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Why Are the Letters in ABC Order?

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The alphabet, as best as historians can tell, got its start in ancient Egypt sometime in the Middle Bronze Age, but not with the Egyptians. They were, at the time, writing with a set of hieroglyphs that were used both as representations of the consonants of their language and as logographs (a logograph or logogram is a letter, symbol, or sign used to represent an entire word). While the glyphs were sort of alphabetic in nature, they were used more for their logographic component than as “letters.”

It was either Canaanite workers living on the Sinai Peninsula in the 19th century BC or Semitic workers living in Central Egypt in the 15th century BC who created the first purely alphabetic script. Over the next few centuries, this alphabet spread through the rest of the Middle East and into Europe. Almost all subsequent alphabets in the Western world have either descended from it, or been inspired by or adapted from one of its descendants.

The first people to extensively use the alphabet as it emerged from Egypt were the Phoenicians, who ruled a small empire of maritime city-states and colonies around the Mediterranean. Their extensive use of the alphabet in business dealings throughout their vast trade network led to its quick spread throughout the Mediterranean region — later versions were called the Phoenician alphabet.

The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet sometime in the 8th century BC or earlier, keeping the order and adapting it for use with their own language. (For example, the Phoenician alphabet did not have letters representing vowel sounds, which were important in the Greek language and had to be added). After they had worked out the finer points of their new alphabet, Greeks living on the Italian peninsula came in contact with a tribe known as the Latins. Sometime in the 5th century BC, the tribe adopted writing from the Greeks and another tribe called the Etruscans, choosing and mixing letters from the two alphabets as they needed.

The Latins would expand in population, geographic size, and cultural influence over the centuries, creating a little empire called Rome. As they conquered most of Europe, the Romans took their alphabet with them and spread it to new lands. Even when the empire contracted and fell, the Latin alphabet survived with the people of former Roman lands. The alphabet was adapted to some native languages and exerted influence on others — most notably for us, Old English, which gave rise to Middle English and the Modern English we use today.

Simple as ABC

For all the adaptations and mutations, the alphabet's order of letters has been relatively stable. In the 1920s, archaeologists found a dozen stone tablets used in a school in Ugarit, a city in what is now Syria, that are from the fourteenth century BC and preserve two orders of the Ugaritic alphabet. One, the "Northern Semitic order" is related to the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets and features bits and pieces of an order familiar to Modern English speakers: a, b…g, hl, m…q,r.

As the alphabet traveled around the world, those who adopted it did very little to change the basic order. Looking at this animation from the University of Maryland, you can see how things have remained largely the same between the Phoenicians and Latin. Long strings of letters, like abcdef, remain untouched for thousands of years.

So the order has ancient roots, but where does it come from?

I hate to disappoint you, but we're really not sure. The practice of having the letters in an established order makes sense: It’s easier to teach and to learn. Why some ancient people put them in that specific order, though, is unknown. Whoever did it didn’t leave any record that we know of explaining why they lined the letters up like that.

But this isn’t to say we’re at a total loss. Scholars have plenty of hypotheses about the order, relating to everything from astrology, musical scales, numbers, and poetry. Here are some of the ideas that have floated around among alphabet academics:

The first alphabet developed in Egypt might have been adapted from some part of the enormous system of Egyptian hieroglyphics, so it could be that the Egyptian system informed the order, too.
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The ancient order was a long mnemonic device. Early users strung the letters together to correspond to the words of a mnemonic sentence or storyline.
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In Semitic Writing: From Pictograph to Alphabet GR Driver touches on several explanations he’s come across, from “astral or lunar theories” to the order “representing a didactic poem” or being “based on the notation of the Sumerian musical scales.”
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David Diringer, in The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, suggests that there’s no reason at all: “…it is highly probable that the matter has no particular significance...There is some appearance of phonetic grouping in the order of the letters of the North Semitic alphabet, but this may be accidental.”
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The alphabet may have had a numerical component, and the order is reverse-engineered to the follow and match the numbers that the letters represented for merchants. Later civilizations hung on to the obsolete order for convenience’s sake.

While that’s pretty much the best we can do with the core of the order, we do have a better handle on the way a few specific letters fell into their places. New additions to an adopted alphabet always seem to get added to the end of the line, leading to x, y and z bringing up the rear.

When the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician letters, they added their own homemade letters to the end, like the ancestral X. When Alexander the Great’s empire came in contact with Rome later on, the Romans borrowed a few Greek words and adapted their alphabet again in order to write them. They borrowed Y and Z, which they’d kicked to the curb the first time around, and tacked them onto the end of the alphabet.

What's the Name of That (Alphabet) Song?

The sing-songy order lends itself to music so well that some have asked if the letters were arranged that way to fit the alphabet song. But the ancient order was only first set to the tune and copyrighted in the mid-1830s. Some sources have the original title as "The ABC: A German Air With Variations for the Flute With an Easy Accompaniment for the Piano Forte," while others, including The Straight Dope, say it was called "The Schoolmaster."

The melody of the alphabet song is older and has also been used in “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the German “Ist das nicht ein Schnitzelbank?” and French “Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman.” This French country song may be its earliest appearance, dating to 1761.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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