CLOSE
Original image

Why Are the Letters in ABC Order?

Original image

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.
*
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.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Does Having a Fever Make You Feel Cold?
Original image
iStock

During fever, why do we feel cold when our body temperature rises?

Nicole Van Groningen:

Anyone who has ever had the flu knows that fever isn’t uncomfortable because you feel hot—it’s uncomfortable because you feel freezing cold. You get goosebumps, you’re shivering, you’re piling on the covers.

Fever, also known as pyrexia, is defined as an elevation in body temperature above the normal range due to an increase in the body’s natural set point. Most people associate fever with infections, but fever can also frequently occur with autoimmune diseases, cancer, drug reactions, and even blood clots. Fever is not a direct result of these conditions, but rather a consequence of triggering the body’s inflammatory pathways. One key member of this inflammatory cascade is a group of molecules called pyrogens, which directly interact with the hypothalamus in the brain to produce fever.

The hypothalamus serves as the body’s thermostat. When triggered by pyrogens, the hypothalamus tells the body to generate heat by inducing shivering, goosebumps, and constriction of blood vessels near the surface of the skin. It even causes a subjective feeling of cold, which encourages behavioral responses to raise the body temperature, like reaching for the covers.

All of these things are adaptive when your body temperature falls below its usual set-point (about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which typically occurs in cold weather. But they become abnormal in the setting of fever, when your hypothalamus signals to the body to raise its temperature well above the normal range.

If pyrogens suddenly disappear from the bloodstream, as is the case with intermittent fevers, the hypothalamus all of a sudden senses that things are way too hot, and tells the body to kick in its usual cooling-off mechanisms. That’s why people sweat profusely when their fever “breaks.”

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

Original image
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do We Sing the National Anthem at Sporting Events?
Original image
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

In early September 1814, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet, accompanied American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner to negotiate a prisoner release with several officers of the British Navy. During the negotiations, Key and Skinner learned of the British intention to attack the city of Baltimore, as well as the strength and positions of British forces. They were not permitted to leave for the duration of the battle and witnessed the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14. Inspired by the American victory and the sight of the American flag flying high in the morning, Key wrote a poem titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry."

Key set the lyrics to the anthem of the London-based Anacreontic Society, "The Anacreontic Song." (Nine years earlier, Key had used the same tune for “When the Warrior Returns (from the Battle Afar)” to celebrate Stephen Decatur’s return from fighting the Barbary pirates, which included the line “By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.”)

The poem was taken to a printer, who made broadside copies of it. A few days later, the Baltimore Patriot and The Baltimore American printed the poem with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." Later, Carrs Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together as "The Star Spangled Banner."

The song gained popularity over the course of the 19th century and was often played at public events like parades and Independence Day celebrations (and, on occasion, sporting events). In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered it the official tune to be played during the raising of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at all military ceremonies and other appropriate occasions, making it something of an unofficial national anthem.

After America's entrance into World War I, Major League Baseball games often featured patriotic rituals, such as players marching in formation during pregame military drills and bands playing patriotic songs. During the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, the band erupted into "The Star-Spangled Banner." The Cubs and Red Sox players faced the centerfield flag pole and stood at attention. The crowd, already on their feet, began to sing along and applauded at the end of the song.

Given the positive reaction, the band played the song during the next two games, and when the Series moved to Boston, the Red Sox owner brought in a band and had the song played before the start of each remaining contest. After the war (and after the song was made the national anthem in 1931), the song continued to be played at baseball games, but only on special occasions like opening day, national holidays, and World Series games.

During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios