Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/258

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

bones and reindeer horns decorated with designs and sculptures, which sometimes represented veritable scenes. These designs, besides being mnemonic aids, are capable of transmitting thought as well as of preserving it. The day that these pictures were changed into recitals, man was ready to write. A scene engraved on a rock at Skebbevall, in Sweden, helps us to witness a landing of adventurers and their establishment in the country. Beside scenes of pursuit and piracy, are files of boats which we can count, with the braves aboard of them. Disks and groups of points above the scene indicate the time of the year or of the moon when it took place. Here the design is only in outline. Most of the boats are represented by two concentric curved lines, diversified with slight parallel strokes representing the braves. From this time the figure, abridged and truncated, is transformed into a sign, and that is a mark of writing. Man after this manifested that power of abstraction which is his privilege, and which consists in holding to that which is essential in things, and suppressing the rest. Man is, perhaps, the cousin of the monkey; but a chimpanzee will never be anything but a novice in abstraction, and that is why he will never take it into his head to speak or write.

Writing, as M. Berger says, is the art of fixing speech by conventional signs, traced with the hand, which are called characters. These characters may represent ideas or spoken sounds. That writing which aims to represent ideas directly is called ideographic, and the characters it employs are figurative. Some hieroglyphics are shortened images in which we can recognize, without too much effort, the sun, the moon, a mountain, a snake, a flower, a shoe, or a mirror. Then we deal with abstract ideas, we have recourse to symbols. A man kneeling, with his hands raised, conveys the idea of adoration; a hanging lamp, that of night; an open eye signifies vigilance and knowledge; an ostrich feather gives the idea of justice, because the wing feathers of that bird are all equal. The characters of phonetic writing, on the contrary, represent, not objects but the sounds composing the words that stand for those objects; and the writing is called syllabic or alphabetical accordingly as the characters express complex articulations or simple sounds, syllables or letters.

This distinction between the two methods is only theoretically correct. In reality nearly all systems of writing have, by a curious fatality, sooner or later come to syllabism. This occurred in the five great ideographic systems of the ancient world—the Chinese, the cuneiform writing of Assyria, Media, and Persia, and the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Egypt did not stop there, but pushed the analysis of the elements of speech still further, and, having disengaged the syllable, then disengaged the letter; and from the sixth