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THE ORIGIN OF THE ALPHABET CONSIDERED.
On this obscure subject the reader is promised nothing but brevity; for, after much toilsome inquiry and anxious reflection, the author has no satisfactory opinion to offer. The modern nations of Europe have adopted the alphabet of the Romans; the Romans adopted the alphabet of the Greeks; the alphabet of the Greeks is so similar in all respects to that of the Hebrews or Chaldeans, (for the former adopted the alphabet of the latter,) as to render it almost certain that the one was derived from the other, or that they had a common origin. Thus far all is tolerably clear and satisfactory; but all beyond is dark and doubtful. Some persons have believed that Hebrew was the first language of man, and that the Hebrew alphabet came down from heaven. This is a short cut (as Horne Tooke terms it) which saves much trouble; for on this hypothesis we have only to believe ;-it would be absurd, if not wicked, to inquire.
Admitting, however, that letters are of human invention, what is the nature of that invention? Here we possess no certain data on which to reason; for
we have no authentic history of this important invention. If the languages of Babylon and Egypt remained as entire as those of Greece and Rome, they would perhaps supply important documents in reference to the obscure subject of our inquiry; but they have long perished from the earth. Being wholly destitute of facts, we have nothing better than theories or conjectures on which to form an opinion.
The easiest and most obvious method of accounting for the origin of letters seems to be, that they were contrived like musical notes to indicate certain sounds of human utterance, which sounds had been previously employed as signs of thoughts and sensations. Upon this supposition, spoken language might exist long before the alphabet; just as music existed long before the gamut. The first is to be considered as having an existence wholly independent of the last, though the former might arrive at a degree of perfection, when assisted by the latter, which could not have been attained without it. When letters were thus invented as the signs of sounds, they might be employed also for the additional purpose of indicating, by similitude, sensible objects or their distinguishing properties.
This method of explaining the origin of letters long appeared to the author inadmissible; but more experience and reflection have rendered him less dissatisfied with it. Certainly much may be accomplished in process of time by human ingenuity, with
very scanty materials and very defective instruments. There is not less difference, probably, between language as we now find it and what it was in its infancy, than there is between the largest ship of war and the smallest canoe; or between the most splendid palace and the rudest hut. Every person who has carefully observed the multitude of words that are resolvable into a single verb, noun, or adjective, will cease to wonder that the whole of language should be resolvable into a few letters, even if these letters be considered merely as signs or marks of sounds emitted by the mouth of man to intimate his thoughts and feelings.
It would be easy to enlarge on this uncertain subject; and the time was when the author would not have dismissed it with a hasty notice; but there is nothing which he so much distrusts as his ingenuity. He propounded a peculiar theory some years ago, (viz. that the language of signs was prior to the language of sounds,) with more ardour than he could possibly display in his present state of mind, even if his opinion were the same. That opinion being before the public, a re-statement of it in this place (if the author were so inclined) is unnecessary. Perhaps after all, neither that opinion, nor the conjecture now offered, is wholly right. It is possible that the alphabet consisted from its formation of two distinct sets of signs; the one signs of sounds, the other signs of ideas. The vowels, with some of the consonants, were perhaps employed like musical notes,
or the marks in pronouncing dictionaries, merely to represent the sounds of the human voice: some of the consonants were perhaps invented to represent physical objects or their most remarkable properties.
But we will not detain the reader longer with useless conjectures. There is one other inquiry, however, of a doubtful character, which seems to deserve a slight notice before proceeding to subjects of more evidence and greater utility. If the modern languages of Europe and the ancient languages of Rome and Greece had a common origin with Hebrew, Which language is the oldest-and is that which is the oldest to be considered as the parent of the rest? There can hardly be any reasonable doubt that as Greek was prior to Latin, so Hebrew was prior to Greek; but it does not follow that the language of Greece was derived from the Hebrew. If they both contain many words which are manifestly identical, such kind of evidence is much stronger in favour of Chaldaic as the parent language; but even this has no internal evidence of being an original language. The opinion of the author is, that all the ancient languages extant, as well as the modern languages of Europe, had a common origin; but that the language from which they were derived has long ceased to exist.