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?


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

  • 3
    @Jasper Loy: Only one English alphabet. :)
    – Robusto
    Jan 22, 2011 at 3:49
  • 3
    @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, 2011 at 5:19
  • 1
    +1 Good question in fact. The history on this is no clear.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 22, 2011 at 15:35
  • 6
    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, 2011 at 16:07
  • 4
    @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. Jan 24, 2011 at 18:58

4 Answers 4


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 meaningless, though fixed.

Note that the Arabic script is also descended from Phoenician, and its alphabet uses the same order similar to our own.

  • 3
    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, 2011 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, 2011 at 23:13
  • 1
    @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, 2011 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, 2011 at 19:13
  • 4
    So in summary, it's just an arbitrary order carried over from history; there's no rationale. Jan 24, 2011 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.

  • Interesting! So the ordering goes back at least as far as Ancient Greek times.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 23, 2011 at 16:22
  • 1
    @Noldorin: It goes back at least as far as the Ugaritic alphabets: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugaritic_alphabet#Abecedaries Jan 23, 2011 at 16:53
  • 1
    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. Jan 23, 2011 at 19:32
  • Every language that used the variants of the Ox-House-Camel-Door version of the Semitic alphabet used the alphabetic order to represent numbers. The Romans did too, but theirs were specialized letters with specialized meanings not depending on alphabetic order. After all, they were engineers, even if they did have to use Roman numerals (think about that). Jun 23, 2019 at 13:59

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.

  • G is just C with a line added; I have no idea why it was placed alphabetically where it was; you would think the Romans would have placed it next to C or K. Aug 4, 2016 at 17:31

Interestingly, there does seem to be some logic and planning behind the distribution of the vowels. Whether the consonants also show any planning in their distribution is not quite so clear, though I think there are signs of intentional regularity and grouping of the consonants.

Firstly, the vowels occur at almost regular intervals:


The regularity becomes more evident if we write the alphabet as the Romans wrote it. They had no J or K; they wrote V, not U; they had no W; and I think they had no X, Y or Z. Thus:


They used V for a sound that was sometimes "oo" and sometimes "w", so to them V was a vowel. All the other vowels are separated by 3 consonants; maybe they put the vowel V at the end instead of after R so that the alphabet began and ended with a vowel?

Secondly, there seems to be some intentional logic in the order of those vowels (A E I O U), when pronounced as the Romans did, and as most European languages still pronounce them: it follows at least approximately a circuit around the mouth. The vowels are partly defined by where the forward hump of the tongue is. Roman A had the hump of the tongue drawn back and low down; Roman E had the hump forward and medium high; Roman I had the hump about as far forward and high as it could go; Roman O and V (the latter pronounced oo) had the hump further back, but I am a bit vague about how far back and how high or low.

Thirdly, I think there are some weak signs of planning in the order and grouping of the consonants. BC (the C being pronounced /k/, not /s/ in Roman times) compares with FG: B is a bilabial plosive, F has at times been pronounced as bilabial approximant, meaning it has at least sometimes been pronounced by simply blowing through slightly parted lips. (In fact this is how Dr Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language describes the pronunciation of F in the English of his day!!). C is a voiceless velar plosive, G (in the Roman /g/ pronunciation as in the English word "get") is a voiced velar plosive. How D might be compared to H I do not know. Then L, M and N are all voiced sounds that can be pronounced continuously with no sound change. (I do not know how a linguist would express that ...) Finally, P, Q, R, S and T may just be a collection of left-over consonants. The appearance of logic in the arrangement of the consonants seems decidedly less convincing to me than for the vowels, but that may be due to the difficulty of arranging consonants in any kind of order, especially before the days of X-rays, since no one could see inside anyone's mouth to be sure what was going on.

  • What an interesting answer! The part about the pattern in where the different vowel sounds are produced really stands out as more than just coincidence. By the way, I'm pretty sure the term for 'continuous' consonants like "L," "M" and "N" is sonorants. Feb 23 at 5:40