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Why Is the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order?

Thoughts on the periodic table, tai chi, and alphabetical order.

The Cloudcast/used with permission
Source: The Cloudcast/used with permission

My husband rolled over in bed the other morning.

“I was dreaming about the periodic table. I wonder if the alphabet is in the right order.” (Sometimes I feel like Ms. Frizzle, without her Magic School Bus.)

“What are you talking about?” (I hadn’t had my coffee yet.)

Form – or organization — follows function

The periodical table of the elements — as most of us learned in middle school — is one of the more brilliant achievements of the 19th century. Demetri Mendeleev is generally credited with inventing the modern organization of elements. Elements, of course, are the basic, indivisible units of matter. All matter is made up of different combinations of elements — as water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. A critical aspect of understanding chemistry is knowing that the ratio of elements that make up each compound like water is fixed: H2O. Water always has two units of hydrogen to one unit of oxygen.

What Mendeleev and those who worked before him discovered is why this is true. Different elements have different numbers of electrons in their outer shells. These differences, combined with the number of protons in their nuclei, cause them to have a charge or valance. These valences determine which other elements they can combine with and in which ratios.

It also determines their properties. Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements is organized according to atomic weight: the combined number of protons and neutrons that make up its nucleus. It is also — importantly — organized by the number of electrons in each element's outer shell. This, it turns out, is important. When you arrange the elements in this way, those that are in the same column tend to act in the same way. That’s why periodic tables are often color-coded (see above). When organized this way, you can see at a glance which elements are likely to share similar properties. The right-most column — the "noble gases" — are all odorless, colorless, and inert (they don’t combine with other elements). Copper (Cu), silver (Ag), and gold (Au) are all metals that interact in similar ways. They also make up the 11th column in the periodic table. My husband tells me — as I’m rummaging around my drawers, looking for matching socks — that there are other periodic tables, often kept secret by the companies that developed them. Each of them is organized in a different way because the organizational structure used reflects a different set of qualities that are important to the company involved.

Kids learn better when they learn why

Wendy Williams, a professor of human development at Cornell University, has looked at how kids learn about and understand the periodic table. One of the things that she has learned is that if kids come to understand why the periodic table is set up the way it is, they have a lot easier time with science. That it is, if kids understand that the table is an invention and not just an arbitrary arrangement of arcane abbreviations (why can’t they just write Gd instead of Au for gold?) they can start to use it as a tool. And once they see its use as a tool and understand its structure, it makes sense to them.

Things that make sense are much easier to learn than random nonsense syllables. Ask any number of cognitive psychologists. Williams has designed and introduced supports for teachers to help them teach the ‘whys’ of science, not just the ‘whats’.

This is particularly important for kids who are high risk, low income, or may not have a framework that makes it easy for them to grasp what the periodic table is and why they're being asked to learn it. It turns out when kids know the "whys," they remember the "whats." It’s a lot easier to remember facts when they make sense because they are part of a larger system.

Tai chi

By this time (as I’m digging through my closet for shoes), my husband is talking about tai chi. Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that is taught primarily by learning a sequence of slow moves that flow gently from one to another. It looks a lot like dance and is often taught only as dance and exercise in the United States.

The core of tai chi is wu chi, the centering of weight. The rest of the form is about movement — tai chi is a form of moving meditation, based on the Taoist philosophy that nothing is more natural than change. The tai chi form begins by carefully sinking into one leg, moving the other to just about shoulder-width, carefully balancing the weight equally on both legs, centering and floating the arms, and slowly rising up. It ends the same way. The reason that this is so is not just so you begin in a static state. It is also because one does the beginning of any exercise more than any other part of the sequence. People who are learning tai chi do the beginning motions — centering themselves — over and over and over again as they learn the moves. And they do it every single time they practice.

Why is wu chi — the centering — the first move? So it will be practiced.

Alphabetical order

All of which gets me back to the alphabet.

My husband’s initial question — is the alphabet in the right order? — was about the relationship between organizational structure, learning, and meaning. The order of the alphabet seems to be arbitrary. The Ethiopians, who, the internet tells me, had a script related to ours and a similar alphabet, arranged the letters in an order roughly associated with shape. For us, that would mean probably grouping letters like bdpq together and separating them from ones like gjy or csun. If I were to group letters together by similarity of name, I’d probably put all the ‘eeee’ sounds together (e,b,c,d,g,p,t,v,z). If I did it by the dominant sound of the letter, c & k would be together, b and p, z and s, etc. There are many possible conceptual organizations.

And why is the alphabet in the order it is? It has been in more or less the same order for thousands of years (see the comment section below), with roots in early alphabets in their ordering. But why are they organized the way they are? Probably (no one knows for sure) because it’s easy to memorize in that order. Currently, we stop at the rhymes and give it a bouncy little rhythm (abCdefG hiJklmnoP qrS tuV wX Y and Z). We have created a semblance of order from chaos — an arbitrary collection of nonsense sounds. The cognitive psychologists among us might note that there are 7 chunks (consonant with the magic number of things we can remember - 7 plus or minus 2).

But this particular organization also provides a particular structure to our experience of alphabetizing. I have known college students who never did figure out the order of those middle letters that run together (elemenopee) or the exact order of those guys at the end (w comes after u?). When I return papers in file folders, it is those later in the alphabet that are always out of order or out of place, suggesting less familiarity with that part of the alphabet. Yet every English speaker I have ever met over the age of 5 knows that first dozen or so.

Order changes knowledge because it structures practice. Had our forebears organized it differently, we would have different familiarity with different aspects of it and think about it in a different way.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved,

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