EREWITH we offer a foretaste of Jack Lynch's You Could Look It Up, in an extract kindly furnished by the author. The book has attracted the notice of a wide range of readers and received multitudinous excellent reviews. We trust it will be much appreciated by DSNA people everywhere. It is readily available at all bookstores, whether brick-and-mortar or online.
Chapter 3½ - Easy as ABC: The Rise (and Fall?) of Alphabetical Order
AMUEL Johnson’s first definition of dictionary is “A book containing the words of any language in alphabetical order, with explanations of their meaning.” But many early dictionaries were not alphabetical because there was not yet an alphabet.
Writing is more than five thousand years old: Mesopotamians were using their cuneiform script around 3300 BCE, and Egyptian hieroglyphs followed about a century later. But these systems were not alphabets. A symbol in either system could stand for an entire word, or sometimes a syllable, but not a single sound. The Sumerians used around a thousand different cuneiform symbols, the Egyptians around five thousand hieroglyphs. Because there were so many, there was no order to them. The modern Chinese language works the same way: with nearly 50,000 characters, no one could be expected to memorize them in any arbitrary order.
Reference books from the ancient world therefore cannot count on any obvious order. Urra = hubullu is, by some accounts, the oldest dictionary in the world. But it has no handy thumb-tabs bearing the letters of the alphabet; instead it is organized thematically, and the themes strike moderns as distinctly eccentric. Trees appear on tablet 3, but other plants on tablet 17; most animals are on tablets 13–14, but birds and fish show up on tablet 18.1 It must have made sense to its original users, and serves as a reminder that our familiar ways of looking at the universe are not the only ways.
Although both cuneiform and hieroglyphics eventually assumed some of the features of alphabets, most historians say the first true alphabet arose among the Semitic peoples of central Egypt around 2000 BCE. It was adapted from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and we can still make out increasingly stylized versions of the original forms in some of the letters. But the system took on a new logic: a symbol represented not a word, not a syllable, but an individual phoneme. By the time it reached Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) around 1050 BCE, there was no longer any obvious resemblance between the letter forms and the pictures from which they evolved, and all pretense to being pictographic was abandoned. Symbols now represented not things but sounds. They had become an alphabet, achieving both economy and flexibility.
Phoenicians were the great traders of the ancient Mediterranean. Their ships could be found everywhere, and their alphabet came along for the ride. From the Phoenician alphabet came the Aramaic alphabet, which in turn spawned modern Hebrew and Arabic. Phoenician also produced the Greek alphabet, which gave birth to the Latin alphabet, which in turn is the basis of our the Western European languages (as well as many languages outside Europe). The Cyrillic alphabet, too, came (much later) out of the Greek.
Some of the alphabet’s advantages must have been immediately obvious—it is much easier to learn to read with an alphabet than with a logographic system. But one benefit came only much later—alphabetical order. The alphabet need not be in any order at all: there is no reason alpha should come before beta. We could arrange the letters as QWERTY or FUTHORC or PYFGCRL or MARESIDOT, but for a still-unknown reason we settled on ABCDEFG.
It was a long time before anyone used this order for practical purposes. Ancient Greeks and Romans had ordered alphabets, but hardly ever used that order in reference books. Alphabetical order started to appear in regularly reference books in Europe in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries,2 but readers still needed to have it explained to them. In 1286, Johannes Balbus’s Catholicon wrote, “I will discuss amo before bibo because a is the first letter of amo and b is the first letter of bibo and a is before b in the alphabet.”3 More than three hundred years later, in 1604, alphabetical order was still so alien to English readers that Robert Cawdrey had to explain its use. “If thou be desirous (gentle Reader) rightly and readily to vnderstand, and to profit by this Table,” he patiently advised, “then thou must learn the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand.” The reader should learn the alphabet “perfectly without booke”—by heart—”where euery Letter standeth: as (b) neere the beginning, (n) about the middest, and (t) towards the end.”4 Shakespeare’s contemporaries needed to be taught their ABCs.
Even after alphabetical order was familiar, many reference books were arranged topically or thematically, using the alphabet only within sections—so an encyclopedia’s section on trees might put ash before beech, but the trees were kept together. Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth century did people realize how difficult it was to come up with a taxonomy of knowledge more intuitive than the alphabet. Alphabetical order still had enemies, who hated the thought of subjecting all human knowledge—a field that was supposed to be rationally structured—to the tyranny of an arbitrary order. It felt like failure. As historian Peter Burke says, complete alphabetization “appears to have been adopted, originally at least, out of a sense of defeat by the forces of intellectual entropy at a time when new knowledge was coming into the system too fast to be digested or methodized.”5
Given the hardiness of alphabetical order for so many thousands of years, it will likely remain in use for a long time, and parents will continue to beam proudly at their children as they learn to recite the letters in order—something they have been doing to music in the Anglophone world since 1835, when Charles Bradlee published Louis Le Maire’s sheet music to “The A.B.C., a German Air with Variations for the Flute with an Easy Accompaniment for the Piano Forte.” (The “German Air” was actually lifted from an eighteenth-century French folksong, which had been adapted by Mozart, and had already shown up in English in 1806 as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”)
Still, alphabetical order occupies a less prominent place in our lives, especially in reference works, than it once did. Printed reference works need order because their information is spread through space—through pages and through volumes—and readers need help to navigate that space. In the electronic world, though, information takes up only a few molecules on a silicon chip or a few magnetized particles on a hard drive. There is an internal structure of the terabytes of information stored on Google’s servers—information must be structured if it’s to be found—but it’s not as if all the information related to aardvarks and abacuses is stored on one part of their servers, and the information on zydeco and zygotes is on another. The user has no reason to care how that information is organized on the hard drives, as long as a query turns up the appropriate information when it is needed. As electronic reference works continue to displace print, and as searches continue to displace browsing, the world may have less reason to care about their ABCs.
1 See Von Soden, The Ancient Orient, p.151
2 Witty, “Medieval Encyclopedias,” pp. 274–75.
3 Gleick, The Information, p.58.
4 Cawdrey, A Table Alphabeticall, sig. A4v.
5 Burke, A Social History of Knowledge, p. 110. See also Landau, Dictionaries, p.107.
- The initial letters in this posting come from Blount's 1656 Glossographia,
and Howell's 1660 Lexicon tetraglotton. -