Here's Why the Alphabet is in A to Z Order

Alphabet Letters
Photo: Riou/Getty Images

Between trying to teach your youngest the ABCs, helping your older child master their cursive alphabet, or simply writing RSVP on an invitation, you may have found yourself wondering, why is the alphabet in, well, alphabetical order? Turns out the answer is a little more complicated than you might think.

The first known written language was developed by the Sumerians, who you may remember from the Bible. They created what was called a cuneiform system of symbols and pictographs. From there, the Egyptians picked it up, according to Reader's Digest. While Egyptians are best known for their hieroglyphics, workers (specifically either Canaanite or Semitic ones, according to Mental Floss) who were building the pyramids and farming along the Nile River, started to develop an alphabet lettering system.

The Phoenicians ran with the idea, developing the world's first fully formed alphabet. The Greeks started to use an alphabetic system of their own around the 8th century BC, adding vowels and the letter X. They eventually created the group of letters that these days are best known for gracing fraternity and sorority houses around college campuses.

As with many of the Greek's inventions, the Romans developed a fondness for it and adopted it as their own, mixing it with the alphabet system devised by the Etruscans. It's the Romans who turned it into the alphabet as we use it today. As points out, it was the Romans who took the letters Y and Z from the front of the alphabet, and tacked them onto the end. The written Roman language inspired Old English, leading to Middle English (hello, Shakespeare!) and the modern English we use today.

As for exactly how the alphabet ended up in the A to Z order that we memorize in school, it's still a bit of a mystery, but a very old mystery. As Mental Floss points out, the run of letters "abcdef" has been the same for thousands of years as you can see in this very helpful animation from the University of Maryland.

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Some scholars think it goes back to the Egyptians and how they ordered their hieroglyphics. Another theory is that the letters used to have a number attached to them, and they were put in numerical order. While the numbers were lost over time, the letters and their order remain. Psychology Today posts that it had something to do with how easy it is to memorize with its bouncy cadence. Another theory is that the letters were put in order as part of a memory tool so people could memorize all 26 of them. It's hard to imagine a mnemonic device that's easier than the ABC Song though.

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