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Wednesday, January 25, 2006 Bookmark Now! | Email to a friend  

Why are the letters in the English "alphabet" in the order that they are?

The alphabet has often been described as an arbitrary collection of symbols representing an arbitrary collection of sounds. Its order is equally random. The origins of the earliest alphabets, which were probably created around 4,000 years ago, are quite murky. The earliest form of the alphabet was invented by the Semitic peoples living in Egypt. This original alphabet eventually gave rise to written Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and the modern Roman languages.

The alphabet developed much out of laziness. Early pictograms required readers and writers to memorize hundreds of specific images representing words and ideas. The alphabet, on the other hand, was a kind of phonetic shorthand in which thirty basic sounds could be strung together to form words.

Egyptian hieroglyphics used both pictograms and phonemes (symbols that represent sounds). The first phonemes were based on pictograms -- for example, the symbol representing house, or "beth" in spoken Semitic, eventually became the letter "B."

So, while we can't give you an exact reason for the order, we can give you one fun (if rather obvious) fact you may not have realized -- the word "alphabet" comes from "alpha" and "beta," the first two words in the Greek alphabet.

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