Alphabetical Order

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[Olympic Ceremony Drummers]

Roman Mars:
That is the sound of exactly 2008 drummers pounding away in perfect synchronicity during the open ceremony of the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics.

[Olympic Ceremony Drummers continues]

Roman Mars:
The entire stadium pitched into darkness as the traditional Chinese faux drums glowed from within. It was just the start of a ceremony widely regarded as the most elaborate in Olympic history. And it was all designed and executed perfectly.

Daniel Semo:
But behind the scenes, there was one small hitch in the coverage of the event that went mostly unreported.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Daniel Semo.

Daniel Semo:
During the Parade of Nations, Greece, as the birthplace of the Olympics, enter first. That’s a long standing tradition.

[Greece announced in three languages]

Daniel Semo:
But then the rest of the teams came out according to the number of strokes in the Chinese characters that comprised their name.

Roman Mars:
The country of Jamaica, for example, was followed by Belgium.

[Belgium announced in three languages]

Daniel Semo:
Then came Vanuatu, which in turn, was followed by Israel. The US team walked out somewhere in the middle.

Daniel Semo:
My home country of Australia was right at the back, 202nd in line.

Roman Mars:
Ultimately, the sequence of nations was just a small detail. In a four-hour $300 million ceremony, it should not have been the hard part.

Daniel Semo:
But for the Western networks covering the games, the parade proved a little tricky.

Judith Flanders:
Because it seems to us perfectly natural that the teams march in an alphabetical order.

Daniel Semo:
That’s Judith Flanders, author of “A Place For Everything,” a book about the order of the Latin alphabet.

Judith Flanders:
So it made all of the Western network scramble because they simply didn’t know when their own teams were going to come in and when they could go to commercial breaks.

Daniel Semo:
In the confusion of trying to figure out which countries came after which breaks, NBC later posted the footage to their website in the wrong order. This, in turn, sparked the short-lived message board conspiracy theory that the networks had deliberately changed up the order of nations in order to increase site traffic.

Judith Flanders:
Despite the fact that probably, if you had asked the organizers doing the Olympic coverage, they would have known that Chinese does not use an alphabet, but it didn’t quite penetrate. So in that way, you see how deeply embedded the alphabet is in our psyches.

Roman Mars:
For much of the Western world, alphabetical order is the default. It’s often the one we try first or the one we use as a last resort when all other ordering methods fail. It’s boring, but it works. And it’s so ingrained that it’s hard to imagine not using it.

Daniel Semo:
Except at one point, we didn’t. Alphabetical order, as a way to organize information, is a pretty recent development. And its adoption is part of a radical shift in the way human beings learn, organize their thoughts and even see their place in the world.

Roman Mars:
But before you can order anything alphabetically, you need an alphabet.

Timothy Donaldson:
The alphabet is a concept of applying symbols to sounds and saying, “This stands for this and this only.”

Daniel Semo:
That’s Timothy Donaldson, a type designer and lecturer at Falmouth University in England and author of the book, “Shapes For Sounds.” And Donaldson says that the process of assigning sounds to symbols took a long time because at first, all we had were pictograms — images that represented whole objects or concepts like in very early Sumerian writing. So if you wanted to represent the idea of a fish, you drew a fish.

Timothy Donaldson:
But what the problem it brings with it is you need a massive amount of symbols. You need thousands of symbols to represent every single thing. So the system is unwielding.

Roman Mars:
Eventually, these pictograms changed and became more abstract. And by 2800 BCE, certain marks began to represent syllables.

Daniel Semo:
But not individual consonants or vowels, so there might be a symbol for an entire syllable — like “gah” — but nothing yet for its component “g-” and “- ah“ sounds individually, meaning each syllable in a language needed a sign.

Timothy Donaldson:
They could get by with about 700 symbols. We call that a syllabary.

Roman Mars:
The syllabary still isn’t an alphabet.

Peter Daniels:
But at some point, some clever early Semitic-speaking someone saw that the Egyptians were writing stuff down and said, “Hey, we can do that for my language.”

Daniel Semo:
That’s Peter Daniels, an independent scholar specializing in ancient writing systems. Daniels says that the Egyptians were using their own complicated non-lab syllabic of symbols when our hypothetical early-Semitic someone decided to take that Egyptian system and simplify it.

Peter Daniels:
Because this clever inventor had the brilliant idea to use just one consonant per letter. Still no vowels, but with those consonants, they could write anything that needed to be written.

Daniel Semo:
Developing what some scholars considered to be the first true alphabet. And with it, the first alphabetical order.

Roman Mars:
That first ever alphabetical order would be instantly recognizable. It’s the same basic order that the Latin alphabet uses today.

Daniel Semo:
In the 1940s, archeologists found a set of small tablets with some 3200 year old lettering in the ancient city of Ugarit in present day Syria.

Peter Daniels:
— with nothing on them, but the 30 letters of the Ugaritic alphabet and they all written in the familiar order that became A, B, C, D, E, F, et cetera.

Roman Mars:
Everything from A to T.

Peter Daniels:
T was the last letter in that particular alphabetical order.

Daniel Semo:
The exact shapes of the Ugaritic letters would go through a lot of changes as they got adapted early on by the Venetians, then the Greeks and later, the Romans. But the basic order was there from the beginning.

Roman Mars:
But that raises a fundamental question — why that order? Why A, B, C and not N, Q, D or R, G, L?

Daniel Semo:
And the answer is… well, we don’t know. It was a long time ago.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Fair.

Peter Daniels:
There’s no particular reason. We just learn the alphabet in the order it’s in.

Daniel Semo:
There was however, at least one competing alphabetical order from around that same time found in the Southern Arabian peninsula in present day Yemen and Oman. So, similar alphabet, but different sequence.

Roman Mars:
It went H, L, a strange looking letter I can’t pronounce or recognize, M, R, et cetera.

Daniel Semo:
But outside of a few small areas, this other order never caught on, and for the usual reason.

Peter Daniels:
The one that went out was the one that was used by the people that went out and conquered other people. That just happens. The South Arabian people were more limited in their conquering.

Daniel Semo:
The Romans on the other hand, love conquering. And as they conquered, they spread their alphabetical order around.

Roman Mars:
Although, not before making some last minute tweaks. Take the final two letters, Y and Z.

Timothy Donaldson:
The Romans didn’t use them.

Daniel Semo:
Tim Donaldson says that the ancient Greek equivalence of Y and Z had previously been dispersed in the middle of the Greek alphabet, but then the Romans chucked them out.

Timothy Donaldson:
Yeah. Yeah, that was literally how it happened. And then eventually, they found that they were useful. So they got brought back into the fold. So that’s why they’re at the end.

Roman Mars:
The letter K was luckier. It was also kicked out at some point, but then brought back in at the same spot as before.

Timothy Donaldson:
They also tried to introduce three new Roman letters, and this just didn’t work.

Daniel Semo:
What were the letters?

Timothy Donaldson:
One was called Die Gamma. And one looks… I can’t remember the name of the other two, even though I wrote a book about it.

Daniel Semo:
So for the most part, the alphabet’s order has proved remarkably stable.

Roman Mars:
But despite its endurance, for most of its history, alphabetical order wasn’t actually used to order much of anything.

Peter Daniels:
Alphabetical order was not all that important for anything beyond learning the alphabet.

Roman Mars:
In societies like ancient Rome and early medieval Europe, writing implements were still rare. So what mattered most was organizing knowledge in a way that helped you to memorize it. And that was usually much easier to do in the order you naturally came across the information.

Daniel Semo:
So you might memorize the names of kings in chronological order, following who beget who, or all the towns along the coastline from east to west. And Judith Flanders says that this means, in most cases, alphabetical order would’ve been kind of useless.

Judith Flanders:
The way I’ve begun to think of it is to say to people, “Okay, put the days of the week in alphabetical order.”

Roman Mars:
Let’s see. Friday, Monday…

Judith Flanders:
And there’s always a very long pause.

Roman Mars:
Thursday, Tuesday…

Judith Flanders:
Because we don’t think of them that way. We start at Monday.

Roman Mars:
Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday. Jesus!

Daniel Semo:
So when it came to sorting and organizing actual information, for thousands of years, people used almost any other method. They organized things by size, by geography, by chronology, just not alphabetically.

Roman Mars:
But these early ordering methods also reflected the way people thought about the world. And one important way that they thought about it was hierarchically.

Daniel Semo:
In the middle ages, for example, William the Conqueror’s “Doomsday Book,” which was a survey of all his subject’s property assets, was divided into sections that started with the nobles and then with the peasants.

Judith Flanders:
So you moved down not alphabetically, but through more or less who had more money and who had more power.

Roman Mars:
Church documents also tended to reflect this hierarchical view.

Judith Flanders:
Where the church fathers come first and then other theological writers, then other less important writers and finally (whisper!) — Pagan writers. They weren’t even Christian. And they trail in at the end because they’re not important.

Daniel Semo:
But nowhere was this hierarchical world view more apparent than in encyclopedias. These books were primarily religious documents written by archbishops and monks who were attempting to create what they called a mirror of the world.

Roman Mars:
Starting with God, the angels and the saints at the front, and plants and inanimate objects at the very back. Humans were usually somewhere in the middle.

Daniel Semo:
Theological books might have glossies of difficult terms at the back, but these would be organized in the order they appear in the book, not alphabetically, because in a world where knowledge was considered complete and holistic, the point was not to look up only the facts you needed, but to read the book from beginning to end.

Roman Mars:
You might occasionally come across a merchant’s invoice or one small part of a dictionary organized alphabetically, but even as late as the middle ages, alphabetical order was still so rare that anytime someone used it in a book, they would have to explain it.

Daniel Semo:
So you’d get this kind of primer from the author at the beginning where he might say, “If the topic you’re interested in starts with Z, try looking towards the end.”

Judith Flanders:
And it’s perfectly clear — he thinks he has invented it. And then each time another person uses it, they too explain it over and over.

Daniel Semo:
Slowly though, little by little, alphabetical order would start to catch on. We can’t say why exactly, but Judith Flanders points to one potential reason, at least for those who knew their ABCs.

Judith Flanders:
Every other sorting order, you need to know a little bit about the subject to help you find things. Alphabetical order is the only sorting order that we have where you do not need to have any preliminary knowledge.

Roman Mars:
And this proved useful in a world where increasingly, there was just too much to remember.

Daniel Semo:
In the 11th and 12th centuries, with the arrival of paper technology from China, writing something down started to become a lot cheaper and more attractive than trying to memorize it. For theology students at European universities, this helped facilitate a new form of learning, one in which arguments and counterarguments were expected to be backed up by written evidence. But it also meant that now, you had to know where to find all those sources so you could cite them correctly.

Roman Mars:
So scholars began developing innovative ways to search for information — indexing, pagination, methods for cross referencing one thing with another.

Judith Flanders:
And this brings with it, the development of all of these things that help us locate things, or as I call it, look stuff up. We become a, “look stuff up world.”

Daniel Semo:
And one of the handiest ways to look stuff up was simply by name.

Roman Mars:
With alphabetical order, you didn’t need to be an expert in a field to know where to find something. All you needed to know was how to spell it.

Daniel Semo:
Traveling Franciscan preachers, for example, might not actually have that much religious education, but now, they would have a small booklet with them, which would provide talking points on different subjects from the Bible just in time for their next sermon.

Roman Mars:
So what these were is effectively, they were cheat sheets. And to make them easier to use, they were put in alphabetical order.

Daniel Semo:
Another big factor in the rise of alphabetical order was the arrival in the 15th century of the printing press. Now that books were easy to copy, publishers realized they could make big money selling multiple copies of a single title. And the best sellers often turned out to be reference books.

Roman Mars:
At first, many of these reference books still strived to be mirrors of the world, organized hierarchically.

Daniel Semo:
But as enlightenment encyclopedists, like Diderot, incorporated more and more entries from more and more contributors, the easiest way to add a new entry without shuffling everything else around was just to organize it alphabetically.

Judith Flanders:
And so they cite the great hierarchy schemes, but they don’t use it. And instead they say they’re going to use alphabetical order because it is “plus commode et plus facile,” more convenient and easier.

Roman Mars:
But even as scholars were busy alphabetizing the angels, other members of the establishment weren’t happy about this new method of dividing up the world.

Daniel Semo:
To understand why, Flanders points to a 16th century bibliography dedicated to the king of France.

Judith Flanders:
And the compiler apologizes in his preface for putting it in alphabetical order because, he says, “this might mean servants come before masters and children before their parents.” It upends hierarchy, and it is dangerous.

Roman Mars:
Even worse, this was a way of organizing knowledge that allowed any literate person to choose what to learn. With alphabetical order, knowledge was no longer a fixed set of ideas to be handed down by learned authorities. Instead, it was up to the individual to decide what was worth discovering and what could be ignored.

Judith Flanders:
So if you’ve got gatekeepers to knowledge, those gatekeepers are going to think, “We’re going to be out of work soon.”

Daniel Semo:
This feeling wasn’t just restricted to a bunch of Royal reactionaries in the 1500s. Alphabetical order’s biggest hater was probably the early 19th century English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Judith Flanders:
Coleridge, he just despised it.

Roman Mars:
Coleridge saved a special place in hell for the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was, of course, organized alphabetically. As a theologian, as well as a poet, he believed in the great hierarchy of knowledge and he thought Britain’s preeminent reference book should reflect that.

Judith Flanders:
And he said, yes, it reflects the world. But once it’s in this arbitrary, and he thought a ridiculous order — A for apple comes first just because it starts with A — what you’ve got is a broken mirror on the ground each reflecting a little bit of the world, but making no overall sense.

Daniel Semo:
Which I’ll admit, as far as literary criticism goes, is kind of beautiful.

Roman Mars:
I mean, he was a poet.

Daniel Semo:
But he was also a snob, the kind of sub stack writing intellectual that alphabetical order had been undermining all along. So if anything, his objections made him seem a little out of touch. He was even parodied in novels as quote…

Judith Flanders:
“The chemical, botanical, geological, astronomical, mathematical, metaphysical, meteorological, anatomical, physiological, galvanistical, musical, pictorial, bibliographical, crucial philosopher.”

Roman Mars:
In other words, he was an insufferable know-it-all.

Daniel Semo:
The truth is by the time guys like Coleridge were shouting at alphabetical order to get off their lawn, the battle was already over. At some point, when no one was looking, without needing a great champion to advance it or a campaign to promote it, alphabetical order had won.

Judith Flanders:
And other possibilities sort of faded. People lost sight of the fact that there are other possibilities.

Roman Mars:
Today, organizing information according to its name has become so commonplace that it often just goes unnoticed, but it still comes with its own biases. Just ask anyone whose name starts with a letter at the end of the alphabet.

Daniel Semo:
Academic economists are more likely to be cited, get jobs at prestigious universities, and even win Nobel prizes if their names are higher up in the alphabet. Political candidates are more likely to win if they have early alphabet names rather than late names. There is even something called, “alphabet fatigue,” which is a phenomenon where a dictionary or encyclopedia team becomes less and less thorough as they move through the letters.

Roman Mars:
The first alphabetized edition of Encyclopedia Britannica had three volumes, each of roughly equal length. Volume one was A through B.

Judith Flanders:
And of course, as we know, there are plenty of cultures and languages and civilizations that have done perfectly nicely without an alphabet. And they have no problem with other sorting systems.

Daniel Semo:
During the Ming dynasty in 15th century China, the largest general encyclopedia history was organized according to a well known rhyming scheme. It remained the world’s largest reference book for six centuries, and it worked just fine.

Roman Mars:
And in the 21st century, people have started turning to other ways of finding and sorting information. Even as much of the Internet’s underlying infrastructure depends on it, no one uses alphabetical order to search through Wikipedia or to decide which article to click on next. Instead of indexes organized alphabetically, we have hyperlinks leading in a thousand different directions. Alphabetical order may have won when no one was looking, but now, just as quietly, it’s being rendered obsolete.

Judith Flanders:
So we may discover that alphabetical order is a phase, an eighth century phase, but it might be a phase.

Roman Mars:
Do we have a coda for this story? Yes, we do. After this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So we’re here again with Daniel Semo. Hey, Dan.

Daniel Semo:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Before I let you go, I heard you have one more thing that you wanted to share with us regarding alphabet order.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah, I do. And I wanted to save it for the coda because as a reporter, one of the things I love the most is when someone I’m interviewing really hates one of their subjects. And it turns out that Judith Flanders really, really hates someone. And I found this out towards the end of the interview when I was wrapping things up and I asked my standard kind of wrap up question, and I just want to play you some of that tape.

Daniel Semo:
Judith, is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you think would be important to mention?

Judith Flanders:
There isn’t. The only thing I wonder if you want me to do, just because you said you wanted a couple of sort of character driven things-

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. Yeah.

Judith Flanders:
… is the hideous Melvil Dewey.

Roman Mars:
At which point, you’re like, “Oh yes, please talk about the hideous Melvil Dewey.”

Daniel Semo:
Exactly.

Daniel Semo:
Yes, please.

Judith Flanders:
Yeah. Dewey is not interesting in terms of alphabet order, except he didn’t use it, but he was so ghastly. Apart from anything else, the moron spelt his name, M-E-L-V-I-L. I mean, really.

Roman Mars:
I didn’t think I could love Judith Flanders any more, but I really enjoy how much she seems to not enjoy Melvil Dewey.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. So Melvil Dewey, for those who don’t know, is the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System or officially, the Dewey Decimal Classification, or DDC, which is a sorting method for libraries that is still very common in the US and many libraries today.

Roman Mars:
So apart from the objectionable way that Judith thinks he spells his name, what doesn’t she like about him?

Daniel Semo:
Well, she’s got a few issues.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Daniel Semo:
So basically, Melvil Dewey was born in a small town in upstate New York in 1851. And he actually changed the spelling of his name when he was quite young because he was a fan of the movement at the time to simplify English spelling. For a while, he even changed the spelling of his last name to D-U-I.

Roman Mars:
That didn’t stick?

Daniel Semo:
No, that one didn’t stick. Apparently, the bank refused to recognize his signature.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, if you can’t cash checks, then it doesn’t stick.

Daniel Semo:
Exactly. So Dewey, D-E-W-E-Y, graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts. And Judith Flanders says that soon after, he was made a librarian there.

Judith Flanders:
So he’s still in his twenties, but he was asked to catalog its library. The odds are pretty good he didn’t know much about library classification. So he returned to the idea of a hierarchy of knowledge, which is based on the older, classical liberal arts idea.

Daniel Semo:
And it’s important to point out that a lot of libraries back then, just like now, were already organized by subject, at least on some level. So all the calculus books would be in one place and all the American books would be in another. But Dewey took the basic idea and kind of went, let’s say, mad with power. He really believed, just like Coleridge, that all knowledge was connected in this elegant hierarchy. So in his new system, once you got to the subject area, it would just be divided into smaller subject areas, which themselves would be divided into yet smaller subject areas and so on and so on.

Roman Mars:
So it becomes subjects all the way down.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. And this was his autonomous Dewey Decimal System or Dewey Decimal Classification. And the reason it has the word, “decimal,” in there is because all of these subjects were assigned numbers.

Judith Flanders:
So, for example, the 500s are natural sciences. 590 is zoology. 595 is other invertebrates. 595.7 is insects. And eventually, you get to butterflies if you follow along.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Well, that makes sense. Okay. It doesn’t seem like this is a real problem so far.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. It wasn’t totally a bad idea. And perhaps, more importantly, at that time, it offered this kind of ready-made off the rack solution for organizing books. And it ended up getting picked up by a lot of these institutions throughout the second half of the 19th century.

Roman Mars:
So even if it’s not perfect, it’s used so widely that you could go to any library in the country and know where to find things. And that’s probably its biggest advantage.

Daniel Semo:
Definitely. It’s ubiquity, basically.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Daniel Semo:
But Judith Flanders points out that it had a few big problems.

Judith Flanders:
The benefit is if you want to find out about the subject you work out which its number is, you go to the shelves and there are all the books. So it helps you find out about a subject more generally. What it doesn’t do is help you find a specific book. And this is sort of the crux.

Roman Mars:
So if you’re looking for a specific book and you don’t know where to classify it, like in the 0.7, 0.6, 0.3 way, it may be hierarchical, it may be logical, but it’s not really all that intuitive of where you place every book in the human world.

Daniel Semo:
No, it’s not. Dewey had no choice but to pair his system with a card catalog, which would tell you where to find the book. And do you want to guess what sorting method the Dewey Decimal System card catalog uses?

Roman Mars:
I don’t need to guess. It’s alphabetical order.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. Yeah, our old friend.

Roman Mars:
So in the end, as much as you want to order the world into these blocks of 100 numbers and sub-divide it and subdivide it and subdivide it, when you get to the bottom, you have to get to alphabetical order. It sort of underlies everything.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. Yeah. Although, it should be pointed out that Dewey managed to turn this to his advantage because what Dewey did was, to push the American Library Association, which he had co-founded in 1876, to standardize the index card size and to then use a company he created, called “The Library Bureau,” to provide all the supplies needed to manage those card catalogs.

Roman Mars:
Whoa. That’s very enterprising and a little bit sneaky. Is this the reason why Judith hates him? Because of this way of profiting from the library system?

Daniel Semo:
No, it’s not. Instead, it turns out that the card catalog is the least of the Dewey system’s problems because when you start digging into its classification system, you soon realize that the problem was mostly Dewey himself and how he saw the world.

Judith Flanders:
All sorting systems have biases. Dewey’s has more biases than most. And in the modern world, it is particularly troublesome. It is entirely Anglo-centric. It is almost, comically, Christian-centric.

Daniel Semo:
So Christianity was given all the numbers between 200 and 289. Whereas Islam is given only a single number: 297.

Judith Flanders:
Oh, and women are originally categorized very neatly next to etiquette. Bitter? Me? No, not at all.

Daniel Semo:
But beyond the system that he created, there was just Dewey, the man.

Judith Flanders:
Dewey himself was a mind blowingly, awful person. I say this with complete prejudice. He founded the American Library Association, but was forced to step down when four women complained that he had assaulted them in a two-week period. He was antisemitic. He was racist. Even in antisemitic and racist days, he was considered to be pretty horrible. So he was also asked to stand down from his position as librarian for New York state, for his Christian whites-only policies. And if you can imagine in those times, it must have taken an awful lot for him to get to that stage.

Roman Mars:
Wow. I had some vague notion that Dewey was a problem, but I had no idea just how awful he really was.

Daniel Semo:
Yeah. Yeah, he definitely was. And because of all this undeniable awfulness, the American Library Association recently decided to take his name off their top leadership honor. It used to be called the Melvil Dewey Medal, but in 2020, it was changed to the ALA Medal of Excellence. But the thing is, even if Dewey himself isn’t well remembered, his system is still going strong.

Judith Flanders:
Despite the fact that it just doesn’t work very well anymore, but of course, undoing an entire library and re-categorizing becomes very difficult. So people on the whole, don’t.

Daniel Semo:
So other sorting methods have been developed, and the Library of Congress has its own system. But according to recent estimates, roughly 200,000 libraries in 135 countries still use the Dewey Decimal Classification.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So Judith hates him, but the world embraced him early. And then therefore, we’re just kind of stuck with Dewey’s hierarchy for better or worse.

Daniel Semo:
Very much so.

Roman Mars:
Thank you, Dan.

Daniel Semo:
Thanks, Roman.

———

CREDITS

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Daniel Semo. Edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mix and tech production by Ameeta Ganatra. Music by our director of sound Swan Real.

Delaney Hall is the executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Chris Berube, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.

 

 

Credits

Production

Reporter Daniel Semo spoke with Judith Flanders, author of A Place for Everything, a book about the order of the Latin alphabet; Timothy Donaldson, a type designer and lecturer at Falmouth University in England, and author of the book Shapes for Sounds; and Peter Daniels, an independent scholar specializing in ancient writing systems.

  1. Daniel Barkalow

    Really curious as to whether Roman noticed what happened with alphabetizing the days of the week and decided to leave it or didn’t notice.

    1. Amy

      Same. I had to pause it and think for a moment…”wait, what? is ‘t’ before ‘s’?” Brain fart induced by a podcast, 😂

  2. Hal

    Did the Beijing Olympic PR office not distribute a list of the order? This sounds like a crazy example of the media folks not reading the documentation.

  3. Anne

    Re: the song we use for the ABCs. The ABC song= Twinkle Twinkle Little Star= Baa Baa Black Sheep. So there are actually three using the same tune. I don’t know if this is because of the era in which they were written, but I have heard (but never verified) that a lot of American songs/hymns of the 1800’s were just poetry and then people would choose a common folk tune with a matching (enough) meter and then would sing it that way. So tunes and text were not nearly so rigidly “married” as they are now. This is why, I am told, the Star Spangled Banner is set to a popular drinking song of the day, for example. A lot of it was mix and match. This is also true of a ton of Christian hymns from the Revivalist era. In our hymnbook at church, there are a few texts that are set to two different tunes side by side, presumably because a couple of different folk tunes became particularly engrained for that text.

    Also, not all languages have alphabet songs like ours do. When I was learning Spanish, we learned the Spanish names for all the letters (plus their few extra letters) using an American military call and response song. My Spanish teacher explained, almost apologetically, that Spanish doesn’t have a traditional song for teaching the name of the letters and the song had been made up by American Spanish teachers whose kids were struggling to learn an alphabet without the culturally expected “alphabet song”.

    1. Kent

      It is not just the ABC song. Each and every verse in the Doctor Seuss ABC book also can be sung to the tune.

  4. Anne

    Regarding the song we use for the ABCs: The ABC song= Twinkle Twinkle Little Star= Baa Baa Black Sheep. So there are actually three using the same tune. I don’t know if this is because of the era in which they were written, but I have heard (but never verified) that a lot of American songs/hymns of the 1800’s were just poetry and then people would choose a common folk tune with a matching (enough) meter and then would sing it that way. So tunes and text were not nearly so rigidly “married” as they are now. This is why, I am told, the Star Spangled Banner is set to a popular drinking song of the day, for example. A lot of it was mix and match. This is also true of a ton of Christian hymns from the Revivalist era. In our hymnbook at church, there are a few texts that are set to two different tunes side by side, presumably because a couple of different folk tunes became particularly engrained for that text.

    Also, not all languages have alphabet songs like ours do. When I was learning Spanish, we learned the Spanish names for all the letters (plus their few extra letters) using an American military call and response song. My Spanish teacher explained, almost apologetically, that Spanish doesn’t have a traditional song for teaching the name of the letters and the song had been made up by American Spanish teachers whose kids were struggling to learn an alphabet without the culturally expected “alphabet song”.

  5. Sean Redmond

    The Japanese use kana-order (a-i-u-e-o | ka-ki-ku-ke-ko and so on) but there is an older kana-ordering system which is based on an old Buddhist koan (i-ro-ha-…) . It was used for a thousand years on acount of the fact that the koan has each of the syllables once.
    Commodore Perry & his black ships may be indirectly blamed for the adoption of the first-mentioned kana-ordering system over the use of the elegant poem.

  6. Piotr

    Oh, let me just say that I am so happy about this episode. I was getting worried recently that somewhere around the ownership change 99pi lost its grip – I felt that there were mainly (of course interesting, but still) interviews with book authors and runs of other podcasts.
    This story while not in top 20 or even 50 of episodes, feels like good old 99pi. Keep up the good work.

    Can’t wait to try out the party trick of telling people to alphabetize days of the week ;)

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