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, h…l, 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.