vowels and consonants but of syllables: and this is the completion of the second or syllabic stage of writing.
The third stage is what we call the Alphabetic system. Here each figure represents only a consonant or a vowel. Some national methods of writing have failed to arrive at this, and have remained stationary midway. Others, as the ancient Egyptian, having gone through all the stages, retain something of each, and present a mixture of all, not having become purely alphabetic.
91. That simplification which resulted in the production of an Alphabet was much promoted by the transference of the writing-system from one race to another. In fresh hands it would undergo a new test of applicability, and many old hieroglyphic relics would be purged away. Thus the Chinese hieroglyphic has led to syllabaries among the Japanese, and to an alphabet among the Coreans: and Ewald says that the art of writing which the Israelites certainly practised when they left Egypt, was a genuine product of the reciprocal action of Egyptian and Semitic culture. It seems to be now quite established that Egypt was the birthplace of the Semitic art of writing, which is only the archaic form of the European; and the legend justly pointed to Phoenicia as the quarter from which the alphabet passed into Greece.
Purely alphabetic as modern European writing is, there are still some visible traces of its pictorial origin. 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 '© before clock 4 min.' and ' D rises at 8 h. 35 min.' we have before us a mixture of the pictorial with the alphabetical, the most elementary with the most consummate method of writing.
92. Our nation, in common with the other nations 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 an insular calligraphy was retained for centuries, the first Anglo-Saxon writing having been formed after the Irish and not after the Roman model.
93. But another style of alphabetic writing had been in use among our Saxon ancestors from time immemorial— this was the Runic.
The name Runic was so called from the term which was used by our barbarian ancestors to designate the mystery of alphabetic writing. This was Run sing., Rune pi., 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 ihurS & he wot alle dede.'
In Chaucer's Friar's Tale (7132) the Sompnour is described
i. e. quite confidentially, and whispered in his ear. It was also much used in the mediaeval ballads for the chattering and chirping of birds, as being unintelligible and mysterious, except to a few who were wiser than their neighbours; as—
Lenten ys come with love to toune,
94. It was used also of any kind of discourse; but mostly of private or privileged communication in council or conference:
The steward on knees him sat adown,
These uses of the term are very ancient;—in the Mceso
gothic Gospels we find runa nemun, they took counsel,
Matt, xxvii. 1, and other instances.
This rown became rownd and round, on the principle of
N drawing a D after it; see below, 138. 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, 'whisp'ring round':—
They're here with me already; whisp'ring, rounding.