see it clearly

The Art of Writing: History

IN an ancient Assyrian document, which was written during the reign of Sardanapalus V., it is said that the god Nebo revealed to the ancestors of the King the cuneiform characters of their language. This account of the sacred origin of their writings was universally believed by the people. To many persons, trained in the customs and modes of thought peculiar to our age, it seems quite incredible that this idea was over seriously entertained; but, according to statements of reliable historians, such a belief was universal.

History of writing

Nearly every nation of antiquity has, at some period of its history, attributed the origin of letters to the beneficence of the god in which it trusted. This appears not only from statements of the writers, but from the nature and signification of their words. In the Egyptian language, the term writing signified, according to Lenormant, "Writing heavenly words." This meaning is not only beautiful but essentially true, for whatever may be the origin of letters, no gift or invention has been as useful, nor contributed so much to the civilization of mankind, as the ART OF WRITING.

That a people like the Assyrians, for the most part uneducated, having but little intercourse with other nations, should believe that none but the gods could see meaning in the wedge-like forms of their language is not strange; but it seems extraordinary that such an enlightened people as the Egyptians should have attributed anything supernatural to their hieroglyphics.

The true origin of the art of writing could not well be understood by a person confining his observations to any one language or time. To the student of philology, however, it is not a surprising fact that writing was not invented by a single man, but gradually worked out by the contributions of numerous generations. The invention of written characters is due to the genius of man working through ages, and proving, indeed, that "art is long."

Under these circumstances, it is natural that the accounts of the origin of writing should be somewhat varied, but there is a very general agreement that the first developments of written language are to be found among the Egyptians. It might have been expected that the three great classes of kindred languages, the Aryan, the Semitic, and the Turanian, would give us the source of our written characters; but the connection between thought and the symbols of thought has not proved strong enough to decipher the ancient characters without a key or alphabet. Owing, therefore, to our limited knowledge, we can only trace three principal sources from which the various nations have derived their letters--the Chinese, the Assyrian and the Egyptian. It is claimed, moreover, that the Assyrian ought not to be classed as a source at all, as that language is manifestly the product of long experience with more simple forms.

All writing has been divided into two classes--Ideographic and Phonetic.

IDEOGRAPHIC writing is the art of expressing ideas by means of images or pictures, and is the natural language of children and primitive men everywhere. The most perfect examples of this writing have been found in Egypt, and have been known as the hieroglyphs. The Egyptians developed four languages, which, by their resemblances and variations, enable us to trace, with considerable certainty, the course of linguistic evolution. The oldest of these languages is the HIEROGLYPHIC, in which the pictorial element prevails to the largest extent. This language was in use more than three thousand years before the Christian era, but it was confined to the priests; it was chiefly employed in religious services, and in the rituals for the dead. The second of these languages of Egypt, and that which was by far the most useful to the world, was the HIERATIC. This language was in use twenty centuries before the close of the old era, and was the medium of the best thought of Egyptian literature. To this also we must look for the source from which the nations of Europe have principally derived their letters. This language, though ideographic, was rather symbolical than pictorial; it had so far departed from the original forms that it may be considered a cursive writing; and it is probably the first example known among men. The other two languages found, among the Egyptians were the DEMOTIC and COPTIC, but their influence was far less than the hieratic.

The characters of the HIERATIC language, which the Phoenicians had adopted, were soon taken from the service of ideographic writing, and became the basis of another system called the PHONETIC, in which the characters represent sounds. Of the phonetic languages there are two classes: the syllabic, in which each character represents a combination of sounds, and the alphabetical, in which each character is the symbol of a single sound. It required a long experience to bring into use the system of phonetic writing now employed by the most enlightened nations of the world. Time and experience, however, developed our present art of writing, for which no price was too great to pay.

The difficulties which men have encountered in the development of this art can scarcely be understood unless we study the materials which men have employed in the attempt to express their ideas in written forms. The laborious chiseling upon stone, the slow tracing of the iron style upon the palm leaf, the papyrus and the wooden blocks, and the separate process of filling or rubbing into the lines the chosen pigment, involved difficulties which the writers of our day would not willingly undertake. If persons of to-day were compelled to use those modes for a short time, they would return to our present methods with the consciousness of exalted privilege and blessing.

The study of the writings of the different nations shows us that there were generally two motives that guided their course of progress. The more important was the desire to save work; the other motive was the love of beauty. It is hard to believe that men have always been moved by these causes, when we see some of the ugly characters which they have used; yet there are very few systems in which we do not find (even from our own peculiar standpoint) many illustrations of the aesthetic and economic qualities of men. As an example of the latter, we note the cuneiform inscriptions of the Assyrians. These are supposed to have been developed from the linear style of cutting in stone. Experience showed that the wedge could be cut much more quickly than the angle formed by two narrow lines.

The desire for beauty was especially predominant among the peoples of northern and western Europe from the close of the twelfth to the sixteenth century. During this time the Gothic script prevailed, and it still has a representation in the characters of the German language. These were the characters used in the famous "Black Letter Books," as the first books published in Germany imitated the heavy lines of the Gothic script in use with the people at that time. But the Gothic characters do not seem to have been very satisfactory. The French modified them, and gave to their forms the name "letters de somme." The Italians rejected them altogether, and produced the forms now known as the ROMAN. These appeared in an edition of Pliny's Natural History, published in Venice in the year 1469. It is a circumstance worthy of note that the ornamental Gothic letters, which were rejected by most of the European nations so many years ago, are now beginning to lose favor even among the Germans themselves, and there are very many who long to see them exchanged for the simpler form of the Roman.

It is impossible to foresee the changes which are in store for the written languages of today; but it is certain they are not fixed. Some changes will undoubtedly take place. There is work enough of an excellent kind for those who will undertake it. Many persons look upon writing as something which anybody may accomplish, and think it does not matter very much how it is done. They like to see individuality in writing. But we must remember that writing is an art; that while there is a certain scope for the individuality of each one who writes, there are also inexorable laws. Whatever improvement we have made in the expression of thought by means of script, we have made by discovering and obeying the laws of this Art. So long as writing consisted only in imitating a copy without regard to principles of letter construction, and without care for the position of the body, or for the movements of the arm and hand, it depended for interest solely upon its utility in conveying intelligence and preserving to men the important events of history. But when men began to study the subject more carefully, they found there were more things in this Art of Writing than were dreamed of in the old philosophies. Observation taught them that mere imitation could never give the best results. The process of writing involved a series of movements of the arm and hand, the laws of which could not be ignored without serious loss in time and in the skill of execution. A few persons may be skillful artists without formulated rules, but only those who are gifted with superior powers of imagination and elegance of taste can ever attain great skill by any other means than practical familiarity with rules. But the study of this Art has done more than to reveal the fact of a loss in time and skill; it has demonstrated another fact of the utmost importance to writers, book-keepers and copyists, that the use of the pen, even for long periods of time, is not unhealthful nor greatly exhausting, when the method is natural and physiological.

While, on the other hand, there is no occupation more tedious, and none that makes a more severe draft upon the energies of man, than the use of the pen by improper methods. Diseases of the hand and ruin of the whole nervous system are often the result. Many men and women, whose health has broken under the task of writing, have failed and suffered, not so much from the difficulty of their work as from the attempt to do it in an unnatural way. It is of no use to fight against Nature, and whoever attempts it must suffer. It is inexcusable to shut your eyes to the light of science, and employ a method which is condemned by the plainest laws of your own body. Penmanship may now be justly termed a science. The knowledge pertaining to it has been classified, and the rules of a natural method have been made so complete, that any one who will follow them carefully for a few months will be rewarded by a power of easy and rapid execution which could never be attained under the old method of learning to write. In the development of every art there is a tendency to adornment. Indeed, there are few things which man attempts in which you will not find evidence of his aesthetic nature, consciously or unconsciously expressed. Even in so practical an art as writing this has appeared, and has brought discredit to some extent upon the schools. But this has been simply from a misunderstanding of the uses of the ornamental style. Apart from its peculiar use in decoration, it is of the highest service in training the muscles of the arm and hand, and in allaying, when properly employed, all unnatural excitement of the nerves. Viewed in this light, the development of the ornamental style is to be regarded as an important part of the advances in the art of writing. Whoever has used the method of training, in which the ornamental style has been employed as a means of giving the best control over the muscles, will need no other evidence to convince him of its great utility. But if any examples were needed, it may justly be said that those institutions, which have employed it most carefully, have been most successful in sending forth pupils expert in the use of the pen, and possessed of a ready and legible handwriting.