General Question

bobbinhood's avatar

How did we come to have our current alphabetical order?

Asked by bobbinhood (5879 points ) April 19th, 2010

I was reading about someone who was shocked to discover that the alphabet actually had an order, and it got me thinking. How did the alphabet get the order that it now has? I understand why it is ordered—ordered lists are easier to remember, and it helps organizationally. However, I don’t understand how we got the order to begin with. I assume that written language began to develop before a formal alphabet was in place, so people would have known the letters before they were put in order. Who first decided what order to put them in, and how did that arrangement become standardized?

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17 Answers

jfos's avatar

I recently stumbled upon the answer to this. When I’m home from work in two hours or so, I’ll provide a link.

bobbinhood's avatar

Thanks! :)

CyanoticWasp's avatar

It’s from the song.

The Straight Dope usually provides the best answer to questions of this type.

bobbinhood's avatar

@CyanoticWasp Was that intended to be ironic or serious? If serious, you’re going to have to be more convincing than that if you want me to believe that a mnemonic device used to recall the order preceded the order itself.

SeventhSense's avatar

The way I remember it (yes I was there at the formation) -A was just always on his game and Z was a nonconformist who could care less for status. The elomeno commitee had more pull then the peequaress division. The rest is kind of fuzzy.

anartist's avatar

the Greek alphabet was the world’s first fully ordered alphabet. Alpha and beta [hence the name] are the first 2 letters and that has carried over.
http://www.ibiblio.org/koine/greek/lessons/alphabet.html
note also the “de” and the “klmn” sequence and the “rst” sequence and the “op” sequence

the concept of alpha at the beginning and omega at the end comes from the even earlier sanscrit and translates to “the beginning and the end” [of all being] and is expressed in the chant “OOOOHHHMMMM” used in yogic meditation.

kounoupi's avatar

I suppose that you ask about the english alphabet, which as far as I know kind of follows the order of the Greek alphabet (I am not a linguist).

Since I am a native Greek speaker, I can say for sure that the order of the letters in the Greek alphabet is not random, but inside the alphabet an ancient prayer is “hidden”.
In other words, the Greek alphabet is a prayer to the God of light:
”ΑΛ ΦΑ, ΒΗ ΤΑ ΓΑ!
ΑΜΑ ΔΕ ΕΛ ΤΑ ΕΨ ΙΛΩΝ.
ΣΤΗ ΙΓΜΑ (ΙΝΑ) ΖΗ ΤΑ,
Η ΤΑ, ΘΗ ΤΑ ΙΩΤΑ
ΚΑΤΑ ΠΑΛΛΑΝ ΔΑ.
(ΙΝΑ) ΜΗ ΝΥΞ Η,
Ο ΜΙΚΡΟΝ (ΕΣΤΙ),
ΠΥΡΟΣ (ΔΕ) ΙΓΜΑ
ΤΑΦΗ ΕΨ ΙΛΩΝ,
ΦΥ(ΟΙ) ΨΥΧΗ,
Ο ΜΕΓΑ (ΕΣΤΙ)”.

Translation to modern Greek:
Άλ, εσύ που είσαι το Φως, έλα στη Γή!
Κι εσύ Έλ ρίξε τις ακτίνες σου στην ιλύ που ψήνεται
(που βρίσκεται σε κατάσταση αναβρασμού).
Ας γίνει ένα καταστάλαγμα (μια ξηρά)
για να μπορέσουν τα Εγώ να ζήσουν, να υπάρξουν
και να σταθούν πάνω στην παλλόμενη Γη.
Ας μην επικρατήσει η νύχτα, που είναι το μικρόν,
και κινδυνέψει να ταφεί (να σβήσει, να χαθεί)
το καταστάλαγμα του πυρός μέσα στην αναβράζουσα ιλύ,
και ας αναπτυχθεί η Ψυχή, που είναι το μέγιστο,
το σημαντικότερο όλων!

In english:
“AL FA, VI TA GA!
AMA DE EL TA EPS ILON.
STI IGMA (INA) ZI TA,
I TA, THI TA IOTA
KATA PALLAN DA.
(INA) MI NYX I,
O MIKRON (ESTI),
PYROS (THE) IGMA,
TAFI EPS ILON,
FY(OI) PSYHI,
O MEGA (ESTI)”.

Translation:

Al, that you are the Light, come to Earth!
And you, El, send your rays on the slime
which is baking (being in a boiling state).
May it become a sediment (a land),
so that the Selves / Egos can live,
exist and stand on the vibrating Earth.
May the night which is the minor
not dominate and the essence of the fire
in the boiling slime not be in danger
of being buried (extinguished, extinct)
and let the Soul which is the major,
the most important of all, be developed!

link
Here you can hear the prayer, as it was performed by the students of the music highschool of Kerkyra in the Athens Concert Hall.

ps. The El are the Greeks, the “people of El” = the Hellenes (= Έλληνες)

bobbinhood's avatar

@CyanoticWasp You were tricky. You edited and gave a real answer after the joke. Thanks.
@SeventhSense I like it. It’s always good to have an eye-witness when trying to determine how things went down.
@anartist I never made that connection to the name before. Interesting.
@kounoupi Facinating! Thank you for your detailed response. I’m waiting for the video to load so I can watch it.

gailcalled's avatar

“Hebrew”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_alphabet is similar; alef, bet, gimmel, daleh (Gimme a cheer or else I’ll holla.)

anartist's avatar

α ω—resembles om symbol only order reversed and characters sideways—
om

SeventhSense's avatar

@bobbinhood
Didn’t we all at one point think lmnop was was one letter?

SeventhSense's avatar

QQ
that—-> ω
Resembles something else…he he

bobbinhood's avatar

@SeventhSense I don’t remember ever thinking that, but that’s not to say that I never did. Who remembers everything they thought as a child? I do remember trying to say “lmnop” as fast as I possibly could because I thought it was so much fun to say.

SeventhSense's avatar

It’s all a bit hazy…l remember in Sunday School Pontius the Pilot…puzzled about those Biblical airplanes…and how did God fit behind that curtain on the altar?

morphail's avatar

@kounoupi But this prayer is not the cause of the order of the letters in the Greek alphabet. I bet it was created, perhaps as a mnemonic, to follow the order of the letters.

@anartist No, the letter omega and the Sanskrit Om have nothing to do with each other. The name “omega” means “big O” in Greek, as opposed to “omicron”, the “small O”.

The alphabet has the order it has simply because of historical accident.

anartist's avatar

@gailcalled
2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits, a dolla
all for @gailcalled, stand up and holla!
GGOOOOOOO GAL!

gailcalled's avatar

^^ Milo here; Remember that any good ideas come from me. Gail is simply the scrivener.

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