Alphabet soup: How the English alphabet got its order

Illustration of people building Egyptian style pyramids out of letters.
Rachel Lee/Staff

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The alphabet regulates how we learn the English letters (to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”), organize books on library shelves and line up students for a graduation procession. Saying the alphabet backward can prove your sobriety (and can just be a cool party trick), and knowing where you fall on the list of attendance (based on the first letter of your last name) allows you to whisper to friends during roll call and still know when to say, “Here.” The alphabet and its order affect us every day and, in many ways, organize our lives, but how did the alphabet end up the way it is?

The answer: No one knows for sure.

The first semblance of an alphabet can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where foreigners created an alphabet while the Egyptians themselves relied on hieroglyphics. The Phoenicians, a Semitic group that largely originated in where Lebanon is today, created an alphabet of symbols based on single sounds around 900 B.C. The Phoenician set of symbols consisted of mainly unrecognizable shapes and formations, but around 750 B.C., once the Greeks sharpened some lines and tilted some marks, a few modern letters — such as A and M — appeared. Though the Greeks changed the look of the symbols, they largely kept the order the same. As the Romans adopted the Greek alphabet, they dropped certain letters, such as Y and Z. When these letters were added back later, around the first century B.C., they were seemingly lazily tacked on to the end.

The alphabet as we know it today does not appear in its full glory until the Middle Ages, but by that time, the sequence of letters is well established. Scholars are unsure why the very first alphabet, the one from ancient Egypt, is ordered the way it is, but some speculate that it’s from a mnemonic device to help people remember it — sort of like how we have a song to remember the alphabet today. Others think that letters originally had a numerical component that gave way to their order in the alphabet.

The English alphabet has affected my views of letters: A surname that starts with anything after T is unfortunate; A and Z are inherently special due to the fact that they are the leader and caboose; L, M, N, O and P are the fun aunts of the English letters because their section of the alphabet song is so amusing. Though I have biases based on a letter’s position in the alphabet, the alphabet itself is brilliantly nonhierarchical. The English alphabet is a group of letters that in and of themselves are meaningless and can therefore be reordered in an endless stream of combinations. It’s a way to organize the building blocks of language that is then used to organize the world around us.

Contact Lindsey Staub at [email protected].