The art of communicating our ideas to others by means of inscribed signs or characters. Amongst the various arts which have from time to time contributed to the improvement and advancement of society, there is, perhaps, none which, in point of utility and excellence, will at all admit of comparison with the art of writing. Yet because this art may now be acquired by every body, it fails to attract the attention and command the admiration it so well merits. How curious and beautiful soever a new discovery may be, let it once become common, and from that moment it ceases to be noticed; that which is within the grasp of every body is despised. The time was, when a man who could write was highly distinguished amongst his fellows; but the time is approaching, when a man who cannot write will be pointed out as a remarkable character.
In the first ages of the world, while society was in its infancy, mankind had clearly no other method of expressing their ideas in writing, than the simple one of making a figure of the shape of the object And this method must have been long before their dispersion; for it has been found to exist amongst the most rude, as well as the most polished nations of the globe; situated too at such remote distances from each other as to preclude intercourse with the rest of mankind. This mode of writing seems the most natural, because the representation of sounds, which express the names of things, by certain characters or alphabets now so extensively in use, must necessarily require some previous concert between two parties, the one of whom suggests, and the other agrees, that a particular mark or form on paper, shall be the symbol for a particular sound. But if we suppose a savage separated from his friend, and wishing to communicate with him, without havinghad this previous consultation, and supposing that he has lent his distant acquaintance some articles of furniture, such as his bow and arrows, or his knife, which he is anxious to have returned, without the knowledge of his messenger, or being dependant upon his memory; it seems highly probable, that his first impulse would be to make a rude sketch of these articles, and transmit them to his friend.
Were the latter an acute man, he would probably understand the allusion; and were he not intelligent enough for this purpose, it is clear he would not be sufficiently so to comprehend symbols that denote sounds. So that the simplicity of this mode of writing might suggest the probability of its being first resorted to, without alluding to the hieroglyphics yet remaining on the Egyptian tombs, which, from our want of acquaintance with the manners, customs, and general objects with which the Egyptians were conversant, are very difficult to decipher, if we may judge from the learning displayed in explaining them. In Freycinet and Arago's Voyage is given the drawing of a letter, written in this kind of language, from an inhabitant of the Caroline Islands to M. Martinez, which is perfectly intelligible. M. Martinez had commissioned a Tamor of Sathoual to send him some shells, promising in exchange a few pieces of iron. The captain gave him a sheet of paper, on which he sketched with a red pigment, first, in the middle of the top of the page, a small figure of a man with his arms extended horizontally, intended to represent the bearer of compliments; and underneath the man, the branch of a tree, as the type of peace and amity.
On the left hand side were represented the forms of nine different shells the Carolinean had to send; and on the right hand side were delineated the objects he desired in exchange; namely, three large fishinghooks, four small ones, two axes, and two longer pieces of iron. The barter was accomplished to the satisfaction of both parties. This is, perhaps, as clear an instance as can be found, of the mode in which an unlettered people would endeavour to convey the expression of their wishes to their friends at a distance, and forms a striking contrast to the elegant though complicated process of our own method of writing.
The written language of the Chinese affords many proofs of its having originated in picture writing. This method of writing, of course, required considerable patience and skill to practise, and by common consent the characters or signs were from time to time simplified, so as to be expressed by much fewer lines. In Egypt, where the progress of the arts was greatly encouraged, means were discovered to substitute the original figures by very simple marks, by retaining only the most prominent peculiarities of the objects, and these, from their superior convenience and facility of execution, soon afterwards became universally adopted. Yet it may be readily conceived, that there remained many difficulties to overcome, by the great variety and intricacy of the figures. To simplify, therefore, the method of writing still further, the priests turned many of the outlines into arbitrary marks, which in course of time so deviated from their originals, as to render it almost impossible to trace them to their archetype, but which were nevertheless much less complicated and more expeditious. Thus, after incredible labour, through the lapse of many ages, were produced the three different modes of writing among the Egyptians, designated by the appellation of hieroglyphic, demotic, and hieratic.
Into the nature of these our limits do not permit us to enter; but they constitute a subject well worthy of attention.
The next step of improvement was to form a connexion between the object represented, and the sound of the word used to express it. Nor was this so difficult as would at first sight be supposed: for when a man represented any image or picture, that of a "door" for instance, he would naturally give to the combination of lines with which that figure was formed, the name of a " door;" and wherever he met with this representation, or even though he should change it for some arbitrary and more simple mark, having the same signification, the same name would still remain attached to it, and by this means the word door would for ever afterwards remain associated with a certain outline or figure. The Hebrew alphabet affords a most satisfactory illustration of this. Every letter is, in fact, a word, and expresses some simple object. Deleth, for example, their fourth letter, corresponding with our D, signifies a "door;" Beth, their second letter, answering to our B, "a house," and in this manner each of the remaining letters of the alphabet have a meaning attached to them. Having attained tins state of advancement, the progress of the art was more rapid.