You’re pretty much aware with your ABC. Can you say your ABC? Sure! Say it and get a candy. Yeah, you did. Good job! Pretty easy. But here’s the catch: why is the alphabet ordered the way it is? The answer? No one really knows. Never mind, its ordering has nothing to do with how you understand the vocabulary used in a language, or its grammar. Nevertheless, from a historical viewpoint, the order of the alphabet is sort of like, well, its always been that way.
Related media: The Alphabet – Origins Of Writing – Extra History
Once Upon All Languages
Let’s start from the very beginning — or at least when languages became a practice, with the development of writing. Most prehistoric civilizations are largely depicted as ones who didn’t write. For thousands of years, these four ancient civilizations developed writing solely without dependence from the other: namely, Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica. Anthropologists believe that every other writing system in history has been influenced by one of these four civilizations.
The English language you’re familiar was strongly influenced by the 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian system; but the development of alphabets wouldn’t be a thing until the Phoenician innovation of the pictograph-like writing came along, assigning independent sounds to individual symbols. This wasn’t until the 14th century B.C.E., and as you might have guessed — it was a really Big Deal! This innovation was revolutionary of its time, it made storytelling easier, promoted commerce, and massively increased the literacy rate of the population.
Here’s the catch: the Phoenician alphabet was only 19 characters, all being consonants — fair enough for an innovation of its time. This was a common feature among most ancient alphabets, they usually functioned as a shorthand for communication, and not as the ones you use today. The Greeks would later adopt this and add vowels, which was strongly influenced by the Etruscans, whose own would later evolve into the Latin alphabets that the Roman Empire would use widely throughout the world for centuries.
Whence Cometh The ‘ABC’?
From there, every civilization made revisions to the symbols while making sure the ordering structure of the system remains the same. This is the reason why most unrelated languages like Georgian and Urdu share similar underlying alphabetical characteristics with languages like English, French, Arabic, and Russian. Though much credit is given to the Phoenicians for ordering the ‘ABC’ we’re use to today, that was not the only thing that was. There are other languages that used similar origins, but have different alphabetic ordering today.
Ethiopic languages like Amharic, Tigrinya, and Ge’ez had a writing system which dates back to the 9th century B.C.E. and also had a different ordering system that runs something like:
H, L, M, Q, W, R, T, S, K, N, B, P, A, G, D, Z, Y
However, non-alphabetic Chinese writing systems such as Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Mongolian didn’t use the Phoenician alphabet as a reference. And as a matter of fact, had already been developed and an advanced in it’s use long before the Phoenicians came to the scene. It was until the rise of Genghis Khan’s led Mongol era that made the Phoenician writing system have a cultural influence in Eurasia, roughly two millennia later.
The ABC: The Order Of Life
Undoubtedly, Egyptian hieroglyphics is the most famous ancient writing, but was eventually phased out when Egypt during the rise of the Roman empire somewhere around 30 B.C.E. Mesoamerican writing systems had little influence in the Old World (the Afro-Eurasian continent) that’s pretty much lost and forgotten. In fact, there are over thousands of discoveries from ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Mesoamerican findings by archaeological surveys, but unfortunately, there are little known written text — though most of these writings were also pictographs, too.
However the order of the alphabets came to be, it seems we owe much of its ordering to the scribes who kept on refining their work by browsing for more writing systems, and eventually the ‘ABC’ became a thing as a result of centuries of writing evolution. What an origin story of how these words came to be.
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Fri, May 31, 2019.