Stupid Question ™
Feb. 28, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Who or what determined alphabetical order?
A: The modern English alphabet is both highly conservative and highly flexible. Its basic order hasn’t changed over nearly 4,000 years and through at least four major cultures. But it’s also the product of tweaking that stopped only 200 years ago.
Alphabets are the basis of writing systems in which one sign stands for one specific language sound (at least in theory). It’s a refinement of the earlier syllabic system, in which one sign stood for one syllable, usually of two or more sounds. Since there are usually only a few dozen basic sounds, but hundreds of syllables, alphabets made writing a lot easier.
The earliest examples of alphabetic writing are in early Semitic languages of ancient Sinai and Palestine, around 1700 BC.
They were refined into a 22-letter alphabet by the Phoenicians around 1050 BC. Their alphabet was used by ancient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. The Greeks passed it on to the Etruscans, who gave it to the Romans, who gave it to us.
It appears that the early alphabet was based on Egyptian writing, which mixed pictographic symbols with a syllabic writing system. The idea was to take these symbols and give them their name in the local language.
For example, a pictogram of a house was betu. In the alphabetic system, this pictogram was then used to indicate the first letter or sound of its name—what we’d think of as the B sound.
The familiar alphabetical order was established very early. “A” is the first letter in the first known written-out alphabet, a Syrian tablet dating to 1400-1200 BC.
But we don’t know the reason for the ordering. Perhaps the letters were groups by sounds or shapes perceived as similar. Whatever the reason, it probably stayed the same because everybody learned the letters in that order, just like we learn the ABCs today.
We know a lot more about the way the order has changed to suit the needs of new languages. It’s all about languages trying to represent their different sounds in this same alphabet.
Originally, the alphabet had no letters to solely represent vowels. The Greeks needed vowels, so they added a few letters. When they were done, their alphabet looked like this: A, B, Γ, Δ, E, Z, H, Θ, Ι, Κ, Λ, Μ, Ν, Ξ, Ο, Π, Ρ, Σ, Τ, Υ, Φ, Χ, Ψ, Ω.
The Romans got ride of the Greek letters, turned Y into V, and replaced Z with G—all to suit their own pronunciations. Later, they wanted Y and Z back to spell Greek words, so they tacked them onto the end.
Eventually, the Latin alphabet was like ours, except it had no J (a form of I), U (V was used for both U sounds and V sounds) or W.
These letters were all medieval inventions that took centuries to secure a place in the alphabet. Poor J was rejected by dictionaries as late as 1800.