Page images
PDF
EPUB

some of the most important traditions which have come down to us respecting this subject, accompanied by the opinions of learned ancient and modern authors who have investigated the origin of letters.

Suidas* asserts that “ Adam was the author of arts and letters.". Remains of Japheth.

The Hindoos have a tradition, that a knowledge of letters was communicated at first by divine revelation. Sir William Jones observes :“ The characters in which the languages of India were originally written are called Nájarí, from Najara, a city with the word Deva sometimes prefixed; because they are believed to have been taught by the Divinity himself, who prescribed the artificial order of them in a voice from heaven.”—Asiatic Researches, vol. i,

p.

423. Jackson informs us, that the Egyptians had a tradition, that their antediluvian god Anubis wrote annals before the flood. (See Chronological Antiquities, vol. iii, p. 87.)

The Mohammedans have a tradition, that Adam composed poetry, some specimens of which they pretend to have preserved; and that twentynine books of revelation were made to Seth, and thirty books to Enoch. (See Hist. Encycl., pp. 64, 72.)

The Chinese have traditions, that the earliest race of the nation, at a time beyond all authentic history, were acquainted with political institutions, taught all the arts of life, and even wrote books. (See Hist. China, --Edin. Cab. Lib., vol. I, p. 41.)

“ It is asserted, that the Goths always had the use of letters; and Le Grand affirms, that before, or soon after, the flood, there were found, engraved in letters on large stones, the memorable acts of great men. -Fosbroke's Encycl. of Antiq., vol. i, p. 355.

The opinion of Pliny has been already referred to. The entire passage in which he speaks on this subject is as follows :—"As for letters, I am of opinion, that they were in Assyria from the beginning, time out of mind; but some think, (and, namely, Gellius,) that they were devised by Mercury, in Egypt; but others say, they came first from Syria. Anticlides writeth, that one in Egypt, named Mnemon, was the inventor of letters fifteen years before the time of Phoroneus, the most ancient king of Greece; and he goeth about to prove the same by ancient records and monuments out of histories. On the contrary, Epigenes, an author as renowned and of as good credit as any other, showeth that among

the Babylonians there were found Ephemerides, containing the observation of the stars for seven hundred and twenty years, written on bricks and

* Suidas was a Greek lexicographer. His dictionary, which appears to have been formed on no regular plan, contains information respecting persons and places, and criticisms on particular words. We have no certain knowledge of the time when he wrote; but it is supposed to have been about the close of the eleventh century.

tiles: whereby it appeareth evidently, that letters were always in use, time out of mind."--Nat. Hist., lib. vii, p. 56.

This extract shows that Pliny had investigated the subject, having, perhaps, access to works long since sunk into oblivion ; and, with all these advantages, he comes to the conclusion, that “ letters were always in use.” Nor need we be surprised at this, when one who entirely opposes the view here taken admits that “the Chaldeans had written records to show, that letters had been known and used among them at least two thousand two hundred and thirty-four years before the Christian era ;” and adds, “ they undoubtedly had them long before.” Jackson's Chron. Antiq., vol. iii, p. 90.

There is also good reason to believe that Strabo* had the same opinion on this subject as Pliny; for he attributes to the earliest inhabitants of Spain the possession of written records, the date of which was antecedent to the deluge. (See Jackson's Chron. Antiq., vol. iii, p. 86.)

Referring now to authors of more modern date, their sentiments shall be given in their own words.

Dr. Parsons, in his Remains of Japheth, (p. 357,) having discussed at some length the invention of letters, and the origin of alphabets, observes :

" It is not unreasonable to suppose, that when Adam was created, he was made a perfect man, not only in his form, but also in the accomplishments of his mind; for, to imagine that he should come from the divine hand in a state of stupidity and ignorance, would be doubting the goodness of the Creator, and the truth of holy writ. He had the dominion over everything upon the earth, and it was referred to himself to give them names; and if we call to mind, that God said, “Let us make man in our own image,' we cannot but allow that he was wise, and endowed with all the knowledge that his finite state was capable of receiving ; because making him in his own image could not regard his corporeal, but his mental, state alone. "Perhaps such rational reflections as these led

many

learned authors, of different nations, to assert, that our first parent was instructed in all arts and sciences, letters and prophecies; to which Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, Arabic, Samaritan, and Egyptian authors, consent. .... To enumerate every author of this opinion would be endless, tending to

* Strabo was the author of a celebrated work on geography. He had traveled much, and otherwise qualified himself; and his work is celebrated for its elegance, purity, and for the universal knowledge displayed by its author. It contains an account of the most famous places in the world ; the origin, manners, religion, prejudices, and government of nations; the foundation of cities; and the history of each separate province. He is supposed to have lived about the time of the Chris.

tian era.

prove that arts, letters, and sciences, were handed down to posterity from Adam through his sons.”

Dr. William Hales, writing on this subject, observes :-" The original structure of hieroglyphical symbols and of alphabetical letters seems to be totally and radically different, and incapable of transmutation into each other. Hieroglyphics are imperfect outlines of the figures or objects themselves intended to be represented, which, in process of time, were transferred from sensible objects to intellectual, by a metaphorical language; whereas letters are arbitrary marks of a few simple elementary sounds, of the easiest and readiest pronunciation, to which they bear no manner of resemblance; and the progress of writing, like that of oral language, is from monosyllables to dissyllables, from thence to trisyllables, and so on to polysyllables : thus by their various combinations forming all that endless variety of oral or of written words which serve to communicate ideas or notions. If the origin of language, or articulate speech, was divine, how much more the invention of writing, of alphabetical letters, and written words !

'Those wondrous symbols, that can still retain
The phantom forms that pass along the brain,
O'er unsubstantial thought hold strong control,

And fix the essence of th' immortal soul!which, by the magic spells of a few cabalistical characters, grouped together in clusters, can fix and embody, as it were, fleeting sounds and perishable ideas with which they have no natural union or connection whatsoever, and embalm or preserve them to ages yet unborn !"

Having alluded to the work of an eminent writer, in which opinions opposed to those just stated are advocated, this author proceeds :“The drift of this hypothesis, so freely and openly avowed by its patron-to exclude the necessity of divine instruction would lead us to distrust his reasons, were they even more specious. But they are evidently insufficient ; for, 1. It will appear from the whole tenor of ancient history, both sacred and profane, that the art of alphabetical writing not only could, but actually did, precede the establishment of hieroglyphic; and, 2. That the invention of alphabetic language was not superinduced by a mixture of other nations, nor could it be so superinduced

“ The book of the genealogy of the antediluvian patriarchs, from Adam to Noah, is evidently represented as a written record. Gen. v, 1. And, indeed, how could it possibly record their names, and their generations, residues of life, and total ages, without written words? How could oral tradition hand down, through two-and-twenty centuries to the deluge, unimpaired, thirty large and unconnected numbers, rising from a hundred to near a thousand years ?

“The first numeral characters in use were the letters of the primitive alphabet ; their introduction, therefore, as letters, must have been prior to their designation as numbers.

" The learned Brotier profoundly observes :-Writing diverged from Assyria to all those nations who either through rusticity did not neglect, or through vanity did not despise, this excellent invention. Two nations, the Egyptians and Chinese, between whom Assyria lay, and who were both exceedingly alike in vices and virtues, labored under this sort of pride. But their pride turned to the punishment of both : the stupendous monuments of the Egyptians are become unknown and obsolete; the Chinese, always children, grow old in deciphering their characters.? (Brotier's Tacitus, vol. ii, p. 341.)”Hales's Analysis, vol. i, pp. 369-373.

Mr. Mitford, the learned author of the History of Greece, says :"The investigation of the origin of letters was in vain attempted by the most learned among the ancients, who possessed means not remaining to us. The learned among the Egyptians themselves knew nothing of that gradual rise of the art which, in modern times, has been sought among the scanty relics of their ancient monuments. They attributed the entire invention to one person, whose name has been variously written Thoth, Thyoth, Theuth, Athothes, Tautus, and who passed with them for a god. Among the Assyrians, less given to fable, and who, with many other arts, possessed that of alphabetical writing at a period far beyond connected history, no tradition appears to have remained by whom it was invented, or whence it came; and it is a remarkable circumstance, that while

many

both Greek and Roman writers ascribe the invention to the Syrians or Phenicians, the earliest occasion upon

which history or tradition mentions the use of letters, was the delivery of the decalogue to the people of Israel. Nevertheless, the failure of all notice in the sacred book that it was then a novelty, seems powerful indication that it was not so. Nothing, then, appears to me so probable as that it was derived from the antediluvian world ; lost everywhere in migration, for want of convenient materials for its use, but preserved in Chaldea, and hence communicated to Egypt and other countries, as they acquired a settled government. The supposition of some, that hieroglyphical writing preceded and led to alphabetical, rests on mere conjecture. Homer's yoáujata dvypà may have been picture writing learned from Egypt; but nothing remains to mark when alphabetical writing was not known in Chaldea and Egypt also. Picture writing would represent matters to those who could not read; and might have been useful in the early times of modern Europe, when the nobles signed by their seals, and none could read but the clergy."--Mitford's Greece, vol. I, pp. 121, 122.

.

Calmet observes :—“We are not aware that we should say anything improbable, if we considered Noah himself as practicing the art of writing."-Dict., Taylor's ed., p. 176.

“We should here close our remarks on early language; but there is a part of the subject which, although not immediately affecting our inquiry, is too interesting, and has occasioned too much controversy, to be passed over unnoticed ; and that is, the probable period of the introduction of LETTERS, or characters representing words.

“ In the first place, has the difficulty, if not impossibility, of creating signs to represent a progressive language, such as we have attempted to describe,-has the difficulty of this, after the language has progressed for many ages, received that consideration which it deserves? We think it has not: and the more the intricacy and difficulty of fixing on signs, suited to represent the varied roots and branches of the sacred language, is reflected on, the more apparent will the improbability (to use the lightest term) appear of its having been the work of Moses, or of any man, inspired or uninspired. A language without signs can scarcely be methodical or regular in its construction; a branchial or derivative language without signs is all but impossible; and a derivative language, existing and branching out for thousands of years without signs, and then having them so devised as to suit every root or branch pertaining to it, is past the comprehension or belief of any rational being.

“In the second place, there is not a reader of the Bible, however unacquainted with the language in which it was originally written, who is not aware of the astonishing effect of the introduction, or of the change, of one letter in a word. The instance of the word • Abram' will suffice. Abram signifies the high or mighty father;' one letter introtroduced so as to change it to Abraham, altered the meaning to 'the father of many nations.' The same power in individual letters existed in the time of Adam, as the instances formerly quoted prove.* Could the language have possessed such a property without visible signs ? The thing is impossible. A sound could not have accomplished it; for the same letter, according to its position or connection, produced very different effects. These effects were produced by single consonants, not by syllables or sounds: and these simple consonants are so expressive and powerful, that even the roots formed of them are not capricious compounds; so that there is not an arbitrary union of two letters in all the primitive speech. A language, the single letters or consonants of which possessed such power without signs for such consonants, is an absurdity, which only reluctance to own that language, in all its parts,

*“ His giving names to the different creatures, as recorded in the original language."

« PreviousContinue »