Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/261

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THE EVOLUTION OF THE ALPHABET.

The profane crowd to whom the initiated explained the meaning of an inscription may have been equally astonished, and would attribute a miraculous virtue to the written word. In the Edda Brynnhild teaches Sigurd the supernatural power of the runes: "Write the runes of victory if you would have victory; write them on the hilt of your sword; write others on the blade, speaking Tyr's name twice; write the runes of the storm if you wish to save your ship amid the roaring of the breakers; write the runes of thought if you wish to become wiser than others. Odin himself invented these runes."

It was not in northern countries only that men persuaded themselves that the word signifying power was powerful by nature, and the one giving the idea of God was divine. It was held as an article of faith in all countries that a written prayer had a sovereign efficacy, and that a curse engraved on stone had infallible effects. There are few epigraphic texts among those cited by M. Berger that do not end with a curse. It has been remarked that nothing is rarer than a proclamation of police that authorizes anything; not less rare is an ancient inscription intended to bless any one.

If the human race had never employed writing except to engrave inscriptions on stone, it would never have needed the alphabet. The prime merit of writing on stone was to be architectural, and unite mystery with majesty. But when commerce sought to utilize the art to facilitate business transactions it was necessary to simplify it, and place the occult science within reach of the multitude. The object was no longer to perpetuate sentences and memorable events, but to write in the easiest way the day's thoughts, for which posterity would not care. Paper and the calamus were substituted for stone and the chisel-point, and the cursive writing appeared, which is favorable, as M. Berger remarks, to idleness of the hand, inasmuch as it permits it to make with a single running line what had been made with many distinct lines, and is conformable to the law of the least effort.

Of the systems of writing derived from the Phœnician alphabet the most cursive found most favor, and made the most rapid progress abroad. The Aramaic system held this place in the Oriental world, and was accepted by all the Semitic peoples. The Egyptians, though not a commercial people, felt the need of an easier way of writing than by hieroglyphics for the common affairs of life, and formed a current hand from the hieroglyphics, which is called the hieratic. This was further simplified between the twenty-first and twenty-fifth dynasties, and the popular or demotic hand was invented for contracts and documents, for common use. But the Egyptians did not abandon their syllabic signs and ideograms, their homophones and polyphones, and the sim-