Alphabetical Musings

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:




14 thoughts on “Alphabetical Musings

  1. Gee, you started something here, dear Cat. I find myself delving into a lot about what wiki has to say about this subject. For instance I was interested to get the word ‘alphabet’ explained. This is what I found in wiki:

    The English word alphabet came into Middle English from the Late Latin word alphabetum, which in turn originated in the Greek ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos), from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.[4] Alpha and beta in turn came from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet, and originally meant ox
    and house respectively.”
    Further on there’s a whole lot to study under “History of the alphabet”:

    I am wondering whether today’s teachers do have it a bit easier if a child asks a lot of questions. Couldn’t they for instance say: ” Look it up in wikipedia and then tell us all about it!” Should not good teachers help the students by guiding them to the relevant information and encourage them to give other students bits of interesting information. Of course the teacher would have to check that the information is as accurate as possible. Surely the teacher cannot know absolutely everything right from the start but could aim to find out as much as possible! I think you were a very smart child, Cat, that you caught on to it that teachers do not know everything. 🙂

    th, sh, ch, these are sounds that do make sense to me the way they are written. Do you mean, Cat, you could imagine that another written letter could be invented for these sounds? How would you pronounce these new letters? Right now, when you spell “th” you say “t (and) h”. Would you then pronounce this new letter for “th” like we pronounce “the”? Somehow it does sound a bit complicated to me. But maybe I misunderstood something here?

    • Glad I got your interest, Uta. My teacher could have looked it up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but I think she was tired of me asking questions that nobody else did :-D. The letter thorn looks a bit lil a P and was pronounced “th”. Scribes later wrote it like a Y, which is why we get “ye olde shoppe” and “yt” for “that” in old mss. It was dropped because of the confusion with the letter Y and replaced by th. The letter Yogh was sounded something like the German ch in Bach, but was voiced, It was replaced by gh in worlds like rough, laugh, through etc. So a single letter was replaced by a digraph i.e. 2 letters. In the international phonetic alphabet there is a symbol for the sh sound, like a long S which we could adopt instead of sh, and it wouldn’t be hard to find a symbol for the ch sound. Maybe a rune?

      • Most people use mobiles these days for sending messages. As far as I know a lot of letters are being dropped to be able to send the messages as quickly as possible. Expressions like LOL do they come up because of the mobile?

      • Txt msg style is indeed in the dame tradition as Tiro’s notes – I almost included a paragraph on it but decided it was too far off course.

      • Maybe you’d like to write a follow up post about it, Cat? Text messages are so common these days, that I wonder if maybe people forget how to write letters? But you’re right, this is a different subject. It just shows with our newly developed means of communication language and writing might change more quickly than ever before. It seems to me that in the past changes did not occur as quickly. Do you think that in future our alphabet might change or will it be more or less still the same in three thousand years? I know, this is a silly question. I just have a feeling that in our civilization changes maybe come about at too great a speed!
        I think we can get a lot out of it by studying how things developed in the past.

  2. I was wondering the other day, will the modern generation have to know the alphabet?
    When you can google for a definition or look up something on-line; there is no need anymore to know how to flick through a dictionary or encyclopaedia in alphabetical order.

  3. Lkng fwd to yr blog on txt msg

    LOL & LOL


    NB: in the 1960ies @ NASA LOL stood for “little old ladies”, an inofficial reference to the mostly female workers who physically wove computer code into circuit boards by threading up little coal pearls onto very fine copper wires. As this required very agile fingers, this work was mostly performed by women.

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