The 123’s of the ABC’s

Amidst the final days of the add/drop period and reshuffling schedules, the McGill Library has brought a different type of organization to the forefront. On Jan. 22, the McGill Library hosted a Zoom discussion by social historian and author Judith Flanders on her latest book, A Place for Everything: A Curious History of Alphabetical Order. Flanders spoke about how she became interested in the subject, as well as the historical basis of the written word, the development of different systems of organization, and the autonomy and ambiguity of alphabetical order as we know it.

Flanders fell into the subject in a way many students can likely empathize with—through Wikipedia. While reading a review of a book about the online encyclopedia service, Flanders was intrigued by the reviewer’s disdain for the author, whom the reviewer claimed did not address how Wikipedia’s system of organization proved that encyclopedias no longer needed to be alphabetized. Around a month later, at an art exhibition, Flanders gained a renewed interest in the historical past and differentiation of information classification, and came to find that Wikipedia’s method of organization was not as innovative as the reviewer believed.

Early in the talk, Flanders established the important distinction between the English alphabet and alphabetization. Although any alphabet is integral to reading and writing, attempting to find meaning in the alphabetization of the letters is effectively pointless. The alphabet has an established order, but it means basically nothing, since it does nothing to teach people how to read and write. 

“It’s interesting that we go back to meaning, since alphabetical order as a sorting tool is meaningless,” Flanders said. 

Flanders explained that there is no available historical evidence to explain why the English alphabet is ordered the way it is; there is only evidence demonstrating how it became such an integral system of organization, which it wasn’t always seen as. For centuries, other methods of organization, such as chronological, geographical, and hierarchical order, were perceived as more natural and therefore favoured over alphabetical order.

“When you ask somebody today to put the days of the week or the months of the year in alphabetical order, you have to think quite hard to do it,” Flanders said.

While those methods might be more naturally apparent and do not necessarily require any knowledge of the alphabet, they eventually became more laborious to use because they required significantly more effort and knowledge to access information. Flanders fleshed out this notion with the example of a doomsday book detailing land occupancy in England and Wales in the 11th century—it was organized first by status, then geography, then back to status, and lastly by wealth. It was originally commissioned by William the Conqueror, the king at the time, for tax purposes. Future readers looking to understand the information needed to develop a complex knowledge of the hierarchies and groups within each of the geographical regions. In contrast, alphabetical order requires no substantial previous knowledge of history and society. 

Towards the end of her talk, Flanders spoke on the duality of alphabets and alphabetical order in the world. 

“Alphabetical order is both omnipresent and invisible,” Flanders said. “It’s something that everyone knows how to use and something nobody knows anything about.” 

The system is ingrained in modern society and culture, but its existence and role in the world creates a massive contradiction: While the lack of inherent meaning or bias makes the order amenable to many contexts, it also could be seen as too meaningless to be important. 

When answering a question from an audience member about the potential longevity of alphabetical order, Flanders observed that the system was not widely used until the 13th century and that there is a very likely possibility that it will become obsolete in the future. But despite the existentialism behind questions of what a world without mass alphabetical order would look like, Flanders seemed excited to see where it goes.

“Will [alphabetical order] end up being a phase?” Flanders asked. “An 800-year phase, maybe!”

 

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