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All the letters or characters in this mode of writing, are pictures. It is generally supposed that the Egyptian system differs in this particular from other writings of the same antiquity. Such however is not the fact. They also were constructed throughout upon the same principle. All the letters in them were at first pictures of objects.
Three modes of writing only are known of an antiquity at all approaching that of the inscribed remains of Egypt. These are :
1. Hebrew. The language of the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean. It was used with very little dialectic variation by all the Shemites and Hamites that first peopled the district. The oldest known monuments of it are coins of some of the later kings of Judah, 8 to 900 B.C.
2. Greek. The language of Javan, (Ion) the son of Japhet. (Gen. x. 9.) It was spoken by the first settlers on the north coast of the Mediterranean, both on the continent and in the islands. Inscriptions in it on stones and metal are very numerous, and some of them nearly as old as the earliest remains of Hebrew.
These two languages were at first written with the same alphabet.
3. Assyrian, or Ninevite. The wedge-shaped characters on the ruins in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, where once stood Nineveh and
Babylon. These likewise are degradations of the same alphabet, suggested by the hard glassy material in the neighbourhood, imperfect tools, and want of skill in engraving. The system seems to have been written in two or three different ways. It is the original whence were derived the Sanskrit, the Thibetan, and the rest of the square-lettered alphabets of Asia.
Of these three modes of writing, the Hebrew and Greek have both been perpetuated by means of their alphabets : so that the names and powers of the letters, the meanings of the words, and the structure of the languages in which the inscriptions were written, are well known. The Ninevite inscriptions, on the other hand, represent the sounds of lost languages. A few characters only have yet been deciphered, and a few proper names read in them. This circumstance, together with the fact that the system itself is a mere degradation, altogether excludes it from our present enquiry : even though some of the inscriptions in it may possibly be as old as the oldest known forms of the other two systems.
The following collation of the oldest forms of the Hebrew and Greek alphabets very clearly shews, that both were the same at first, that all the letters were pictures, and that the names of the letters were also those of the objects represented by the pictures.
The correspondence of the oldest forms with the original pictures is very traceable. But in the later forms they were lost, save in the names of the letters. The convenience of the writer, and a certain uniformity and neatness in the appearance of a written text, soon altered their shapes, so that they became arbitrary marks representing sounds only.
The principle upon which the form and the sound have been associated likewise appears from this table. The form is made to stand for the first sound in the name of the thing ; like a, ape ; b, bull; c, cat, in a modern horn-book.
The Mizraites who colonized the valley of the Nile, constructed their system of writing upon the same principle. Their first alphabet was this :
The principle upon which the forms and sounds are associated is the same here as in the other two alphabets. The form stands for the first articulation in the name of the thing. It also exactly corresponds with them in one or two characters. These are :--5 koph “the drinking cup” k. This is very evident. The Egyptian form of it was a metal dish with a loose ring ; convenient both for hanging on a peg in the tent, and for packing on the journey. 8 nu“ water," n. The Egyptians made the word for water om nu, instead of a mu, or dia mem, that it might coincide with the name of Noah the Patriarch whom they worshipped as the god of water. 530 7 nuch 792. The picture of water therefore stood for n in their alphabet, instead of m as in the other alphabets. They retained however in their language the primitive word for water. The original picture of it also “ the wave," am was very early adopted by them as another form of n. In some exceedingly ancient inscriptions it is interpreted by the earthen vase thus * In the other alphabets this picture represents m. (mem or mu. See table. But in the Mizraite dialect of the primitive language, the sounds m and n interchanged, or rather the one was inherent in the other. 9 p bears in some ancient transcriptions considerable resemblance to two rows of teeth. einen
* Tomb, No. 17, Saquara, &c. &c.