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Is there a reason behind the ordering of letters in the English alphabet? i.e. why are we taught “A,B,C,D,E,F,...,Z”? Why not “L,A,S,U,I,Z,...,C”?

I am asking this because, in some of the languages I know, I am told that the ordering of the letters in the alphabet is based on the ease with which they can be pronounced or the frequency with which they are used or depending on the part of the vocal cord that needs to be stressed to pronounce the letter.

Is there a similar rationale?

EDIT

You can see a couple of references for arrangement of letters in Sanskrit here and here.

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@Jasper Loy: Only one English alphabet. :) –  Robusto Jan 22 '11 at 3:49
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@PLL: I have heard that in Sanskrit the ordering is based on how we pronounce the letters. You might want to look at these websites books.google.com/… acharya.iitm.ac.in/sanskrit/sans.php?lnum=0&pnum=4 –  user3910 Jan 22 '11 at 5:19
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+1 Good question in fact. The history on this is no clear. –  Noldorin Jan 22 '11 at 15:35
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Also, note that academics believe only three writing systems were developed in the history of humanity. The first, Sumerian, is now extinct. The second, Egyptian, gave rise to the Phoenician alphabet and later Greek, Latin, Indian scripts, and many others. The third was Chinese, from which modern Chinese and other SE Asian scripts are derived. The "Harappan script" is a contentious fourth script (or third, in chronology). Some think it is ultimatley derived from Egyptian, but others thing it is independent - it's not yet proven. –  Noldorin Jan 22 '11 at 16:07
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@Alex: The UK version (well, the version we learnt in India) ends with "ex wye zed, sugar on your bread; if you don't like it, better go to bed. Next Sunday morning, come to me; I will teach you ay-bee-see." Etc. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 24 '11 at 18:58

3 Answers 3

up vote 38 down vote accepted

The ABC order already existed in some form about 1400 BC, in the Ugaritic script, from which our alphabet is descended. From Wikipedia:

It is unknown whether the earliest alphabets had a defined sequence. Some alphabets today, such as the Hanuno'o script, are learned one letter at a time, in no particular order, and are not used for collation where a definite order is required. However, a dozen Ugaritic tablets from the fourteenth century BCE preserve the alphabet in two sequences. One, the ABCDE order later used in Phoenician, has continued with minor changes in Hebrew, Greek, Armenian, Gothic, Cyrillic, and Latin; the other, HMĦLQ, was used in southern Arabia and is preserved today in Ethiopic.[16] Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.

The English alphabet comes from the Latin alphabet (it is even often still called the Latin alphabet), which in turn comes from the Greek alphabet. All modern alphabets are most probably in some way descended from the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet, which probably originated around 2100-1800 BC, but whose ordering is unknown. The Greek alphabet developed from Proto-Sinaitic through Phoenician. Many times in between Proto-Sinaitic and English, letters have been added and removed. W, U, and J are among the most recent additions, which did not exist in classical Latin.

The first letters or proto-letters were taken by the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet from non-alphabetic Egyptian hieroglyphs, which were mostly ideograms, small depictions of objects. Note that these hieroglyphs were used in an entirely different way—the Egyptians didn't use them as alphabetical letters—, and so the order in Egyptian doesn't tell us much about the order in alphabets. Perhaps there was a logical sequence in those earliest forms, but that is unknown; it might very well be an arbitrary order. For all practical purposes, the modern order is best considered random, though fixed.

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The Greek alphabet in turn derives from the Phoenician alphabet, which in turns derives from Egyptian hieroglyphs. I'd be curious when order first appeared... –  Noldorin Jan 22 '11 at 15:37
    
Note that while the source of the ordering may be historically arbitrary, the current order is now significant in an era of computers, code-based representation of text, and the need to 'sort' words and phrases. –  Phrogz Jan 22 '11 at 23:13
    
@Cerberus: Your history on the Egyptian alphabet is slightly misinformed I think. The late form of Egyptian hieroglyphs (they actually had two writing systems) do represent an alphabet (alongside logographs), so the Egyptians (and not the Proto-Sinaitic peoples), should be credited with invention of the alphabet. The rest of your post is very good. :) –  Noldorin Jan 23 '11 at 19:10
    
Also, note that a similar thing happened with numerals. In the West we often credit the Arabs with developing the numerals 0 - 9 and their uses in the denary system. In fact, the ancient Hindus invented this system, while the Arabs just transported it to us (in a slightly altered form). Similarly, the Semites transported the Egyptian invention of the alphabet to the rest of the world, altering it in the process. –  Noldorin Jan 23 '11 at 19:13
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So in summary, it's just an arbitrary order carried over from history; there's no rationale. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 24 '11 at 5:50

The ancient Greek Ionian numerals used the position of a letter in the Greek alphabet for its value, i.e. αʹ = 1, βʹ = 2, γʹ = 3, etc.

This is evidence Greek letters had a fixed sequence as of the 4th century BC. As @Cerberus pointed out, the sequence was carried into the Latin, and hence English, alphabet.

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Interesting! So the ordering goes back at least as far as Ancient Greek times. –  Noldorin Jan 23 '11 at 16:22
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@Noldorin: It goes back at least as far as the Ugaritic alphabets: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugaritic_alphabet#Abecedaries –  Cerberus Jan 23 '11 at 16:53
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Note that Greek also had another, older numeral system, still in use in the classical era, in which each digit was represented by the first letter of its Greek name: the pi for penta (5), the delta for de(u)ka (10), eta (100), chi (1000), mu (10,000); then they made 50 by putting a small delta inside a pi, etc; the number 5073 would be: pi(chi) pi(delta) delta delta |||. The number 1 was a vertical line, as in most languages. –  Cerberus Jan 23 '11 at 19:32

Egyptian hieroglyphs were narrowed down to less than 30-ish, and other people like the Greeks narrowed it down even further as they did not use some letters. Z used to be next to G (or instead of), so when it was re-added it was added to the end. This may be of interest.

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