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Alphabetizing

ACB-blocks

Image courtesy Tufts Observer

Our ABC seems to have changed dramatically before our very eyes and no one is making a fuss. Not that it would matter.

It used to be that the alphabet was a sequence of 26 letters, from A to Z. The letter A came first for reasons that, as far as I gather, are arbitrary. Other than historical loyalty, there is no explanation—neither phonetic nor graphic—why it is at the beginning. The aleph in Hebrew starts the alphabet, and other Middle Eastern alphabets, such as the Phoenician, also had similar-sounding letters opening their writing systems. The B, the bet in Hebrew, could have led the pack, but it ended up second.

Looked at en toto, the list of 26 letters in the Roman alphabet is beautiful yet haphazard: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z, and not M, I, F, W, T, Z, Y, H, B, K, C, O, V, R, Q, L, U, S, E, A, X, N, D, G, J, P or any other arrangement you please.

Digital technology has made that sequence obsolete. Proof of it is the awkwardness with which the average teenager experiences a printed dictionary: He looks at it with utter amazement. Asked to find anything spelled with a W and paralysis takes over. Look up the word chameleon? Puzzled by the initial sound, he looks under K, then in C, until he connects C and H. The word phosphorescent? He starts with F. This strategy comes from sounding letters and is only tangential to my argument. But for these students, the fact that C is before K and F is before P is meaningless. That succession has been made irrelevant by technology. In online lexicons, C doesn’t come before K; instead, the letters are concurrent.

By this I mean simultaneous, not chronological but synchronic. In the online version of Merriam-Webster, it matters little the order of letters. The key to locating a definition is identifying the first letter of a word; the rest is done automatically by the search engine.

Grasping the idea of an alphabet that is simultaneous and not sequential is challenging to the mind because language is structured by a before and after. In the word language, L antecedes G, it doesn’t coincide with it. It is as if in natural evolution, the transformation from a Clepsydra to a butterfly happened not gradually, in sequence, but all at the same time. Or if, in our understanding of history, the conquest of Mexico and Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address overlapped.

(Maybe they did. … No doubt everything always happens in the present. The past exists because we have a way to refer to it, although not necessarily a verbal conjugation, since some languages don’t have a past tense yet their speakers are capable of referring to events that occur before and after.)

The dictionary, in printed form, is an endangered species. I predict that it will cease to exist in the next few years. There is really no need for it, just as encyclopedias have no reason to exist as physical books; online resources have deemed them redundant. And with them will also go the concept of alphabetizing as a sequential, not as a concurrent, endeavor.

Of course one could feel nostalgic about this transformation in cultural mores. Technology affects human behavior in subtle yet decisive ways. Reading time in traditional clocks made with a longer and shorter hand is troubling to adolescents; they prefer using ascending Arabic numbers. Likewise, organizing items with Roman numerals is cumbersome for them: finding Part IV, Proposition LVII, in Spinoza’s The Ethics (Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata), which asserts that “the proud man delights in the company of flatterers and parasites, but hates the company of the high-minded,” is harder than locating Part 4, Proposition 57.

Children today still memorize, in melodic form, their ABCs. In the future that effort is likely to remain intact, except that, for all it matters, they could learn it as BAC or any other random configuration.

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