WHY IS THIS
A QUESTION? (2022)
EVERYTHING ABOUT THE ORIGINS AND ODDITIES OF LANGUAGE YOU NEVER THOUGHT TO ASK
Why do our words go in the order they do? Why is our alphabet in its ABC order? What even are words and alphabets? And how does our brain make sense of them? How do we read? How do we speak? And for that matter, how do we even understand?
Twenty extraordinary questions like these are explained in the fascinating new book by Haggard Hawks, Why Is This A Question? Released in the UK and beyond in October 2022, the book explores everything you could ever want to know about language, and much, much more. From the very basics—defining precisely what words, languages, and English actually are—Why Is This A Question? moves into ever more extraordinary territory, taking deep dives into the structure, use, and philosophy of language. What is the hardest language to learn? Why do some languages have genders? Where do our numbers come from? Why do we move our hands when we talk? And what is is about this sentence right now that makes it a question?
Read on below for an abridged version of one of the chapters, and head HERE to order a copy now.
WHY DOES OUR ALPHABET GO IN ABC ORDER?
We English speakers inherited our writing system from the Romans, but their Latin alphabet belonged to the Etruscans before them—and the Greeks before them, and the Phoenicians before the Greeks.
Take it back to its basics, in fact, and you’ll be able to trace a handful of our letters back to the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. The reason why our letters M and N have vaguely zigzagging, undulating shapes? Once upon a time, they were they were hieroglyphs represented by water and a snake:
Around half our letters have ancient roots like this, stretching back some 5,000 years or so. The other half are more recent developments, largely invented and evolved from one another as one ancient culture handed their alphabet over to the next, and the inheritors adapted and reshaped it to better suit their own language. But if that accounts for where our letters have come from, what about their order?
In 1928, a farmer in Syria unwittingly disturbed a large stone slab hidden beneath the surface of one of his fields. It sounds like something from an Indiana Jones film, but as he hauled the slab from the earth, the ground around it gave way and revealed the entrance to a vast relic-filled tomb—a remnant of the long-lost Bronze Age city of Ugarit.
In the decades that followed, ever more of the city was unearthed and countless Ugaritic artefacts were discovered. And among them were dozens and dozens of clay tablets, on which was written an early cuneiform alphabet looking a little something like this:
𐎀 𐎁 𐎂 𐎃 𐎄 𐎅 𐎆 𐎇 𐎈
𐎉 𐎊 𐎋 𐎌 𐎍 𐎎 𐎏 𐎐
𐎑 𐎒 𐎓 𐎔 𐎕 𐎖 𐎗 𐎘
𐎙 𐎚 𐎛 𐎜 𐎝
As unfamiliar as those characters are, if you were to translate them into their English equivalents you’d find something extraordinary. Give or take the culture-to-culture developments that changed the Phoenician alphabet into that of the Greeks, the Etruscans, and the Romans, these are our ABCs, effectively in much the same order we would recognise today.
But why had this ancient alphabet been written out over and over and over again, as it had been at Ugarit? Well, it seems likely that some four or five millennia ago, the cuneiform alphabet above was being actively taught—either to children, or to prospective scribes and translators—in an ancient Ugaritic language school. Perhaps then, this stock repeated order was being used because there was a mnemonic device attached to it that made these letters easier to memorize? Some scholars have even attempted to make sense of the letters above, and pointed out that the opening letters here essentially (and not uncoincidentally) spell out ‘father’ and ‘grandfather’.
That’s just a theory, of course, and with our research already straining under 4,000 years or so of conjecture, the genuine meaning behind our alphabetical order remains something of a mystery. But this remarkable chance archaeological discovery at least shed some tantalizing light onto the subject—and perhaps another discovery in the future will do the same.
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