Archive for the ‘Writing Systems’ Category

Alphabetical order

Friday, June 10th, 2011

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.

Evolution of the alphabet

Evolution of the alphabet

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.