Friday, October 24, 2014


Today we take alphabetization for granted. Where did our system of ordering the characters (A to Z) come from? The short answer is that it derives from the Greek alphabet, which imitated the order of the Phoenician alphabet, its own source. The most recent scholarship suggests that the Phoenician alphabet in turn stems from a simplified form of Egyptian characters used by merchants active in the eastern desert in Egypt, who brought their invention/adaptation with them to the Sinai.  The order in which they arranged the characters is unknown.
The standard work in the field still seems to be Lloyd W. Daly’s pithy, but somewhat inconclusive "Contributions to a History of Alphabetization in Antiquity and the Middle Ages" (Brussels, 1967). While the order we are accustomed to, or something close to it seems to have been imposed on Greek schoolboys as a learning aid pretty much at the outset, the use of the method for lists, ordering of books, and the like took centuries to appear. The earliest alphabetized list Daly found stems from the third century BCE on the Greek isle of Kos where 150 names were inscribed in stone. The names are broken into three lists, and each is alphabetized.  
The scholars at the library of Alexandria seem to have been the ones to have achieved a more general practice. For example, in the collected plays of Euripides, the works appear in an order determined by the first letter of the title.


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