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October 4th, 2002


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04:39 am - The invention of alphabetical order (for addedentry)
The references that I have found suggest that the reasons behind the invention of alphabetical order in the first alphabet have been lost and that the reasons for changes in alphabetical order from alphabet to alphabet have reflected the changes in sounds required in the alphabet's vocabulary.

In investigating this subject, I first took a shot at getting a home run by looking at "The Straight Dope". This is regarded by many as the premier "notes and queries"-type column. Visiting its archives page and searching for "alphabet" doesn't reveal that the omniscient Cecil Adams has tackled this one - or, at least, if he has, it isn't available in his archives. The closest we get is the second half of this, about the differences between I and J and between U and V. No good.

So to more conventional Googling. The first search to bear fruit was for "alphabetical order" history origin letters, leading to a three-page article on The Earliest Evidence of an Alphabetical Order. That's the what, but not the why. Already you can see there is a reasonable degree of similarity between the alphabetical order suggested there and that of the Greek alphabet. A key resource listed in the bibliography of that resource was "The Alphabet Labyrinth", by J. Drucker in 1997 - but more of that later.

Another interesting result from that Google was found on the instructions for Mirror History Dictionary, a project which attempts to categorise words from many languages. The author of that site cannot offer a definite conclusion, but gives the conclusion that (s)he has spent time thinking about it. The best (s)he offers is "Is it possible that the Greek and Hebrew alphabets originally told a story? This becomes a possibility when you consider that each letter originally had a name attached to it. In essence, a word! In that case the arrangement of letters might illustrate nothing more than the order of words in a sentence, or a story." Not a good sign that progress is probable.

So we return to looking for "The Alphabet Labyrinth". A search for this reveals a very disappointing three hits and no record on Amazon. However, one of them is this page on alphabet origins (beware: on FortuneCity and so pops up ads, Gator launchers and the like at a disgusting rate on Windows MSIE). About a fifth of the way down the page is a section on Ugaritic (the language of the Syrian coastal city of Ugarit) and Letter Order. I can do no better than quote the best answer I have been able to find to the original question.

"There is a remarkably difference between the South Arabian tradition and the West Semitic: the letter ordering. The South Arabian alphabet has the order h, l, h, m, etc..., while West Semitic has the order ', b, g, d, etc.

No one is sure why those particular sequences of letters. Maybe it is some mnemonic device that we no longer understand."


Author Steve Bett goes on to speculate that "I believe that the early alphabets and proto-alphabets had a reference in addition to a name, a sound, and a shape. For some reason, no one has bothered to catalog the references or possible references of the letter shapes. If we are dealing with acrophonic phoneticized pictograms, these will be language specific. You can't move a picture name across a linguistic boundary any better than you can a number name. If we can identify what the phonogram shape is a picture of, then we might be able to make some sense out of the sound assignments in Linear B, the Byblos Syllabary, hieroglyphics, and the Semitic letter shapes that don't seem to have a reference."

This is the best answer I have been able to find to the question, but not wholly satisfactory.

A search for "The Alphabet Labyrinth" on abebooks.com, the premier second-hand books reference, suggests that part of the problem may be that we have been looking for the wrong title. The book referred to above is actually called The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Alphabet in History, Mysticism and Imagination and remains in print in paperback, ISBN: 0500280681. £16.95 from its British publishers, Thames and Hudson. (A more expensive alternative, possibly considered inferior, is The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. ISBN: 8121507480.)

Amazon will let you look at some of the pages from "The Alphabetic Labyrinth" - looking at the contents page does not make it particularly clear to what extent the book covers the invention of alphabetical order and the index makes it no clearer. On the whole, I get the impression that Professor Johanna Drucker approaches the issue from the visual art side of things, rather than the ordering side of things. Certainly this appears to be the case based on the syllabus of the course she taught in Spring.

Of course, you could always send her e-mail and ask...
Well, this took rather more like two hours than one and didn't come up with a particularly satisfactory answer, but it was fun. If I were to spend another hour or two on the topic then I would concentrate on the changes in alphabetical order from alphabet to alphabet. However, the links above should give you more information on the latter half of the subject.

It also strikes me that I probably could have got about as good an answer by sticking a little payment up for grabs on Google Answers and waiting. This would have cost me US$2.50. Evidently I value my time at somewhat less than US$2.50/hour. :-)

In general: yesterday was a hard day, but it did pick up towards the end. Overnight, I had a very 1995 dream: Frank Bruno won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship and I was playing even-then-a-classic C64 game Wizball. (Shades of worrals's dreams, indeed.) Today has been rather easier, largely having been distracted by helping Dad with some manual work - monkeying about on the roof of the garden shed.

A little puzzle news: Wei-Hwa Huang only finished twentieth in the World Puzzle Championships, but was apparently very ill at the start. It happens to us all, but the illness that knocked Wei-Hwa down to 20th must have been far worse than that which knocked me up to 72nd. (I am terrible at coping with even a slight cold. Ask WPC 2001 roommate ericklendl.) Oh, and PQRST 3 runs from the 12th to 19th of October. The prospect is for ten interesting, difficult but solvable puzzles.
Current Mood: unhot
Current Music: Leonard Nimoy, "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" (kinda catchy!)

(10 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:zorac
Date:October 4th, 2002 12:52 am (UTC)

Interesting stuff.

(Link)
You want to be careful with the vocal stylings of those ex-trekkies, though. You might find yourself in Bill Shatner territory and his impressively bad rendition of "Mr. Tambourine Man"...
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 4th, 2002 11:26 am (UTC)

Re: Interesting stuff.

(Link)
Or, as it appeared on the album cover, Mr Tambo Urine Man.

*wonders when she ever told Chris about her dreams. Playing Wizball (http://www.larwe.com/museum/arc_wizball.html) is indeed the kind of thing I get up to in my sleep, though I would have dreamed it on an Atari ST*

/~worrals
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:October 4th, 2002 06:17 pm (UTC)

Re: Interesting stuff.

(Link)
Approximately the end of July. :-)
[User Picture]
From:bateleur
Date:October 4th, 2002 01:32 am (UTC)

Straight Dope

(Link)
Personally I wouldn't listen to a word that Straight Dope says. Why not ? Because to judge the quality of a source of information it's a good idea to read that source's comments on something you already know about. And this article is the worst kind of mindless populist drivel, so 1/10 and straight to the trashcan with the entire site. (The 1/10 was for the trivia about GG being a violinist !)
[User Picture]
From:quiz_master_man
Date:October 4th, 2002 09:47 am (UTC)
(Link)
First of all, the Straight Dope article about D&D linked above was written more than 20 years ago, and is probably by a different author that the current column has. (Most of the articles on the website have been update to keep up with the changing times, unfortunately.) I've found "nonstop mathematical finagling that would constipate Einstein" a very useful phrase.

Second, David Feldman covers the question of alphabetical order in his first book, Imponderables, which is still in print in one form or another. My copies of both books are locked in a storage unit in another town right now, and I traded the x-ray vision for the super memory when I got the Jeopardy! call. Unfortunately, after Jeopardy! I traded the super-memory for the bulletproof skin, so I can't remember what Feldman said anymore, and I can't read books locked in storage units in other towns.

-Myron
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:October 4th, 2002 06:20 pm (UTC)
(Link)
BANG!

(notes lack of effect)

Wow, the bulletproof skin works, too. Not bad. Not bad at all. Is it animalproof as well? Might come in handy when you go on Fear Factor.
[User Picture]
From:verlaine
Date:October 6th, 2002 07:05 am (UTC)

Written 20 years ago?

(Link)

Umm... but doesn't it specifically refer to a product that is being released in 1996?

Actually, I found that article pretty funny, and a good synopsis of what is wrong with the way a lot of people (used to) play D&D. Okay, it is a little bit cruel not to mention that there are alternative ways of playing roleplaying games that don't get bogged down in the anal-retentive wargame element, but I don't think there was anything in there that wasn't at least *partially* fair.
[User Picture]
From:quiz_master_man
Date:October 8th, 2002 05:14 pm (UTC)

Re: Written 20 years ago?

(Link)
That's what the mangled sentence with the word "update" instead of "updated" was attempting to correct for. This column was featured without the last couple of paragraphs in the first "Straight Dope" collection, released in the mid-80s. Zotti edited, but many of the earlier columns were from the first editor. They've also taken the date off this one, so I can't tell.

-Myron
[User Picture]
From:addedentry
Date:October 4th, 2002 02:43 pm (UTC)

Alpha Bravo!

(Link)
Smart. It was cruel to set a question I suspected didn't have a definite answer, but imagine your dissatisfaction had three quarters of an hour of research yielded only '42'. The trick with a web search in this case is constructing a phrase that finds anything at all relevant. Those are some kooky sites you found, but their conjectures are the best we've got: I'll settle for the order being some mnemonic or reference now lost. Would buying you a drink in Middlesbrough equate to $2.50?

'The Alphabetic Labyrinth' is indeed a lovely book and indeed concentrates on the visual and symbolic aspects - letters as pictures. I'll chase the Feldman ref. 'Malarky' could have been a good alternative to 'jiggery-pokery', no?

Bilbo! (Bilbo!)
[User Picture]
From:jiggery_pokery
Date:October 4th, 2002 06:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Alpha Bravo!

(Link)
Honour is satisfied already - no need for drinks or changemaking on anyone's part. (Though I'll have an OJ if you're buying, thanks.) :-)

Many thanks for an interesting task; I don't know whether I concentrated on the "right" part of the question for your interests. If I had known you were familiar with TAL then I might not have gone into as much detail about it.

Not sure whether "malarky" has the same sort of international euphonious appeal as jiggery-pokery. It always strikes me as a north-western sort of word.

Interesting imponderables...

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