Ask LH: Why Is The Alphabet In That Order?

Hey Lifehacker, Why is the alphabet in the order it's in? What reason is there for 'A' at the beginning followed by 'B', 'C', and so on? Numerical order makes sense to me, but alphabetical order not-so-much. Thanks, Alpha Male

Alphabet picture from Shutterstock

Dear AM,


Letters have been alphabetically ordered in set systems for tens of thousands of years. The distinctive ordering of the Latin alphabet and its descendants was initially employed as a cataloging device by ancient scholars. Archaeological examples have been unearthed from as far back as the fourteenth century BC, so the practice has a pretty established pedigree.

As world literacy improved, the general populace adopted the same system to aid in learning. (i.e. -- It's easier to teach kids about letters when there's a universal ordering system in place.) In the 1960s, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) officially standardised the basic Latin alphabet's ordering.

In everyday English usage, the most obvious advantage of having an established alphabetical order is the dictionary -- you know that 'abacus' appears after 'aadvark' because B comes after A which makes quick word referencing a breeze. Having no established system in place would make word categorisation a nightmare.

That said, there are situations where the accepted alphabetical order can prove to be a hindrance, such as typing (why else do you think QWERTY keyboards exist?) Some schools of thought also believe it's detrimental to early learning -- because children don't learn the entire alphabet in one go, they're usually stuck with the first few letters which can't actually be used to form any meaningful words. Some kindergartens use alternate ordering systems for this very reason.

We've established that the accepted order of the Latin alphabet has both its pros and cons -- but what you really want to know is why it was set out this way in the first place. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind the specific 'ABC' ordering is something of a mystery. If a rhetorical justification was ever written down, it has since been lost to the mists of time. There are numerous theories espoused by alphabet academics, but none of them are supported by hard evidence; it's just educated guesswork really.

One interesting theory is that the alphabet may have once had a numerical component used by merchants, with each letter matching its corresponding number to assist in trade. Others point out the vaguely phonetic grouping of letters which introduces a rhyming element for faster learning. The benefit of this for modern audiences can be seen via the 'ABC' sing-song which first appeared in the 19th century.

Whatever the case, it's safe to say that the current alphabetical order isn't going to disappear anytime soon. Think of it as the Google of the ancient world: by getting in first, it's become the universally accepted standard. There might well be better systems in place, but hardly anyone uses them. C'est la vie.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    For another perspective on the same question try this -

      That pretty much falls in line with what I said.

      This is the alphabet in alphabetic order H R A B Q D W E F L M N S X I G J K O P C T V Y U Z

        Only in UK English. US English would be R A B Q D W E F L M N S X I H G J K O P C T V Y U Z

    why else do you think the QWERTY keyboard was invented?

    To move commonly-typed letter combinations apart from each other such that the mechanical arms of a typewriter wouldn't hit each other when typing at high speed, thus causing jams?

      Having commonly-typed letter combinations grouped together also makes typing finicky. If it was purely an archaic mechanical issue there would be a lot more non-QWERTY keyboards around now. (Edit: that said, 'invented' was the wrong word to use.)

        It was used in the Remington typewriters that everyone used at the time, and so that's what the people that designed the modern keyboard used because it was familiar. As a result, that's what everyone learned to type on. Why learn anything else when your muscle memory knows the location of every key on a QWERTY keyboard already? QWERTY is 'good enough' for just about everyone except the crazies who want to use a Dvorak layout.

        It's true that a lot of the commonly-grouped letters are on different sides of the keyboard and that makes it easier to type. They apparently used a listing of the most common two-letter combinations in the english language to divide everything up (which is why you see things like T and H being typed with different hands, or Q and U being apart)

      According to The Smithsonian, that's a myth.
      They cite this paper as evidence (and it's a pretty interesting read)

    "Numerical order makes sense to me, but alphabetical order not-so-much."

    Numerical order is just as arbitrary. Why is "one" called "one" and not "two", or "seven"?

      Numbers represent quantities and can be ordered in anything a physical representation of it can be measured. eg. size, weight, distance.. it's clear how to rank numbers. What you're dealing with is the arbitrary nature of nomenclature.

      Thinking of numbers through:
      Hebrew uses its letters as numbers in books, since they have no characters specifically for it. This starts with Aleph then Bet... Gimel... Dalet...

      The Greek alphabet follows the same order...
      Alpha... Beta... Gamma... Delta...

      I believe it would've had some influence on the English ordering, given it would've started with the idea to "make a Latin alphabet(a)".

      The questions was about the ordering of letters and numbers, not what we call them. Alphabetical order is certainly more arbitrary than ordered numbers.

    The ancient Greek alphabet does have a reasoning behind the ordering of the letters but I'm not familiar with most, only that alpha 'a' is the first sound a baby makes, and beta 'b' is the second sound.

      That certainly sounds plausible - a b g d e are all sounds newborns make early. The rest, I dunno. Would be very interesting to see whether there's any basis to this.

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