The Alphabetical Order by Andrew Gunn
In the book Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax, Woody says that the problem with being an auto-didact is that you can be very conversant and knowledgeable in your own areas of interest and preference, but lack a basic education in other, sometimes fundamental, subjects. For example, I learned the term “auto-didact” from the book Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax.
Either way, what happened was that I was playing with my son’s alphabet bricks.
Mr Boy got a wooden trolley for his first birthday. It has space for 33 bricks of five different colours. Each brick has a letter of the alphabet or a shape (star, rectangle, what have you).
The trolley bed has room for five rows of five bricks, one row of three between the legs of the push-bar, and another row of five. You already know this if your eye has wandered below.
It’s one of Mr Boy’s favourite toys, and within moments of receiving it from his Auntie Lizzie the bricks were all over the goddamn flat like bear-traps. I find them in the washing machine. I find them in my pillow case. I find them in my shoes.
One day I realised I’d never actually seen the bricks laid out in their trolley, so I decided to figure out the pattern. Were the colours random or part of a design? Which way was up? Using trial and error, with the five colours as a guide, I arrived at this arrangement (with [ ] denoting a shape):
This was not only aesthetically pleasing, it also gave me a tremendous sense of achievement. So naturally I wasn’t finished with those bricks.
Mr Boy and I frequently have occasion to view breakfast television, and while his eyes glaze over at the various news and magazine shows on offer, he is quite intent on watching Countdown (one channel away from Peppa Pig, which follows) as I make his porridge. I think he likes the big clock—but he may also be absorbing valuable anagram-solving skills. Based on this interest I’ve been attempting to teach him the difference between vowels and consonants.
To demonstrate this, I rearranged the alphabet bricks to highlight the vowels and was surprised and delighted to discover this pattern:
The self-taught man is uneasy at such a discovery. I can’t be the first to see the alphabet in this way. I’m probably not even the first parent to do this with their child’s bricks. Maybe there are books on this pattern, maybe there are college courses and bumper stickers. Maybe Andy Kaufman had a routine about it. I don’t know.
But look at that shit!
Nobody has a goddamn clue as to who actually sat down and put the alphabet in alphabetical order. A cursory internet search taught me that the concept of an order itself can be traced back to the cuneiform script Ugaritic, which was a Semitic language used in Syria around 1400 BC. Unfortunately those crazy Ugaritians didn’t keep meticulous and durable records of their linguistic history, although the Sumerians say they were absolute fiends at Scrabble.
As the arsenal of letters was traded through cultures and eras, the shapes changed and new ones were added. In the last 400 years the U/V shape became the distinct U and V, and then expanded to W. Some of the other letters moved around—Z was abandoned for a time before being re-admitted but sent to the back of the class.
So the order seems to have developed somewhat organically. All the more intriguing, then, that divided into vowels and consonants it should assume such a pleasing shape.
My theory is this: it looks like a Christmas tree, or one of those keys with the teeth on both sides, which is like someone telling us that vowels are like the trunk or spine of the alphabet. Except that we know there was never a someone—shit just unfolded on its own.
Which means that we are the someone. We have given this message to ourselves unconsciously, either without design or with design of unfathomable patience and complexity.
In hanging our mess of consonant sounds upon an upright of essential vowels, we are assuring ourselves of two things:
1. Our natural tendency is to create order;
2. Necessity is the backbone of order.
Mr Boy may have been assured, but he was not so intrigued. Immediately after I’d laid out my vowel-consonant diagram, as pictured above, he swept the bricks onto the floor with a satisfied squeal.
Originally published 17 June 2014.