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قراءة كتاب The Story of the Alphabet

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‏اللغة: English
The Story of the Alphabet

The Story of the Alphabet

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 5

writing material in Egypt from the pith of the papyrus reed, the use of which goes back, as will be shown hereafter, to a high antiquity, and the classic name of which, biblos, has been applied to "bible." "Code" is derived from the Latin codex, "a tree-trunk"; "letters" comes through the French lettre from the Latin lino, litum, "to daub" or "besmear," an early mode of writing being the graving of characters on tablets smeared with wax. "Tablet" is the diminutive of "table," which comes from the Latin tabula, "a board," and the ancient writing instrument, called a stylus, illustrates the passage of language from the concrete to the abstract in its application to the way in which a writer expresses his ideas. We speak of his "style," just as we say "he wields an able pen," this word being derived from the Latin penna, "a feather." The phrase lapsus calami, "a slip of the pen," preserves record of the use of the reed (Latin calamus), which also survives in "quill," from Old English quylle, "a reed." But the metal pen has a longer history than was suspected, since Dr. Waldstein has found one, cut and slit like our modern specimens, in a tomb of the third century b.c., at Eretria in the island of Eubœa in the Ægean. "Volume," from Latin volumen, "a roll," tells us what was the usual form of books in ancient times, the old form of preservation and custody of legal records surviving in "Rolls of Court," "Master of the Rolls," and so forth. So in "diploma," which, literally, is a paper folded double, from Greek diploō, "to fold." Both "diplomacy" and "duplicity" mean "doubling," but the force of the parallel may not be pursued here. Finally—for the list might be extended indefinitely—"parchment" is borrowed from Pergamus, a town in Asia Minor, where skin came into general use, Ptolemy V. (205-185 b.c.), so runs a doubtful story told by Pliny, having prohibited the export of papyrus from Egypt.

As words, under the analyses now indicated, yield the history of their origin and of the changes both in spelling and meaning which follow their passage from older forms, and likewise reveal the reasons which governed the choice of them, so the letters of which they are made up bear witness to similar laws of development. The story which it is the purpose of this little book to endeavour to extract from them has mutilated and imperfect chapters, and, moreover, missing chapters which may never be recovered. But sufficing material survives for piecing together a narrative of the triumph of the human mind over one of the most difficult tasks to which it could apply itself; a task which, unwrought, would have made advance in the highest sense impossible beyond a certain point. In the highest sense, because man has gone a long way without knowledge either of reading or writing. These "two R's" are not necessary in matters of personal contact with his fellows, while in other ways progress is independent of them. An illiterate man may be an accomplished landscape artist, a skilful engineer, a successful farmer or trader, and prosperous in many ways where the aim of life is to "live by bread alone." It is true that much of the intellectual and spiritual record of man's past was long preserved in the form of oral tradition. But to the volume of such record there is a limit, while time and caprice alike work havoc in it. Memory, great as was its capacity of old, before dependence on books impaired it, was not infallible, nor, as the world's stock of knowledge increased, could it "pull down its barns and build greater wherein to bestow its goods." We have, by an effort of the imagination well-nigh impossible to make, only to assume the absence of any means of material record of the involved and myriad events which fill the world's past, to conceive the intellectual poverty of the present. We have only to assume the absence of any medium whereby we could communicate with friends at a distance, or whereby the now complex and countless dealings between man and man could be set down and every transaction thus "brought to book," to realise the hopeless tangle of our social life. All that memory failed to overlap would be an absolute blank; the dateless and otherwise uninscribed monuments which the past had left behind would but deepen the darkness; all knowledge of the strivings and speculations of men of old would have been unattainable; all observation and experience through which science has advanced from guesses to certainties irretrievably lost; life could have been lived only from "hand to mouth," and the spectacle presented of an arrested world of sentient beings. Save in fragmentary echoes repeated by fugitive bards, the great epics of East and West would have perished, and the immortal literatures of successive ages never have existed. The invention of writing alone made possible the passage from barbarism to civilisation, and secured the continuous progress of the human race. It is solely through the marvellous perfecting, through stages of slow advance, of a scripture that "cannot be broken," that the past is as eloquent, as real, as the present. "The pen is mightier than the sword" in accumulating and preserving for both gentle and simple the store of the world's intellectual wealth, unto which "all the things that can be desired are not to be compared."

These reflections are commonplace enough, but they may not be wholly needless, and an example or two of the impression made on the barbaric mind by written symbols may help us the better to appreciate what our case would be without them. In the narrative of his adventures in the Tonga Islands, published about ninety years ago, William Mariner tells how anxiety to escape from the place where, on the wreck of the ship Port au Prince, he and some other Englishmen had been cast ashore, led him to write, by means of a solution of gunpowder and a little mucilage for ink, a letter which he entrusted to a friendly native to give to the captain of any vessel that might happen to touch at Tonga. Finow, the king, came to hear of this, and got hold of the letter. But he could make "neither head nor tail" of it. However, by threats of death if he refused, one of Mariner's shipmates was made to interpret the mystic signs to Finow, who, still puzzled, sent for Mariner and ordered him to write down something else, saying, when Mariner asked for a subject, "Put down me." This done, Finow sent for another sailor, who read the royal name aloud, whereupon the king appeared more bewildered than ever, exclaiming. "This not like me; where are my legs?" Then it slowly dawned upon him that it was possible to make signs of things which both the writer and the interpreter had seen. But the bewilderment returned when Mariner told him that he could write down a description of any one whom he had never seen, or of an event which happened long ago or far away, when these were told him. Thereupon Finow whispered to him the name of Tongoo Aho, a former king of Tonga, who, it had come to Mariner's knowledge, was blind in one eye. When Mariner set these things down, and the king had them read to him, it was explained that "in several parts of the world messages were sent to great distances through the same medium, and, being folded and fastened up, the bearer could know nothing of the contents; and that the histories of whole nations were thus handed down to posterity without spoiling by being kept. Finow acknowledged this to be a most noble invention, but added that it would not at all do for the Tonga Islands; that there would be nothing but disturbances and conspiracies, and he should not be sure of his life perhaps another month. He

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