Alphabetical Order

I asked this of Cecil once over a year ago, and the reply I got said that he’d been looking into it for a while now and still had no conclusive answer. I assume that’s still the case.

But heck, why not open it up to speculation to the whole Teeming Millions?

So here it is:
Who decided which order the alphabet would come in? And why was it decided that having an order would be useful?

I assume cataloguing would be the likely answer to the latter, but then again…?

And incidentally, do other more complex languages like Arabic or Japanese have specific alphabetical orders too?

IIRC, Chinese (and Japanese?) dictionaries are ordered according to the first stroke drawn in writing the character. The one or two I’ve seen had an index. I don’t know if there’s a standard order for the different strokes, or if different folks …

Never mind.

But it certainly wouldn’t be an alphabetical order. :frowning:

Bob the Random Expert
“If we don’t have the answer, we’ll make one up.”

Robert Logan, in The Alphabet Effect, says that the first language/alphabet that was stored in “alphabetical order” is the Ugaritic language, found in tablets at Ras Shamra. (It was also the first language that consistently was written from Left to right.) There is no reference to who or why. Ugaritic flourished on the Syrian coast from the seventeeth throught the fourteenth centuries.


I was under the impression that Japanese dictionaries are in order by the number of strokes required to make the needed character. At least that’s the way it works for kanji. Not that I can read any of it, but I have looked at a Japanese-English dictionary.

Sounds authoritative doesn’t it?

This is long, so sit back and relax :slight_smile:

According to a book I have on Chinese characters (Chinese Characters: by Dr. L. Weiger, S. J), there were several ways the characters were classified:

  1. Natural Classification - the things of the world were distributed in 16 sections, so all characters I assume (since the book doesn’t really say) were grouped under one of the sixteen sections (the book says in reality, the first dictionary had more numerous headings than 16).

  2. Logical Classification, by Radicals - The radicals were elements that gave clues as to what the character was. 214 in all, and these were ordered by strokes.

  3. Phonetic Classification, by Rhymes - pretty straightforward, each character associated with another by the rhymes.

  4. Phonetic classification by sounds - the book says this is the most simple classification, sound wise. Each character would be grouped according to sound, but divided by tones. It’s not quite like the alphabetic ordering, but it is as easy.

The European classifications are:

  1. Radicals (explained above)

  2. Phonetics - characters gathered according to phonetic series.

  3. By sound - according to European alphabetic order. The big Williams and Giles dictionaries and the French ‘Dictionnaire chinois-francais’ both follow this ordering.
    Most dictionaries I have seen traditionally order by radicals, which are further ordered by stroke number.

Japanese Ordering:

Since Japanese has three different scripts (four if you count romaji or latin script), they have different ways to order the kanji, and kana. Japanese follows the joyo system for learning Kanji, and most English dictionarties follow the Hepburn system.

The kana have two ways of ordering. One is the ‘gojuon’ which means fifty sound ordering, and actually is the same order the Indic scripts are ordered. The second is the ‘iroha’ order which is a Buddhist poem that has each sound in the script once (ha! try doing that with English :)).

Here is the poem:

 Iro wa nioedo
 Chirinuru o
 Waga yo tare zo
 Ui no okuyama
 Kyoo koete
 Asaki yume miji
 Ei (= yoi) mo sezu.

And here is the meaning:

Colours are fragrant
But they fade away.
In this world of ours none lasts forever.
Today cross the high mountain of life’s illusions,
And there will be no more shallow dreaming,
no more drunkenness.

Anyway, i knew my Chinese character dictionary would come in handy one day :).

I always thought the letters were in that order because of that song

A recent (circa 1990 AD/CE) method of ordering the Kanji (Chinese Characters) in Japanese is called the SKIP system. SKIP stands for: Simplified Kanji Indexing by Pattern. Great system–what you do place each character into one of four patterns and then determine the stroke count of each part of the pattern. Takes about 30 seconds to find the definition of an unfamiliar character. The traditional method of ordering the characters was inherited from the Chinese; divide characters based on the “radical” and then go by stroke count from there. The radical would be one part of the character.

Getting back to the alphabetical order: Yes, languages with alphabets, such as English and Korean, have orders to that alphabet. Some alphabets got their orders by happenstance (as English did) and some had their order derived (as Korean did) by the inventor of the alphabet. I might add that Cherokee falls into the derived order classification.

But surely an alphabet for a language that was intended to be so widespread wouldn’t get it’s sequence of characters just by happenstance. Wouldn’t someone, somewhere, a culture or leader of some kind, establish the definitive order of the alphabet for its expected usage.

And whoever that was would’ve had that recorded somewhere for posterity.

Much like the definitive imperial measurements were. For example.

Why? Just about everything else about language occurs through happenstance and consensus. Why would alphabetical order be different?

Why would they have to? Who laid down the rule that you add -s to make things plural? Who decided which plurals don’t add -s?

Current alphabetical order follows the same order of the roman and Greek alphabets (with some variations and letters added). I suspect their order came from even earlier alphabets. I doubt anyone sat down and determined the order; it just arose from consensus.

Adding ‘s’ for plural was something established by spoken language, though.

Alphabetical order is something intended for written language, which for such a long time was the strict department of scholars and lords. So it might in fact be a relatively recent thing.

Unless the Greek Alphabet’s order has something to do with it, which, now that I think about it, seems likely.

The alphabet, as we know it (with consonants and vowels) has only been invented once in the entire history of the world. (Ideographic and syllabic scripts are another matter.) No one knows why the order is what it is – as likely as not it was the 15th-century-BC version of the kid’s alphabet song. But the order is, although occasionally disturbed by letters being added or deleted, very, very ancient.

I’ll leave it to someone who actually knows about West-Semitic languages to judge whether it might correlate with the numeric use of the letters.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

John W. Kennedy:

Well, in Hebrew, it does. According to Orthodox Judaism, every letter of the Hebrew alphabet contains tons of mystical/Kabbalistic implications in its form, numeric value and placement in the alphabet.

No doubt the skeptical will say these were thought up after the alphabet was already devised. I can’t possibly prove it (since the books about this are all written in that alphabet!), all I’m saying is what I’ve learned.

Chaim Mattis Keller

“Sherlock Holmes once said that once you have eliminated the
impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be
the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.
The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks.”
– Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective

JWK: by “the alphabet as we know it,” you’re referring to the Latin alphabet, right? There are some more alphabets in use today that have no relation to them (Thai, Korea’s Hangul, just to name two). Of course, there’s also Cherokee, which only has the relation that Sequoyah just copied the symbols because he was unable to read English.

A couple of interesting notes about Hebrew:

The last chapter of Proverbs, containing 22 verses, was written so that each verse begins with a different letter of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and they are all in the regular sequence.

The same applies to Psalm 145, although one letter was skipped, yielding only 21 verses.

Lest anyone think that the above examples are mere coincidence, Psalm 119 is the clincher. It contains 176 (=22*8) verses. The first eight verses all begin with the first letter of the alphabet, verses 9-16 with the second, 17-24 with the third, and so on, all the way through.

No one ever claimed this to be any sort of divine miracle. Rather, it is simply an accepted literary style for Hebrew poetry, working all the letters into the subject matter.

Through the centuries, more recent Hebrew poets have used the same idea, and they expanded on it to use not only the sequential alphabet, but that the initial letters of each verse would spell out some significant name or phrase. American greeting-card writers have adopted similar styles.

My point in this post has been merely to demonstrate that the idea of the letters having a specific sequence is very old. I do not know for sure when the first dictionaries were written, but I suspect that this literary device is older than the oldest Hebrew dictionaries.

There must be a reason, then, to arrange it in a specific sequence. It’s not just arbitrary, though the order itself may have been, to have a definitive sequence for the alphabet.

Can it be confirmed, at least, that it was for cataloguing purposes?

Or maybe as a mnemonic kind of thing, like the alphabet song, for people to be able to recall all the letters of the alphabet itself? Though I guess that doesn’t make much sense if the order wan’t already important for some reason.

Actually from what I have read some linguists now believe that the Indic scripts are descended from the semitic scripts. I forget which Indic script it was but it gave rise to the Southeast Asian scripts. Which explains why in Tagalog for instance, each “consonant” has a default vowel ‘a’ sound (like ‘ba’), and diacritic marks change the vowel sound. Hangul i have heard is more considered to be a “featural code” so some linguists would disagree.

Though there are opposing views and since i haven’t studied this i wont say which i believe to be right, i just mentioned those to be devils advocate (I just like learning about the scripts, not the debates over their relation to other scripts).

However, isn’t Cherokee really a syllabary?

“Oa tu beral haonar kelo, tu faikal gehayun”

I think the mnemonic idea is the best trace so far. I mean, just about the first thing you’ll ever do with an alphabet (long before any kind of cataloguing) would be to teach it to other people so they can read what you write. And one of the most useful things in teaching would be a list of all the letters, right? And that list will be passed on from one scholar to the next. At first, the order will be arbitrary, but maybe after some time, a sort of ‘standard’ will emerge.

Has any archaeologist ever found a simple early list of, say, the Greek or Hebrew alphabet set in stone?

I believe Hangul (Korean) is also classified as a syllabary (?); at least it was so described by Jared Diamond in his “Guns, Germs and Steel.”

Hangul is not classified as a syllabry because it’s component parts are alphabetical. The letters are written together in syllables, though, which causes confusion to those unfamiliar with the language. As an example, the Korean word “Han Gul” being composed of two syllable would be written thus (I’ll use the Latin alphabet here):


for the first syllable and


for the second syllable.

The key thing to note is that each letter in the Korean alphabet is used to denote one sound, not a syllable (of course there are certain exceptions to the “one sound” rule, but they are pretty regular).

Cherokee is definitely a syllabry but the point I’m making is that Sequoyah developed that by copying the letters of English.