Do all languages have something similar to alphabetical order?

For instance Chinese or Arabic. If they have 10 kids and they want them in some sort of order can they tell them in some way to get in what we know as “alphabetical order”? Does alphabetical order in one language the same as in another?

In Arabic (and Hebrew) for sure, but in languages that have no alphabet (like Chinese), I suppose not.

Interesting. How do they deal with putting a group of random people in some sort of order? Like a classroom. Or how do they sort things by name?

Hrmm such an interesting observation that I’ve never thought much of.

Number have to be in order, because it’s a part of their definition. But letters… have no real reason to be in any sort of “order”.

Except for making a list of letters perhaps… but I can’t think of any reason to do so hundreds/thousands of years ago. Why would letters have to have been sortable a thousand years ago?

To assign homerooms.

Oh yeah, also, Hebrew uses letters as numbers, so there was this sort of thing built in. Maybe other languages used the same kind of system.

Look up some background on “collating sequences” with reference to databases. There’s some very intricate ordering rules out there, which aren’t always determined letter by letter. For instance, in German, some claim that the ess-tset (ß) is correctly ordered as the double s it represents. That is, it comes after the “sc” pair, but before the “st” pair. So your ordering requires one character of look ahead.

Take a look at this description of Thai dictionary order:

Note that even in English, we sometimes order peoples names with “Mc” names coming at the front the list of M names, with “McDonald” before “Manning”, for instance.

In Chinese they group characters by number of strokes of the pen required to create them. I’m not sure how they arrange the characters inside each group, though.

We don’t even have a standard for ordering mixed case. Does ‘abc’ follow ‘Acc’, or precede it?

I remember that in the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, where countries are supposed to come out in the order of the hosting country’s alphabet, the Chinese used the number of strokes in the opening character of the country as the sorting criterion.

In languages which have an alphabet (e.g., Arabic, English, Hindi, Russian, and all the languages using the Latin alphabet), it’s relatively easy, because the alphabet has an order, and you sort words in that order.

There are two major languages without an alphabet – Chinese and Japanese – and they each have their own problems and solutions to the problem.

In the case of Chinese, there are two common solutions to the problem of having thousands of characters. The first is that mentioned by Sunspace: in order of the number of strokes used when writing the character with a brush or pen. The second is to decompose characters into simpler elements, choose one element as the radical, and sort in the conventional order of the radicals (which are again arranged in stroke-number order).

Japanese is more complex again. You can sort words written with Chinese characters (“kanji” in Japanese) in either of the two ways that the Chinese language uses, or you can sort them in the order in which they would be written in hiragana or katakana. Hiragana and katakana are two parallel ways of writing Japanese words phonetically, but with characters corresponding with syllables, not letters, so strictly they are not alphabets. There’s an additional complication: there are two traditional ways of ordering hiragana/katakana characters, so there are a total of four different orders in which Japanese words can be sorted (five if you add sorting by the words n the Latin alphabet, or “romaji”).

I believe Chinese characters are collated based on the radicals, with all characters sharing the same primary radical being grouped together. I don’t know if this system is used for filing, but it is how Chinese dictionaries are organized.

Japanese uses a similar system to collate kanji, their writing system based on Chinese characters. The symbols used in the two Japanese syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, have a standard order that is more comparable to alphabetical order. Katakana is used to transliterate non-Japanese words and names, and I remember from my year living in Japan that music stores organize Western CDs based on the katakana spellings of the artists’ names. I didn’t listen to Japanese music so I’m not sure how the recordings of Japanese artists were organized.

I never fully grasped the organization system at the local video rental place, but within broad genre categories like “Horror” things were shelved according to weirdly specific subgenres – e.g. all the horror movies about sharks (the Jaws series, Deep Blue Sea, etc.) were on the same shelf. There didn’t seem to be any attempt to organize movies by title, which I assume was because of the variety of different writing systems involved. For instance, a Hollywood movie title might be translated into kanji or even given a totally new Japanese title unrelated to the English title, spelled out phonetically using katakana, or use some combination of these methods.

The simple answer is that in Japanese virtually everything is ordered using gojuon (“the 50 sounds”) order. This is how the index in the back of a book will be organized.

Words written in kanji are organized according to their pronunciation. Number of strokes, radical, etc., are only relevant when looking up a character in a dictionary.

In case you’re curious, the order is basically a-k-s-t-n-h-m-y-r-w.

No. Languages without a writing system (of which there are probably hundreds or thousands) cannot by definition have an alphabetic order, and usually don’t have anything else like it.

As others have already mentioned, no, alphabetical order varies from language to language, even if they use the same (or similar) alphabet characters. To give another example, some languages consider digraphs and trigraphs (pairs or triples of letter forms) to be single letters. For example, in Hungarian, “dzs” is a single letter which appears in the alphabet after “d” and “dz” but before “e”. “Zs” is also a single letter which occurs at the end of the alphabet. So in alphabetical order the position of the sequence “dzsa…” depends on whether the “dzs” is the single letter “dzs”, or the pair “dz” + “s”, or the pair “d” + “zs”, or even the triple “d” + “z” + “s”. (In practice, the triple will never occur in natural language, though the two pairs might occur over a syllable boundary in a compound word.)

I recall trying to look up a number in Jutland (Denmark) phone directory which was organized alphabetically by city/town name. The city was Aarhus (also written Århus) and I expected to find it at the beginning. It took me a while before I caught on. First off the Danish alphabet consists or our usual 26 letter, followed by the three accented letters æ, ø, and å, with å last. So, even though it is often spelled simply Aarhus, it was the very last city listed.

Both German and French interfile accented and unaccented letters, however. I don’t know about other languages.

Bear in mind that the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets are all ultimately descended from the Phoenician alphabet, which had a distict order.

For computer usage, the ASCII sequence (and also Unicode) puts uppercase first, then lowercase. So if you use virtually any computer application to sort, that’s what you get.

As far as traditional text sorting, the Chicago Manual of Style goes on for over 10 pages about how to alphabetize a list. They never explicitly say so, but in their examples uppercase vs. lowercase is ignored, such as:

new economics
New England
new math

ETA: I spoke too soon. Word and Excel (2007) appear to ignore case. However, an application that has a “dumb” sorting algorithm would just sort by the numeric code.

Breton has two conventional orders, both in use:

A, B, K, D, E, F, G, H, CH, C’H, I, Y, J, L, etc.


A, B, CH, C’H, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, etc.

One is based on following the sounds of the Latin alphabet, the other on the forms of the letters in the Latin alphabet. (CH = English sh, C’H = kh.)

ETA: Neither is particularly friendly to sorting by computer.

The order can also vary between countries using the same writing system. South Korea and North Korea have different sorting orders for Hangul.

For Chinese characters, the system of radicals is pretty popular. Almost every dictionary I’ve seen from China, Japan, or Korea for Chinese characters uses the radical system. Those dictionaries also have an additional index showing the characters by number of strokes without regard to the radical. The sole exception and my personal favorite is a dictionary using the SKIP (Simplified Kanji Indexing by Pattern) system.

For other languages, you can start by going to Omniglot and checking the links for each language.

When I taught in Fujian Province, whenever we had a fire drill, I used to yell: “好,大家根据您的母亲的联盟 社会安全号” (very rusty–probably mistakes)

Which meant: “Okay, everyone line up according to mother’s Social Security number!”

About 25 years ago, Robert Logan wrote The Alphabet Effect. Without going into his conclusion (I have no idea how seriously they’re taking nowadays), he provided an overview on how the Chinese filed their documents in the past.

There are various systems that categorize things by the shape of their characters, or the number of brushstrokes. The problem is that, even given that, order is still arbitrary. The result was that Chinese bureaucrats wielded tremendous power, because they knew where the documents were kept. The bureaucrats would often create their own, personal filing system and keep it a secret from everyone else – except for their sons, who were trained in it as a type of intergenerational job security.

A rough approximation of how this works is shown here. Note that the payoff of the film has the character keeping his job because he was the only one who could find the files.