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.