Where does alphabetical order come from? It’s a question that has haunted me ever since I first started school, and typically, when I inquired in my infant innocence, I was told not to ask silly questions so eventually I realised my teachers didn’t know everything after all. It didn’t stop me wondering though, and I have never found a truly satisfactory answer. There are theories, of course. But the origins of our alphabet are lost in the mists of time, probably somewhere in Egypt, and it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure. It may have been a poem, a series of musical notes, a mnemonic, or a numerical sequence. Or something entirely different. Whatever the reason, apart from Sanskrit and futhorc runes, the earliest alphabets from which our modern abecedaries have developed also appear to place the letters in the familiar order. Very puzzling. It must have been something very powerful to have made such an impact.
A serious English language usage website states:” 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. Both orders have therefore been stable for at least 3000 years.“
Our modern English alphabet, like our language, has a rich and interesting history, with many ancestors contributing to it. Wikipedia informs us: “In the year 1011, a monk named Byrhtferð recorded the traditional order of the Old English alphabet. He listed the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet (including ampersand) first, then 5 additional English letters, starting with the Tironian note (⁊) an insular symbol for ‘and’:
A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z & ⁊Ƿ Þ Ð Æ”
Tironian notes, if you are wondering, are a form of shorthand allegedly invented by the Roman Marcus Tullius Tiro, who was Cicero’s scribe. If you have ever tried to read Cicero’s longwinded speeches, you will understand why a stenographic system was needed to record them.
This alphabet omits letters j, u and w but y and z have been tacked on at the end before the 5 we have lost.
We still use the ampersand (&) today, derived from the Latin word ‘et’ and more of Tiro’s notes that still survive are v. = versus and the ‘z’ in the abbreviation viz, meaning videlicet. The “insular symbol” (⁊ ) survives in Gaelic and Irish, serving the same purpose as the ampersand, and designated “insular” because it’s used on our islands.
The letters that Byrhtferth added last are called thorn, wynn, eth and ash. Another vowel, ethel, is missing from this eleventh century alphabet, although it survives under a different name in French in worlds like cœur and sœur. (You surely didn’t expect the French to call it by a name they can’t pronounce?) These letters that were borrowed or adapted from futhorc runes have disappeared in modern English, though the sounds they represent live on and are mostly nowadays symbolised by digraphs like th and gh as well as w (originally rendered as uu or vv). Some Welsh writers also still use the eth (ð), though others have replaced it by ‘dd’.
At the risk of being told to stop asking silly questions again, I wonder why we have “progressed” to using two letters instead of one, especially where we use ‘th’ to represent both the voiced and the unvoiced consonants which in the past were clearly distinguished by thorn and eth? And if we could now reinstate our lost ancient letters, why not add a couple more to replace the digraphs used for the sounds of ‘sh’ and ‘ch’?
A final thought. I know people called Bea, Kay, Jay, or Dee. The obsolete letters also have very pleasant sounding names that you could easily give to your children. I’d love to meet a family consisting of Thorn (þ), Eth (ð), Wynn (ƿ), Yogh (ȝ), Ash (æ), and Ethel (œ). Double-barrelled surname, of course: possibly Futhorc-Rune?
And if you are wondering about futhorc runes, here they are: