There has only ever been one alphabetical order. In any language. I only just learned that fact this week, after also only just realizing that ‘alphabet’ comes from its first two letters ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’.* I decided to learn more about it.
Not all writing systems are alphabetic, Chinese being the most obvious with characters as whole words, and most languages do not have a writing system at all, but I had always assumed that there was a different canonical order of letters in most alphabets and that this would naturally varied greatly over time.
Apparently not. It turns out that the order most likely comes from a combination of Phoenician and Ancient Hebrew and survived to become part of completely unrelated languages that would not exist for at least another millennium, like English.
Like the animation shows** the order hasn’t changed much at all. That, and ‘U’ and ‘W’ were clearly late hasty additions, adapted from ‘V’ with little imagination.
I still can’t decide whether having only one alphabetical order for all of humanity is profound or mundane. A canonical order doesn’t make speaking any easier, or for that matter particularly effect writing. But then again, so many things beyond speech and writing rely on ordering: text from dictionaries to databases; the ‘Adam’s and ‘Anna’s that I’m always reminded off at the top of chat windows; the reason my pre-school teacher never let me leave first for lunch; and the complete arbitrariness of my students striving for ‘A’s.*** All thanks to some choices by scholars in the western Mediterranean some 3000 years ago.
Rob, 10 June 2011.
* With thanks to the solidarity from other linguists who confessed also not knowing this.
**I couldn’t find the original creator of this animation – will give full credit if/when I do.
*** Aardvarks are genuinely strange and unique animals that deserve their alphabetical prominence.