Today on Project Gutenberg #52

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Story of the Alphabet by Edward Clodd

We all know our ABCs, but where did they come from? The evolution of our Latin alphabet was a complicated process lasting thousands of years, and many books could be written on the subject. This is one such book.

Edward Clodd — and yes, that was his real name — was an English banker turned writer and anthropologist who was active from the 1870s to the 1920s. A bit of a Renaissance man, he dabbled in everything from evolution to folklore to criticizing the then-popular spiritualist movement. He also had an extensive network of literary and scientific acquaintances which included the likes of Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Hardy, Andrew Lang and H.G. Wells. Sounds like quite the interesting guy!

Clodd wrote this book in 1900 as a response to another book on the subject, Isaac Taylor’s History of the Alphabet. Clodd thought that Taylor’s book was “stiff reading even for the student of graphiology,” too limited in its scope and failed to take into account new archaeological evidence from places like Egypt and Crete. His goal, in short, was to write an accessible overview of how written language developed.

What follows is an enthusiastic journey that begins with prehistoric cave paintings, Native American pictograms, Chinese and Japanese script, cuneiform, Egyptian and Cretan hieroglyphics and finally ends up at the Greek script from which the modern Latin alphabet is derived. Throughout each chapter, Clodd is generous with his visual aids (there are about ninety pictures in the book) and with the sources he cites. All of said sources are named directly within the text, because Clodd didn’t want his readers to have to stumble through a bunch of footnotes.

As an educational text, I would take the contents of this book with a grain of salt. It’s over 120 years old, which means it certainly doesn’t contain the most up-to-date knowledge that we have about ancient civilizations and their writing systems. Clodd also has an unfortunate tendency to view different writing systems (primarily the East Asian and Ancient Egyptian ones) as stepping stones on the one true course along which the written word evolves — with the Latin alphabet being at the end of that road, of course — rather than as alternative letter/picture systems which evolved independently from our own for a variety of reasons. But then again, you’re gonna get that in 1900.

If there are two things that Clodd isn’t lacking, they’re passion for the subject and a good grasp of the knowledge available to him. He describes the development of writing as “the triumph of the human mind over one of the most difficult tasks to which it could apply itself; a task which, unwrought, would have made advance in the highest sense impossible beyond a certain point” (page 12). A world without writing would be very different indeed, he says, one with far less history and culture:

Memory, great as was its capacity of old, before dependence on books impaired it, was not infallible, nor, as the world’s stock of knowledge increased, could it “pull down its barns and build greater wherein to bestow its goods.” We have, by an effort of the imagination well-nigh impossible to make, only to assume the absence of any means of material record of the involved and myriad events which fill the world’s past, to conceive the intellectual poverty of the present. We have only to assume the absence of any medium whereby we could communicate with friends at a distance, or whereby the now complex and countless dealings between man and man could be set down and every transaction thus “brought to book,” to realise the hopeless tangle of our social life. All that memory failed to overlap would be an absolute blank; the dateless and otherwise uninscribed monuments which the past had left behind would but deepen the darkness; all knowledge of the strivings and speculations of men of old would have been unattainable; all observation and experience through which science has advanced from guesses to certainties irretrievably lost; life could have been lived only from “hand to mouth,” and the spectacle presented of an arrested world of sentient beings. Save in fragmentary echoes repeated by fugitive bards, the great epics of East and West would have perished, and the immortal literatures of successive ages never have existed. The invention of writing alone made possible the passage from barbarism to civilisation, and secured the continuous progress of the human race. It is solely through the marvellous perfecting, through stages of slow advance, of a scripture that “cannot be broken,” that the past is as eloquent, as real, as the present.

Pages 12-14

Once we get into the chapters covering the individual writing systems, Clodd is meticulous in his presentation. He makes ample use of his primary sources (i.e. the pictures) and goes into a lot of detail about them, such as the different uses that letters or symbols can have within an alphabet: a memory-aid, a picture, a sound, etc. The paragraphs and sentences are long, and it’s dense in the way that writing from this time period can often be. But I think this is worth taking a look at, if only for the pictures. There’s some pretty cool writing samples in here.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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