How We Know Our ABCs

Illustration by Colin Ford. Typeface: Archer

“Collation” is the technical term for the order in which the letters of the alphabet are arranged. Anyone who’s ever glanced at a foreign alphabet has noticed the consistencies that have been preserved over the millennia: our Latin “A, B, C” resembles the Greek “alpha, beta, gamma,” as well as the Arabic “’alif, bā’, tā” and Hebrew “aleph, bet, gimel,” all of which are traceable to the Phoenician “’āleph, bēth, gīmel.” By the time we’ve passed through the Proto-Canaanite “’alp, bet, gaml” to the Ugaritic “alpa, beta, gamla,” we’ve travelled back 3,500 years; what's interesting is that the shapes of these letters are unrecognizable, but their order is utterly familiar.

I came across a passage last night that speaks to the significance of alphabet collation. I’d always imagined that the modern practice of labelling parts for assembly using the alphabet — insert tab A into slot B, etc. — must be a post-industrial innovation, one which relied upon modern standards of literacy. Not so:

Ancient Near Easterners used fitters’ marks, single letters of the alphabet apparently used to indicate the order in which various building materials are to be assembled. Various decorative ivory pieces from Nimrud, Iraq, were letter-coded to show the order in which they were to be inserted into furniture. In a temple at Petra, Jordan, archaeologists found “large, individually letter-coded, ashlar blocks spread along the floor of [a] room ... in the temple structure.” In a 1971 salvage expedition of a ship downed off Marsala, Italy, Honor Frost discovered “letters at key places where wood was to be joined ... the ship assembly [was thus] a colossal game of carpentry by letters, like a modern paint-by-numbers project.”

This is from The World’s Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. Oxford University Press, 1996. —JH

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