Skip to main content

Full text of "The Legacy Of Egypt"

See other formats

64                     Writing and Literature
does the modern world owe the Egyptians in connexion with
the alphabet ? It owes at least some of the letter-forms, but
that is no great debt, since any shapes might serve equally well,
and in our own alphabet hardly anything is left of the original
pictorial appearance. The idea of alphabetic writing is, how-
ever, a very great achievement. Can it be said that we are
indebted to the Egyptians for that ? Hardly, I think, since the
presence of alphabetic signs in the complex hieroglyphic system
was accidental rather than designed. One principle underlying
the hieroglyphs was that of the rebus or charade, little pictures
being taken to signify, not the things which they represented,
but the sounds of the words denoting those things. Thus n,
the picture of a house, received the value p+r because the
Egyptian word for a house was for, whence—the vowels being
felt as of little account—the hieroglyph n was adopted for the
writing of a number of other words, e.g. fire 'to go forth', which
possessed the sounds p+r in that order, Now since some of the
signs thus phonetically used were taken from uniconsonantal
words like <> ro 'mouth', alphabetic letters (in this case r) were
automatically obtained without any deliberate intention, and
these remained embedded in the hieroglyphic system side by
side with biconsonantal, triconsonantal, and purely pictorial
signs. In other terms, the Egyptians themselves never discerned
the great advantages of an alphabet unmixed with other graphic
elements. The recognition of those advantages was the achieve-
ment of a Semitic people, and is a glory that can never be taken
from them. To the Egyptians we do owe, however—always
granting the Serabit hypothesis—the all-important discovery
of the possibility of phonetic writing.
If Greece was thus indebted to Egypt both for her writing-
material and for the very technique of writing, may she not also
have had some similar obligation in respect of her literature ?
A case for such an obligation might possibly be based upon the
insistence with which Greek authors point to Egypt as the