Why Is the Alphabet In ABC Order?

Anyone can sort a list by alphabetical order. If you're reading this, you're probably pretty familiar with your ABCs. But if you were to ask why the alphabet is arranged in the order it is, the best answer you're going to get is a shrug. From what historians understand, the order of the alphabet is the way it is because, well, it's always been that way.

Let's Start at the Beginning

History starts with the development of writing. In fact, prehistoric civilizations are defined as the ones who didn't write. Thousands of years ago, four ancient civilizations developed writing independently of one another: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. Researchers believe that every other writing system in history has been influenced by one of these four systems.

The English language draws upon the 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian system. But the development of a true alphabet wouldn't come along until the Phoenicians innovated on the pictograph-like writing of their time and assigned individual sounds to individual symbols. When this happened in the 14th century B.C., it was a big deal. It revolutionized commerce, made storytelling easier, and massively increased the literacy rate among the population since learning an alphabet is much easier than learning the meanings of hundreds of symbols.

But the Phoenician alphabet had only 19 characters, all of which were consonants. This is a common feature among ancient alphabets, which functioned more as a shorthand for communication rather than a fully featured narrative tool. The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, added vowels, and influenced the Etruscans, whose alphabet would evolve into the Latin alphabet that the Roman Empire would spread across all of Europe. Every culture added and subtracted symbols while keeping the overall structure of the system the same. This is why even seemingly unrelated languages like Georgian and Urdu share the same underlying alphabetical structure as English, French, Arabic, and Russian.

Are There Any Alphabet Orders Other Than Ours?

Although the Phoenicians implemented the ABC order we're familiar with today, it was not the only game in town. There are other language scripts that draw their origin from Phoenician but use a different ordering entirely. Ethiopic languages like Amharic, Tigrinya, and Ge'ez use a writing system that dates to the 9th century BC and uses a different lettering order that runs something like this:

H, L, M, Q, W, R, T, S, K, N, B, P, A, G, D, Z, Y

It looks like we owe the order of the modern alphabet to scribes through the centuries who simply browsed all of the available options, came across this particular ordering of the Phoenician system, and said to themselves, "This looks pretty good."

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What About the Other Writing Systems?

Unsurprisingly, the non-alphabetic Chinese writing system and the languages that use it — Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Mongolian, among others — don't use the Phoenician alphabet as a reference. In fact, the Chinese system was already a highly developed writing system by the time the Phoenicians came around, and influential cultural contact between East Asia and Europe wouldn't occur until the time of Genghis Khan, roughly two millennia later.

The Egyptian system is undoubtedly the most famous ancient writing system, but its use died out around the time Egypt became a Roman province in 30 B.C. Learning to write with Egyptian hieroglyphics required lifelong study, and the ancient civilization's literate population was almost exclusively comprised of noblemen and government administrators.

Mesoamerican writing is unfortunately very poorly preserved. While there are thousands of examples of ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian documents known to the archaeological world, there are no more than a few dozen surviving texts from the Maya, Olmec, and Zapotec cultures. These, too, were pictographs or logograms that apparently had no corresponding alphabet. Some even used knotted cords.

But like many things we often take for granted, the order of the modern alphabet probably just comes down to the fact that people through the centuries saw no reason to change its original order. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

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For more on how written language came to be, check out "The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms" by Andrew Robinson. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell February 28, 2019

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