Daily Archives: 22 May 2021

Other Alphabetical Orders in the Olympics

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 239-240:

BY THE MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY, alphabetical order was no longer considered a historical quirk, a creation that over seven hundred years had spread its tentacles into a fair number of different fields. Instead, it was seen, unthinkingly, as something intrinsic, and, more importantly, something that developed nations all shared. According to the original International Olympic Committee rules of 1921, the opening ceremony to each Olympic Games saw the national teams entering “in alphabetical order by country.” In 1949 that was clarified, the regulations now specifying that the teams were to enter “in the alphabetical order of the language of the host nation.” Yet when the 1964 Olympics were held in Japan, for the first time in a country with a nonalphabetic script, the IOC simply shrugged its institutional shoulders and team entry was ordered by English-language place names, as written in the roman alphabet. By then, at least to western European minds, anywhere without an alphabet was not just different; instead, it was that dreadful thing—not modern. It was not until 1988, when South Korea hosted the games, that a nation stood up and made the alphabetic world aware that alphabetical order was not Holy Writ, and many countries and civilizations had managed perfectly well for millennia without it and, every bit as importantly, were continuing to do so, while still thriving in the capitalist market economy. In Seoul, Ghana entered first, followed by Gabon, ga being the first syllable of the Korean han’gul syllabary [sic; see below]. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese hosts followed traditional fourth-century classifying systems, which sorted each ideogram first by a single radical, used as its primary identifier, and then by the number of brushstrokes it contained. And the world did not come to an end, nor did China stop being the world’s second-largest economy simply because it had historically sorted and organized by systems the West no longer used. In fact, the sole result was a minor panic among Western television networks as they attempted to work out where to slot their advertising breaks in order not to miss their own country’s appearance. Not really an alphabetical existential crisis.

Korean hangul is an alphabet, not a syllabary. The syllable ga 가 consists of the first consonant ㄱ (g) and the first vowelㅏ(a) in Korean alphabetical order, in which the n of Ghana precedes the b of Gabon.

Chinese Parade of Nations order for the 2008 Olympics had little to do with radicals and ancient dictionary order. But it did rely on brushstroke counts rather than the pinyin alphabet.

Pinyin order for Chinese names of countries and regions can be found on pp. 961-971 in The Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary, edited by  Wu Jingrong of the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 1979). The names of countries are ordered by the choice of syllables used to transcribe the sounds (and sometimes meanings) of those country names. Let’s ignore tones here.

The sequence of Albania (阿尔巴尼亚 A-er-ba-ni-ya), Ireland (爱尔兰 Ai-er-lan), and Andorra (安道尔 An-dao-er) follows pinyin alphabetical order syllable by syllable, because A precedes AI and then AN.

The same principle governs the pinyin alphabetical order of the initial syllables of Mauritania (毛里塔尼亚 Mao-li-ta-ni-ya), the United States (美国 Mei-guo ‘beautiful-country’), and Mongolia (蒙古 Meng-gu): MAO > MEI > MENG.

Similarly, Iceland (冰岛 Bing-dao ‘ice-island’) precedes Denmark (丹麦 Dan-mai): BING > DAN. And Haiti (海地 Hai-di) precedes Canada (加拿大 Jia-na-da): HAI > JIA.

The Chinese names for Denmark and Canada illustrate another wrinkle. The first Chinese to name those countries were traders in Canton, where 加 (meaning ‘add’) was pronounced /ka/, as in other early borrowings for coffee (now written 咖啡 kafei) and curry (now written 咖喱 gali), in both cases with an added mouth radical on the left to show that the characters are to be read for their sound, not meaning.

The correspondence between southern Chinese /k-/ and northern Chinese /j-/ also shows up in many old place names on maps, like Nanking vs. Nanjing. In Cantonese, there was a syllable-final /k/ on 麦 ‘wheat, barley’, so 丹麦 would sound more like /danmak/.  The final /k/ also shows up in early Sino-Japanese and Sino-Korean readings for the same character. Sino-Japanese 麦酒 bakushu ‘beer’ and Sino-Korean 맥주 (麥酒) maekju ‘beer’ both translate into ‘barley-liquor’. Japanese 麦酒 bakushu is rarely used these days, but it still appears in the official name for Kirin Brewery.

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