IV. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ALPHABET

Before we turn specifically to the new world of the west, it remains to take note of what may perhaps be regarded as the very greatest achievement of ancient science. This was the analysis of speech sounds, and the resulting development of a system of alphabetical writing. To comprehend the series of scientific inductions which led to this result, we must go back in imagination and trace briefly the development of the methods of recording thought by means of graphic symbols. In other words, we must trace the evolution of the art of writing. In doing so we cannot hold to national lines as we have done in the preceding two chapters, though the efforts of the two great scientific nations just considered will enter prominently into the story.

The familiar Greek legend assures us that a Phoenician named Kadmus was the first to bring a knowledge of letters into Europe. An elaboration of the story, current throughout classical times, offered the further explanation that the Phoenicians had in turn acquired the art of writing from the Egyptians or Babylonians. Knowledge as to the true origin and development of the art of writing did not extend in antiquity beyond such vagaries as these. Nineteenth-century studies gave the first real clews to an understanding of the subject. These studies tended to authenticate the essential fact on which the legend of Kadmus was founded; to the extent, at least, of making it probable that the later Grecian alphabet was introduced from Phoenicia—though not, of course, by any individual named Kadmus, the latter being, indeed, a name of purely Greek origin. Further studies of the past generation tended to corroborate the ancient belief as to the original source of the Phoenician alphabet, but divided scholars between two opinions: the one contending that the Egyptian hieroglyphics were the source upon which the Phoenicians drew; and the other contending with equal fervor that the Babylonian wedge character must be conceded that honor.

But, as has often happened in other fields after years of acrimonious controversy, a new discovery or two may suffice to show that neither contestant was right. After the Egyptologists of the school of De Rouge[1] thought they had demonstrated that the familiar symbols of the Phoenician alphabet had been copied from that modified form of Egyptian hieroglyphics known as the hieratic writing, the Assyriologists came forward to prove that certain characters of the Babylonian syllabary also show a likeness to the alphabetical characters that seemingly could not be due to chance. And then, when a settlement of the dispute seemed almost hopeless, it was shown through the Egyptian excavations that characters even more closely resembling those in dispute had been in use all about the shores of the Mediterranean, quite independently of either Egyptian or Assyrian writings, from periods so ancient as to be virtually prehistoric.

Coupled with this disconcerting discovery are the revelations brought to light by the excavations at the sites of Knossos and other long-buried cities of the island of Crete.[2] These excavations, which are still in progress, show that the art of writing was known and practised independently in Crete before that cataclysmic overthrow of the early Greek civilization which archaeologists are accustomed to ascribe to the hypothetical invasion of the Dorians. The significance of this is that the art of writing was known in Europe long before the advent of the mythical Kadmus. But since the early Cretan scripts are not to be identified with the scripts used in Greece in historical times, whereas the latter are undoubtedly of lineal descent from the Phoenician alphabet, the validity of the Kadmus legend, in a modified form, must still be admitted.

As has just been suggested, the new knowledge, particularly that which related to the great antiquity of characters similar to the Phoenician alphabetical signs, is somewhat disconcerting. Its general trend, however, is quite in the same direction with most of the new archaeological knowledge of recent decades—-that is to say, it tends to emphasize the idea that human civilization in most of its important elaborations is vastly older than has hitherto been supposed. It may be added, however, that no definite clews are as yet available that enable us to fix even an approximate date for the origin of the Phoenician alphabet. The signs, to which reference has been made, may well have been in existence for thousands of years, utilized merely as property marks, symbols for counting and the like, before the idea of setting them aside as phonetic symbols was ever conceived. Nothing is more certain, in the judgment of the present-day investigator, than that man learned to write by slow and painful stages. It is probable that the conception of such an analysis of speech sounds as would make the idea of an alphabet possible came at a very late stage of social evolution, and as the culminating achievement of a long series of improvements in the art of writing. The precise steps that marked this path of intellectual development can for the most part be known only by inference; yet it is probable that the main chapters of the story may be reproduced with essential accuracy.

FIRST STEPS