Saturday, 9 June 2007

Liwvi rh rnkligzmg...

When I was four, and just freshly started on the road of formal education, I was presented with a large sheet of paper, a brush and an array of brightly coloured paints. My task was to paint a picture to take home. So I did. I painted a series of lines, as parallel as I could manage, using every colour of poster paint available to me, in the order in which they appeared on the table, from top to bottom and left to right. The order was important. My painting had the order. Therefore it was really, really good. That much was obvious to my young, little brain.

As I recall, my mother was less impressed with my artistic enterprises. I can recall my confusion and disappointment at her response when I proudly showed her my creation of a series of apparently random, not-very-parallel lines. She gently suggested I should try some flowers or people next time*. I didn't then have the vocabulary to articulate that it wasn't supposed to be a picture of something, but instead represented the (on reflection, probably completely arbitrary) order in which the paints had been put on the table, so instead, I resorted to feeling confused, somewhat flummoxed and rather frustrated that she didn't understand the significance. The order was important. Flowers and people didn't have the order or pattern. They were chaotic and messy. Therefore the lines were better. She didn’t understand that. Order is important.

I was reminded of this last weekend when, stuck in traffic with a friend, it occurred to me that alphabetical order was rather arbitrary and meaningless. If I so wished, I could re-arrange the alphabet and, other than upsetting a lot of librarians and other people who like to file things in arbitrary orders, it wouldn't make much difference to anything.

This realization disturbed me greatly. I'd accepted the concept of the alphabet having an order. All the languages I’ve ever tried to learn (e.g. English, French, German, Swahili, Spanish, Italian) came with an alphabet which, give or take a few letters, came in the same order as the Greek alphabet. Despite the widespread acceptance of this alphabetical order, it does not appear to possess any innate order, in the sense that the series of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, …, has order. C is no larger than B. It is no more a consonant. Alphabetical order might be better described as alphabetical disorder. Vowels and consonants appear randomly scattered throughout the alphabet. Alphabetical order - what order? What rationale is there for the order in which the letters appear??

Years ago I would probably have gone to the library and done battle with the Dewey decimal system (incidentally, did you know it has its own blog? Riveting stuff!) to find an answer, and would probably have been disappointed. Now, of course, I turn to the trusty steed that is the internet to enlighten me. I asked Google. I scoured Wikipedia. I suffered information overload which, whilst learning about the International Phonetic Alphabet and the origin of Arabic numerals is all very interesting, a couple of hours later still didn’t quite answer my questions**. I assume there must be a reason why someone first put those letters in that order and called it the alphabet (alpha, beta…) If there is a neat, concise reason why the Greeks and their alphabetically-minded predecessors ordered their letters in that way, no-one appears to be sharing it with the world at large. Is it a conspiracy?

*Being twenty-something years older, I can now appreciate that a painting of flowers would have looked better on the kitchen wall, and am less bewildered by my mother's response. I think I finally obliged a few years later and painted some sunflowers. I also got slightly less concerned about order and now live in a happy state of choas.

**Yes, I realize this is another fine example of a geek moment.


jclary said...

I wondered the same thing for quite some time.

I think you'll find that independent numbers are a relatively recent invention and that previously the letters of the old alphabets (greek, hebrew, aramaic, phonecian and their predecessors) doubled as numeric values and were used as such for accounting and other purposes. Wikipedia shows these numeric associations for a variety of alphabets.

Those alphabets are ordered essentially by the numeric values of the letters although there are some complications since Hebrew, for instance, didn't have any vowels until relatively recent history.

I'd hazard a guess that some of the vowels originated as accented (with various marks) consonants and were placed before or after those consonants but that's pure conjecture on my part.

It's probably all quite muddled by now but the letters with numeric values tend to still be in the right order with other letters with no numeric value shoved in seemingly arbitrarily in every alphabet I've looked at including cyrillic which may derive from greek, hebrew and slavic alphabets.

All of these related alphabets count 1-9x1, 1-9x10 and 1-9x100.

Interestingly, there are numeric "plays on words" in the bible by interchanging numeric and phonemic values for things. 666 was rather explicit but there are quite a few other subtle ones that aren't apparent in translations.

But Why? said...

Thanks. I had a good scout round Wikipedia when I was writing this post, but even with the assignment of value to letters, the order of the alphabet remains inherently arbitrary (why that particular value with that letter?). There's a bit of me that wishes that wasn't the case.