The mystery of our alphabetical order

I am pretty sure you know how the alphabet song goes, from any language that uses some form of the Latin alphabet. Something that always intrigues me is why the alphabet, the English one at least, is ordered this way, and not any other sequence. Was it because the ABC song only sounds appropriate when the alphabet is ordered like so, or that the sequence is easy to remember? Or, does the answer involve some convoluted bits of history that might, in some way or another, result in a rather unclear origin?

The English alphabet did not always start off with 26 letters. The abandoned letters like thorn, eth, and wynn, used to formerly represent some sounds way back in Old or Middle English, might have found some special positions in the alphabetical order in some form. Going back even further, we see the alphabet having way fewer letters than we use today.

You see, back in the Roman times, Latin was widely used. It had rather similar sounds with English, and generally had a more regular alphabet in use. The Romans borrowed and adapted the alphabet from the Etruscans, who lived in what is now Northern Italy, so that the writing system could represent most, if not, all the sounds used in Latin. The Romans started off having only 21 letters:

A B C D E F Z H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X

The Romans, influenced by Greek orthography, decided to distinguish voiced and unvoiced consonants in the alphabet, but needed the creation of new letters, and the repurposing of some, to achieve this. Pairs like /k/-/g/, /p/-/b/, and /d/-/t/ would require some sort of tweaking in the alphabet to represent these sounds separately. Thus, the letter G was created to distinguish from the letter C, separating the /k/-/g/ pair by a single line in the C that denoted voicing. The Latin B may have been a repurposed letter from the Etruscans as well. The letter Z, however, had a more interesting relationship. It was initially dropped by the Romans, then redesigned, but still retained the Greek phonetic influences (hence the letter name “zeta” in Greek and Latin, and “zed” in British English). Similarly, the letters X and Y were borrowed from the Greeks, with the letter X representing /ks/. This influence has resulted in the letter Y being denoted the name “i Graeca”, which is still used in Romance languages like French (i-grec, or Greek i).

Later on, in the Renaissance at least, several novel letters were created and still used today. J, as a modification of the letter I, was one such example. A more interesting case would be the creation of the letters U and W from the letter V. While W was created to adapt to more Germanic influences, the letter U, a rounder form of V, was created to “modernise” the Latin sound /u/, which formerly represented /v/. The letter V might have been repurposed to represent /v/ instead. These relationships may also explain the sequential order of U, V, and W.

We now realise that most of these newly created or borrowed letters follow the letter T, like U V W X Y Z. However, this is where a clear hypothesis of why our alphabet is ordered like so kind of abruptly ends. To summarise, while the Etruscans got their alphabet from the Greeks, and the Greeks from the Phoenicians (plus some vowel additions or letter repurposing), and the Phoenicians from Hebrew or Proto-Canaanite, we see a consistent pattern of how the letters are arranged, although with some differences from the alphabet today, such as ” ‘ B G D… Q R S T”. To be fair, no one truly knows why this sequence of letters was conserved since the times of the Canaanites, but there may be several theories put forward.

There could have been a mnemonic used to memorise the alphabet in some way, much like the ABC song we use, or the “iroha no uta” used for Japanese hiragana. In fact, there may be just catchy mnemonics used to remember the associations between sounds and letters for most writing systems. While we cannot verify this for sure, it does sound like a plausibility. In short, we do not really quite know why the alphabet is ordered as such, although more recent additions contributed to the 26 letters we use today.

However, our story does not quite end here. Languages like Polish, Czech, and Swedish all have letters with diacritics in them, and are found in the alphabetical orders of their respective languages. What could contribute to these alphabetical orders? Well, that may be answered in a later post.

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