Daily Archives: 2 May 2021

Neutrality of Alphabetical Order

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 18-19:

This alphabetic predominance makes it hard for us to remember today that the phrase “alphabetical order” has two parts, and that they might be of equal weight: “alphabetical,” yes, but also “order.” And that all order, and ordering, is not of necessity alphabetical—indeed, for centuries the idea of ordering by random chance, by the letters of the alphabet, was considered less useful than a multitude of other sorting methods—geographical, chronological, hierarchical, categorical. Sometimes things had, and continue to have, no visible organizing method, their innate order being so essential that it is simply remembered. For a medieval clergyman, what would have been the point of putting the books of the Bible in alphabetical order? To him, it was obvious that Genesis comes before Exodus, just as, to us, it is obvious that Monday comes before Tuesday, September before October. In fact, it is surprisingly difficult to put the days of the week or the months of the year into alphabetical order, because the days and months have a “natural” order, one that is not alphabetical.

Other types of categorizing and sorting that were natural to generations past today seem as peculiar to us as April heading a list of the months of the year because it begins with A. Yet in a world more stratified than our own, sorting things hierarchically was once a natural impulse. The Domesday Book, that summary of land occupancy in England and parts of Wales produced for William the Conqueror in 1086, assessed the values of 13,418 places, organizing them first by status, then by geography, then by status again, and finally by wealth. The king came first, followed—broken down by region—by the great clergy, the powerful barons, and, lastly, each district’s most humble tenants.

But of course, for the information in the Domesday Book to be accessible to later readers, they had to know the regions of England and Wales, and the orders of hierarchy—who outranked whom. For, in all the millennia of reading and writing, only one major sorting system has evolved that requires no previous knowledge from the searcher: alphabetical order. To use it, the only thing searchers need to know is a list of approximately (depending on the language) two dozen characters, in an established order. They do not need to know on what continent a city is located to find it in an atlas, nor if a bishop outranks a cardinal to find him in a list of participants at a clerical summit. Neither do they need to know whether the English Civil War preceded or postdated the American Civil War to locate it in an alphabetical list of “Wars Through History”; nor, indeed, do they need to know whether a pumpkin is considered a vegetable or a fruit to search for it in a seed catalog.

Alphabetical order is in this way entirely neutral.

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