We learn the alphabet at an early age and we all understand the concept that each letter corresponds roughly to a sound. Thinking back on having learned it, we are quite thankful that our language is based on an alphabet instead of thousands of pictograph symbols like Chinese. But have you ever thought about why our alphabet has an order? I mean yes, it’s quite useful to be able to alphabetize words and names, but that seems quite a modern thing. Printing, and printed lists of words and names, only came about in the past few hundred years. But the Phoenician alphabet, upon which almost all modern alphabets are based, arose more than 3000 years ago. It had an order which is mostly the same as our own alphabetical order. Without phone books, dictionaries, and other long ordered lists, the utility of alphabetization and alphabetical order must not have been great, yet alphabetical order existed. Why?
When we think of collections of things, there is seldom an inherent order given to them. Yet collections of familiar things or concepts are often given a traditional but arbitrary order: salt and pepper, bacon and eggs, up and down, and black and white are all pairs almost always stated in that order. Any familiar grouping is likely to also have a familiar order. We often list our children by age order. We list presidents and kings by chronological order. We list planets by distance from the sun. It’s interesting to note that presidents and kings and planets are never listed by alphabetical order. When we have some more meaningful means of ordering, we always use it. Alphabetical ordering is a last resort. Which makes one wonder, how did we choose an order for the alphabet itself?
Looking at our alphabet, it seems a bit of a jumble. The vowels are all spread out along the length of it. Few similar-sounding letters are near one another, with the exception of n and m. Perhaps there was a logic to separating similar-sounding letters so they wouldn’t be confused. If f were followed by s and that were followed by x, perhaps it would be much harder to learn or say the alphabet.
Another pattern in the alphabet, seen by looking at a chart of letter frequency, is the front-loading of some of the most common letters, such as a, b and e near the beginning, and the relegation of some of the rarer such as x and z near the end. Uncommon q is about 2/3 way through. But this is by no means a rule, as s and t are both quite common, while j and k are a couple of the rarer letters. We can hardly say that frequency increases steadily as we progress through the alphabet.
In fact, there seems to be an almost cyclical pattern of frequency in the alphabet, with one or two common letters leading on to two or three less common ones over and over, with the groupings of frequent letters “a,” “de,” “hi,” “no,” and “rst” quite evenly dispersed and separated by the less frequent letters. This pattern is so strong in fact that the only irregularity in it is the lack of a high frequency letter in the wxyz sequence at the end of the alphabet.
Beyond the patterns of regular dispersion of frequency and vowels, what sense can we make of the order itself? I honestly don’t know. Besides the obvious similar pair “mn,” most similar sounds such as b/p, d/t and l/r are quite separated. The dispersal of similar sounds and of vowels suggests to me that there are several mini-alphabets within our alphabet. Thus the “abcd” sequence could itself serve as an alphabet system for forming a reasonable number of words, as could “efgh,” “ijklmn,” “opqrst,” and “uvwxyz”. Each has one vowel (the minimum for any alphabet) as well as several distinct consonants. Consonants in any alphabet must be as distinct as possible in order for words to be more understandable.
It is certainly tempting to look for all sorts of meaning in the order of the alphabet. However, the alphabet formed and changed over millennia, so it is a product of history, designed by no man. Its current order is probably quite arbitrary, yet there is a definite order that has remained largely unchanged for two millennia. The next time you look up a word in a dictionary, be thankful for that!