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Why Are the Letters in ABC Order?

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
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
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Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

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
Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
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Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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