Page images

ranged, they contrived signs for giving information, and communicating their thoughts to one another.

Of this nature also, are the written characters which are used to this day throughout the great empire of China. The Chinese have no alphabet of letters, or simple sounds, which compose their words. But every single character which they use in Writing, is significant of an idea ; it is a mark which stands for some one thing or object. By consequence, the number of these characters must be immense. It must correspond to the whole number of objects or ideas, which they have occasion to express; that is, to the whole number of words which they employ in Speech : nay, it must be greater than the number of words; one word, by varying the tone, with which it is spoken, may be made to signify several different things. They are said to have seventy thousand of those written characters. To read and write them to perfection is the study of a whole life, which subjects learning, among them, to infinite disadvantage; and must have greatly retarded the progress of all science.

Concerning the origin of these Chinese characters, there have been different opinions, and much controversy. According to the most probable accounts, the Chinese Writing began, like the Egyptian, with pictures, and hieroglyphical figures. These figures being, in progress, abbreviated in their form, for the sake of writing them easily, and greatly enlarged in their number, passed, at length, into those marks or characters which they now use, and which have spread themselves through several nations of the East. For we are informed, that the Japanese, the Tonquinese, and the Corceans, who speak different languages from one another, and from the inhabitants of China, use, however, the same written characters with them; and, by this means, correspond intelligibly with each other in Writing, though ignorant of the Language spoken in their several countries; a plain proof, that the Chinese characters are, like hieroglyphics, independent of Language; are signs of things, not of words.

We have one instance of this sort of Writing in Europe. Our cyphers, as they are called, or arithmetical figures, 1, 2, 3, 4, &c. which we have derived from the Arabians, are significant marks precisely of the same nature with the Chinese characters. They have no dependence on words; but each figure denotes an object; denotes the number for which it stands; and accordingly, on being presented to the eye, is equally understood by all the nations who have agreed in the use of these cyphers; by Italians, Spaniards, French, and English, however different the Languages of those nations are from one another, and whatever different names they give, in their respective Languages, to each numerical cypher.

As far, then, as we have yet advanced, nothing has appeared which resembles our letters, or which can be called Writing, in the sense we now give to that term. What we have hitherto seen, were all direct signs for things, and made no use of the medium of sound, or words; either signs by representation, as the Mexican pictures; or signs by analogy, as the Egyptian hieroglyphics; or signs by institution, as the Peruvian knots, the Chinese characters, and the Arabian cyphers.

At length, in different nations, men became sensible of the imperfection, the ambiguity, and the

tediousness of each of these methods of communica. tion with one another. They began to consider, that by employing signs which should stand not directly for things, but for the words which they used in speech for naming these things, a considerable advantage would be gained. For they reflected farther, that though the number of words in every Language be, indeed, very great, yet the number of articulate sounds, which are used in composing these words, is comparatively small. The same simple sounds are continually recurring and repeated; and are combined together, in various ways, for forming all the variety of words which we utter, They bethought themselves, therefore, of inventing signs, not for each word by itself, but for each of those simple sounds which we employ in forming our words; and by joining together a few of those signs, they saw that it would be practicable to express, in Writing, the whole combinations of sounds which our words require.

The first step in this new progress, was the inven. tion of an alphabet of syllables, which probably pre.ceded the invention of an alphabet of letters, among some of the ancient nations; and which is said to be retained, to this day, in Æthiopia, and some countries of India. By fixing upon a particular mark, or character, for every syllable in the Language, the number of characters, necessary to be used in Writing, was reduced within a much smaller compass than the number of words in the Language. Still, however, the number of characters was great; and must have continued to render both reading and writing very laborious arts. Till, at last, some happy genius arose ; and tracing the sounds made by the human voice, to their most simple elements, reduced them to a very few vowels and consonants; and by affixing to each of these the signs, which we now call Letters, taught men how, by their combinations, to put in Writing all the different words, or combinations of sound, which they employed in Speech. By being reduced to this simplicity, the art of Writing was brought to its highest state of perfection; and, in this state, we now enjoy it in all the countries of Europe.

To whom we are indebted for this sublime and refined discovery does not appear. Concealed by the darkness of remote antiquity, the great inventor is deprived of those honours which would still be paid to his memory, by all the lovers of knowledge and learning. It appears from the books which Moses has written, that among the Jews, and probably among the Egyptians, letters had been invented prior

The universal tradition among the ancients is, that they were first imported into Greece by Cadmus the Phænician; who, according to the common system of chronology, was contemporary with Joshua ; according to Sir Isaac Newton's system, contemporary with King David. As the Phoe. nicians are not known to have been the inventors of any art or science, though, by means of their extensive commerce, they propagated the discoveries made by other nations, the most probable and natural account of the origin of alphabetical characters is, that they took rise in Egypt, the first civilised kingdom of which we have any authentic accounts, and the great source of arts and polity among the ancients. In that country, the favourite study of hieroglyphical characters had directed much attention to the art of Writing. Their hieroglyphics are known to have been inter

to his age.

[ocr errors]

mixed with abbreviated symbols, and arbitrary marks ; whence, at last, they caught the idea of contriving marks, not for things merely, but for sounds. Accordingly, Plato (in Phædo) expressly attributes the invention of letters to Theuth, the Egyptian, who is supposed to have been the Hermes, or Mercury, of the Greeks. Cadmus himself, though he passed from Phænicia to Greece, yet is affirmed, by several of the ancients, to have been originally of Thebes in Egypt. Most probably, Moses carried with him the Egyptian letters into the land of Canaan; and there being adopted by the Phænicians, who inhabited part of that country, they were transmitted into Greece.

The alphabet which Cadmus brought into Greece was imperfect, and is said to have contained only sixteen letters. The rest were afterwards added, according as signs for proper sounds were found to be wanting. It is curious to observe, that the letters which we use at this day, can be traced back to this very alphabet of Cadmus. The Roman alphabet, which obtains with us, and with most of the European nations, is plainly formed on the Greek, with a few variations. And all learned men observe, that the Greek characters, especially according to the manner in which they are formed in the oldest inscriptions, have a remarkable conformity to the Hebrew or Samaritan characters, which, it is agreed, are the same with the Phænician, or alphabet of Cadmus. Invert the Greek characters from left to right, according to the Phænician and Hebrew manner of Writing, and they are nearly the same. Besides the conformity of figure, the names or denominations of the letters, alpha, beta, gamma, &c. and the order in which the letters are arranged, in all the

[ocr errors]
[blocks in formation]
« EelmineJätka »