The mystery of the alphabet


Haley McCoy, Editorials Editor

      How do you know?

     This isn’t an existential question or a vital query. This is simple. How do you know that the alphabet belongs in the order it is in?

     Have you ever really stopped to think about it? Why does B come after A and how come Z gets to round it all off? Why do we pronounce certain letters one way in the North but in an entirely different way in the south? And maybe most importantly, who designed the letter Q?

     The history of the alphabet ranges all the way back to Ancient Egypt, when hieroglyphs were used to convey messages. The Phoenician people advanced the alphabet even further, but their version of this language key was consonantal, meaning it only possessed consonants. The first true alphabet with vowels was created by the Greeks, which they derived from the Phoenician consonantal alphabet. The most commonly used alphabet we see today is Latin, which was taken from the Greeks.

     That’s all fascinating, but it still doesn’t tell us why. How did someone decide one day that an lowercase h was supposed to look so similar to a lowercase n, but the two letters were not supposed to make similar sounds? Who decided to go and design the letter G? How do we know we’re right when we classify the alphabet and put these seemingly unrelated letters in order?

     The simple answer is: we don’t. We accept that the alphabet is the way it is because trying to come up with a better answer is nearly impossible. The ancient peoples of Greek and Rome used a more complicated alphabet, but somehow we still ended up with U and W, two letters that do not sound the same or serve the same purpose, yet have similar names.

     Alphabets across languages are different, and accents across the same language vary as well. The Spanish alphabet is very similar to the English version, yet every letter is pronounced differently, no matter if the letter looks identical. Boston has a distinct accent with a twang around vowels. We speak the same language, read off the same list of letters, yet use them so differently.

     It doesn’t make sense. Maybe it never will.

     So how do you know that the alphabet belongs in the order it is in? You don’t. But you accept it and move on because you have a paper to write and it doesn’t matter if T and F look similar to one another. It doesn’t change the fact that you spelled a word wrong and wasted twenty minutes trying to answer an unanswerable question.