How the alphabet won our hearts

Photo: Trevor Pritchard via Creative Commons

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Do you like lists? I do. Lists of books I’ve read, books I need to read, gigs I’ve been to, things I need to do this weekend. Sometimes the list is organized chronologically, sometimes thematically, occasionally alphabetically. My favorite latest list is of songs that drive me nuts because I’ve heard them too often. There’s God Save the Queen — not the Sex Pistols version but the original. It’s not as ubiquitous in British life as the Star Spangled Banner is the U.S., but it annoyingly pops up at moments when you don’t need to be reminded about nationhood. Then there’s a Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue, which me, my brother and a cousin once challenged ourselves to listen to for as long as possible. I don’t know why, it was a childhood thing. We spent the best part of a weekend doing it. Top of this list of my most supremely irritating tunes is this.

Audio of the Alphabet Song

Judith Flanders: I did learn the Alphabet Song and sang it very proudly. It’s a way of teaching us the letters. It doesn’t matter what order they come in as long as we know them all.

Patrick Cox: This is Judith Flanders, she’s a social historian. She thinks a lot about lists, and about the alphabet. What she said there about the order of the alphabet — that it doesn’t matter what order the letters come in — it doesn’t, right? It’s the order that we learn, but we could have just as easily learned a different order and that would be the alphabet. Unless you’re part of QAnon and obsess that Q is the 17th letter and then you count the number of flags at a Donald Trump media event and presto! It’s 17! Unless you’re reading meaning into alphabetical order, who cares?

So anyway from birth, from the year dot, the order of A to Z is drilled into us — or at least those of us who grow up speaking languages that use the Latin alphabet. Sometimes there are fewer or more letters, like in Danish where there are three extra vowels after Z. That blew my mind once upon a time. But A to Z and its slight variants: They feel natural.

Judith Flanders: We think there’s only one kind of alphabetical order. You know, you take a word and you look at all its letters and you put it in order.

Patrick Cox: And something else that feels natural but maybe isn’t? Dictionaries and encyclopedias that follow the rules of A to Z. In fact, alphabetical classification was conceived multiple times, always with different variations.

Judith Flanders: It’s something that has not been invented once, everybody said, “Hey, fab, great idea,” and done it ever after. But it was invented and reinvented over and over and over again. Time after time we see people explaining in the prefaces of their dictionaries how to use the dictionary. And making it perfectly clear that they thought they had invented this idea.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Today why the alphabet song is a permanent ear worm for so many of us. And how alphabetical order came to be the thing that it is today.

Patrick Cox: I have to tell you a little story because the timing is auspicious. My daughter — as we speak it’s a few minutes past nine in the morning here in Boston — and my daughter this morning is getting a Covid test at her high school. The school is just about to start in-person learning, so all of the kids are being tested. The testing started at 9:00am and everyone is given a time slot ahead of time. And the slots — they can be organized any kind of way, I suppose. They could be organized by grade, or guidance counsellor or the neighborhood where the kids live, which would be very convenient because you could bus people in at certain times from certain neighborhoods. But no, the kids are being summoned in for their Covid tests according to their surnames, A to Z. My kid is extremely upset with me because she has my name, Cox, which means she’s very close to the beginning of the alphabet, which means she’s had to set the alarm so she can be at school by 9:15, her slot is. So at least from her, today, alphabetic order gets a massive thumbs down.

Judith Flanders: Well, I had two different people tell me the traumas of their childhood, one of whom was named Anne Marie Adams, and consequently she said whether it was first or last name, she was always called first. The other whose name began with W the trauma of in the old days when exam results were mailed out in alphabetical order, the having to wait endlessly because she was W.

Patrick: Oh my! So she would have to wait days or weeks?

Judith Flanders: That’s right, her Adams friend would have had the results long before.

Patrick: OK, that’s ridiculous and a bit cruel. See what alphabetical order can do? So I asked Judith, when did this begin?

Judith Flanders: In one of the earliest places where we think alphabetical order might have been used, which was the Great Library of Alexandria in about 300 BCE, they used what today dictionary makers call “first letter alphabetical order,” which is really rudimentary. It simply means that you put all of the books by an author whose name begins with a layer. You put all the books by the author whose name begins with a B. Actually, I say books. I mean scrolls, of course, at that point over there. So all of the letters after the first letter don’t count and for centuries and centuries for for nearly a thousand years after that, that was more or less the way most people alphabetized — if they alphabetized at all, which mostly they didn’t.

Patrick Cox: Now, while scholars in the west were mostly not alphabetizing their scrolls, the Chinese, they weren’t alphabetizing because they had a different writing system. You wouldn’t know it from popular books about the history of writing. Like one, which I will not name which refers to the Mediterranean region as the “mother of writing,” and it also calls 15th century German innovator Johannes Gutenberg the “father of the printed word.” The Chinese would have a thing to say about that.

By the fourth century, Chinese characters, originally based on pictograms, were systematized. You could look up a character in a dictionary, just as you still can, according to its key character component, known as a radical, and then further defined by the number of strokes. If that sounds complicated, it is. I’ve tried. But if you are Chinese literate, it follows a logic and is straightforward. The Chinese were on their own path, and ridiculously ahead of the game.

Judith Flanders: And this is, truly, this is 800 years before alphabetical order begins to be the norm in Europe.

Patrick Cox: Part of this was down to technology. The early Chinese were using paper, for example.

Judith Flanders: They had printing with movable type, earlier they used ceramics or tin type much, much before Gutenberg did. And of course they had dictionaries centuries before Western scholars were producing Latin dictionaries, mostly in the 9th, 10th, 11th centuries.

Patrick Cox: OK So in Europe during this Medieval period there was classification, but this was religious Europe. Religion trumped language. It trumped everything.

Judith Flanders: You have from about the seventh century to the 13th century, you have this period of the great encyclopedias of the Middle Ages and they were almost entirely, I think, possibly entirely created by churchmen. These are the literate people of Western Europe, after all. In the 13th century, you have a clergyman named Vincent of Beauvais who creates this four-million-word encyclopedia called the Speculum Maius, the Great Mirror. And just to give you some idea of how long 4,000,000 words is War and Peace is about 400,000 words. So it’s ten times the length of war and peace written by one man. And yes, I guess, you don’t watch television. There’s time.

Patrick Cox: The manuscripts, they were TV. It’s just that only a tiny fraction of people had the means to watch it. And these medieval scholars, they told a story of the world using grand metaphors, like that one Judith mentions, the Speculum Maius, The Great Mirror

Judith Flanders: They are holding up a mirror to God’s creation. They are showing the reader the glory of God. And consequently, because it is a reflection of God’s creation, what you are doing is you are recreating the hierarchy of the world. So you begin not with angels, because angels actually begins with A but you begin with God because God creates the world. The idea that you would begin an encyclopedia and put God under D, Deus — sort of fourth letter down — there are two possibilities. If you did something that crazed, one, you’re a subversive and you are upending the hierarchy of the world, or two, you are very, very stupid.

Patrick Cox:

Haha, who would be so very stupid? Well, actually there was someone. There’s always someone, right? This guy’s name was Konrad of Mure. And in the late thirteen century he authored an encyclopedia called Fabularius. And it was different. The words and ideas he wrote about were organized alphabetically, up to the second syllable of each word, and then by the number of syllables.

Judith Flanders: I think it is probably the first one in alphabetical order. It’s the first one I have managed to locate. But one of the fun things about this is the few geeks that there are in the world who look at alphabetical order, everyone that I have read it says, “Oh, I found the first one.” “No, I found the first one!” “No, I found the first one!!” And of course, we’re all wrong. And we all find one slightly earlier than the one before. And I’m sure someone will find one that is earlier than Konrad.

Patrick Cox: The problem for Konrad was that virtually no one read his perfectly alphabetized tome. People — and by people, we’re talking about religious scholars — they just preferred encyclopedias that based not on form but content. The content they were invested in.

After the break, how alphabetic order finally broke through, give or take a setback at the Olympics.

Patrick: Do you like this podcast? It’s free — isn’t that great? Free podcasts. Amazing! Like everyone, we at Subtitle need to pay the bills. And one very small way you can help is by rating and reviewing us at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Just give us five stars — or one star, a star’s a star — and write a sentence saying how great or terrible or mediocre we are. I like the word mediocre, though I’m not suggesting really that you call us that. Please rate and review us. Thanks.

Patrick Cox: Fast forwarding now to what you might call the modern age. And you may be wondering — I was — about the Encyclopedia Britannica, which naively I thought was the first modern encyclopedia. Its first volume came out in the mid 18th century. Judith isn’t sure if it’s possible to identify a single encyclopedia and say that was the first modern one. But she says there was two really influential ones in the 18th century before the Britannica. The first one was Chambers Cyclopedia, the work of a man named Ephriam Chambers.

Judith Flanders: He was a tradesman. He saw that somebody had produced a sort of a scientific technical dictionary and he thought, hmm, I could do that more generally and make some money, which he did very successfully. His was in alphabetical order. And then following that came in France Diderot and D’alembert’s great Encyclopédie. The contributors included people like Voltaire and they were very influenced by Chambers, but didn’t really want to admit it because Chambers was a bit middle class. It was kind of embarrassing. They were intellectuals and Chambers wasn’t. But they really did have to admit that they had latched on to what he was doing.

Patrick Cox: There were still quite a few of these reluctant alphabeticists who believed that the value of knowledge was best conveyed in other ways, but who ultimately failed to come up an alternative way or organizing it. It was an existential crisis for some people — British poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge for one. He had his plans for an encyclopedia, which he laid out but never followed through on.

Judith Flanders: He was outraged by the Britannica. He thought it was a mess. He said it was a huge, “unconnected miscellany in an arrangement determined by the accident of initial letters.” I mean, it’s ridiculous. He thought that Apple should be on the first page just because it begins with an A. It’s ludicrous. And he thought that this breaking up of knowledge into separate pieces was damaging. He said it was like a mirror, but one that’s broken up. It’s broken into pieces and it’s on the ground. And so it shows you thousands of images, but none of them are complete.

Patrick Cox: This battle over knowledge — Judith says it struck at the heart of what progress was. Could humans evolve only if they’d had a classical education? Or was it possible to learn in a new way, from an encyclopedia that presented knowledge in a more neutral way?

Judith Flanders: it’s not teaching you things.It’s teaching you where to find out about things and how to look things up.

Patrick Cox: This give rise to an expression, an insult. A traditionalist might call somebody a “walking encyclopedia.”

Judith Flanders: It means you’re a know-it-all. It means your head is so stuffed full of knowledge, whereas you’re it in the 13th century, this would be a great term of praise. Here is a man who knows things.

Patrick Cox: That term was always an insult? That’s extraordinary. I mean you would have thought on the face of it, somebody like Thomas Edison might be described as a walking encyclopedia, not at all as an insult.

Judith Flanders: Well, I think that the insult was basically and again, this is when knowledge begins to divide up into humanities and science, and I suspect that it’s very much a kind of humanities sneer. Edison knows how to invent light bulbs. But does he know what Aristotle said about whatever?

Patrick Cox: So amid all this snobbishness about knowledge, our relationship to knowledge was changing. Encyclopedias were creating all information equally, Knowledge was replacing God, Knowledge was God. The value of knowledge was knowledge itself. The randomness of the alphabet. It downplayed moral judgment. Some attempts at betowing value on the alphabet came and went, and some stuck. Triple A rated stocks. A grades at school. But still. You can also undercut those values. A is also for Awful, abhorrent, atrocious. And down at the other end, Z can be for Zenith

By the 20th century, alphabetical order had prevailed. But as the world became more interconnected, there were complications. Like at the Olympics.

Judith Flanders: In 1921, when the regulations were first set down, it was almost as though the organizing committee, despite being European and therefore of several languages, never really thought about the fact that there are countries which do not have alphabetical order. So originally, the rules just said they come in, in alphabetical order, by country. Then gradually the rules changed to say they would come in in the alphabetical order of the language of the host country.

Patrick Cox: Okay, that’s doable, the committee thought. In a French speaking host country, for example, the United States would come in not as a U country, but as an E country, Etats Unis. We can handle that. But then came the 1964 Olympics.

Judith Flanders: It was the first Olympics to be held in a non-alphabetic-using country. It was in Japan, and they kind of just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, “Use English. It’s fine.” So that’s what happened. And it wasn’t until 1988 in Seoul that for the first time, a country used its own non-alphabetic ordering system. And in Hangul, the Korean script, it’s a syllabary. And the first syllable is what we would write as G-A, Ga. So Ghana came in first, followed by Gabon. And then in 2008, things got even crazier for us alphabetists because in Beijing they went back to that fourth century system of what is the primary radical and then counting the number of radicals in each ideogram for each country. And I must say, when I was reading about this, I had this sort of vision in my head of the American television network executives sitting in their little booth going insane, trying to work out where to put their advertising breaks so that they didn’t miss the states coming in.

Patrick Cox: Whether it’s down to the Olympics or down to a thousand other things, we in the West are more aware the other people use different scripts, different writing systems. The internet helped make us more aware of that. It also changed our own sense of alphabetical order.

Judith Flanders: With the arrival of online reference works where we no longer need to know whether all comes before or after and to look up somebody’s name in an encyclopedia, I suspect that our reliance on alphabetical order is diminishing. I can’t remember the last time I used a phone book. If I want to try and remember which politician is named Johnson, who might be the prime minister of England, but I can’t remember his first name, I just look it up online.

Patrick Cox: So today with the internet established but still in its infancy, are we returning to other forms of organizing words and ideas, something more value-based rather than by which silly letter they start with? I mean, especially in times of insecurity like now, we need to place value on things. Are we doing that? Will we in the future? I’m not sure.

Some things are best organized without the alphabet. It would be weird to list, say, your former lovers in alphabetical order. Verging on disturbing. Or friends or relatives. Families have trees to help us understand them, they don’t need letters.

But you know what, if it you don’t want to list say your favorite books alphabetically, your computer will do that for you. A to Z is everywhere online. We may not need to scroll through the letters, but the letters are there, in their perfect, meaningless order. You’d really have to be obsessive with a ton of time on your hands to change all the defaults inside your computer to force it to ignore the alphabet. The A to Z has you, whether you like it or not.

My kid by the way is still a victim of the alphabet though her tests are sometimes as late as 10am these days. Small mercies.

Thanks today to Judith Flanders. Her latest book is called A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order. It’s a great read.

Thanks also to Tina Tobey and Alyson Reed. Also to The World public radio program with Marco Werman, where every week day you can hear what’s going on not just in the US but all over the globe.

Subtitle is a member of Hub and Spoke audio collective, just and I want to recommend another Hub and Spoke podcast is Open Source with Christopher Lydon. I’ve been listening to Chris for years, he is one of the best interviewers of any time or era. I like every episode whether it’s on politics or culture — actually many eps hit that spot whether politics and culture intercept, One recent episode tackles competition origin stories of the United States. Nicole Hannah Jones is one of the guest — she’s behind the New York Times 1619 project. It’s so good. Listen to Open Source and the other Hub and Spoke podcasts.

Thanks for listening. Remember we’re on Twitter. Hit us up with questions. And don’t forget to rate and review us. Thanks!

See you next time.

Subtitle is a production of Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America. It receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Follow Subtitle on Twitter here and Patrick Cox here.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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