“Why are letters in alphabetical order?”

Alphabet Orchard

Elaborate statues, one for every letter in the Armenian alphabet, decorate an orchard next to the church in Oshakan where Mesrop Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian Alphabet, is buried. (Image by Nina Stössinger via Flickr)

This week’s reader question comes from Ben in San Antonio, who tweets via his father to ask “Why are letters in alphabetical order?”

My husband’s reasoned, if not helpful, response to this is “For the same reason numbers are in numerical order.”

As for me, I find myself wondering whether Ben has ever heard the one about the guy who submitted a joke question to an unsuspecting blogger and the blogger totally doesn’t get it, so spends hours researching the question as if her tweeter were serious only to discover in hour three that the joke’s on her?

But while long experience has taught me that this is exactly the sort of trick Ben’s father might play on me, I am going to give Ben the benefit of the doubt and answer his question. (Beside, we don’t want all that research to go to waste, do we?)

Of all the reading I did on the history of our modern alphabetical order, my favorite explanation is the one provided by the Straight Dope. According to the Straight Dope, the modern order of our alphabet can be traced back some 3000 years to Semitic speakers in Syria, who adapted it from Egyptian hieroglyphics before passing it to the Greeks, who passed it to the Etruscans, who passed it to the Romans, who passed it to us. Sadly, the motivations (and identity) of the person who first put our alphabet in order are lost to history.

The Straight Dope conjectures that the alphabet was put in alphabetical order to make it easier for kids to learn. There is no question that learning to write with 26 letters that occur in a particular order is easier than learning to write by drawing potentially hundreds or thousands of abstracted pictures apparently at random. So maybe they’re on to something here. However, I think some credit for helping kids learn the alphabet must be given to the guy who first set the alphabet to music in 1834.

If you want to know more about the history of the alphabet, Ben, ask your father to pick up a copy of Ox, House, Stick: The Story of our Alphabet at your local library.

And because I can’t stand to be the only person in the world today who has this song stuck in her head, here’s a little ditty on the subject from They Might Be Giants.

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About Shala Howell

Writer of things ranging from optical network switching white papers to genetic testing patient education materials to historical fiction set in an 1880s asylum. When I’m not scratching my head over pesky characters who refuse to do things how I want them done or dreaming of my next book (which will of course be much easier to write and research than the current one), my writerly self can be found sifting through the stacks in my church’s archives looking for a few good stories to tell, blogging about life with a very curious Six-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, or musing about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.wordpress.com.
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2 Responses to “Why are letters in alphabetical order?”

  1. Paul says:

    As comedian Steven Wright said: “How do you think the alphabet got that order? Do you think it was that song?”

    Amusingly enough, the Greek alphabet is also used to represent numbers, so it is in both alphabetical and numerical order.
    (The 24 letters of the Greek alphabet represent
    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9,
    10,20,30,40,50,60,70,80,
    100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800
    With the three missing numbers represented by three additional Phoenician letters. source: Wikipedia)

    Also, each new alphabet seems to inherit its order from its parent alphabet, with it all getting kicked off by the Ugaritic script which comes to us with two different orders. (again: Wikipedia)

    Fun research project: Figure out why zeta shows up early in the Greek alphabet, but at the end of ours.

    • shalahowell says:

      Well, if my primary source is to be believed, apparently the ever-practical Romans replaced the Greek Z, which they never used, with the Latin G (which they derived from the Etruscan C). G took over Z’s prime seventh slot in the alphabet, and poor old Z lay dormant on the curb to which it had been kicked for centuries until it was finally picked up again as a way to transliterate the Greek zeta. Of course, by then, G had firm command of the seventh slot, so Z had to go to the back of the line.

      So I guess you could say the short answer to your question is (drumroll please): G8Z.

      (Moderator exits in a hailstorm of roses and rotten tomatoes, saying in her best Elvis voice): Thank you, thank you very much.

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