As my Padawan continues to obtain a better grasp on language I continue to find myself revisiting a great many aspects of it I’d taken for granted over the years.
The most recent perplexing one is the A, B, Cs. The song itself is a simple little diddy that is designed to help remember the order that at the moment both my Padawan and I hate for different reasons.
Maybe hate is a strong word, but sometimes for them it’s difficult to get out the sounds and the pitches and the rhythm by memory at this point. It’s more fun to just sing other things.
For me, it’s a pointless exercise in learning something in a way that serves little actual purpose. After all, the names of the letters are vastly different than how they sound in actual phonics. And the order of the letters is generally arbitrary – since it’s not grouping them in ways that represent phonetic usage.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love when Padawan gets through the first few letters without prompting correctly and then realizes it and cheers themselves on. I love when I start singing and suddenly stop that they are able to pick up where I left off (or at least get marginally close).
So, why is that order the order of the English alphabet and moreso, why do we pronounce the letters completely different from how they sound in actual phonics?
I’ve actually spent a bit of time poking around to figure this out over the years. I can’t remember if it bothered me sooner, but a while back I was trying to relearn French on my own and as I was working through French phonics I realized that the alphabet was largely meaningless in getting my pronunciation back up to speed. I ended up grouping written letters and related sounds together in my own way based on how they are used which felt more intuitive. More recently, I studied a little bit of Japanese and the instructor presented their characters in groups in similar fashion. It made it infinitely easier for me to grasp the symbols and sounds. Truth be told, I’m still a novice at both languages and I have no idea if the practice of using the phonics sound of a character or grouping the characters in like ways really helps or not, but it ‘felt’ better.
Which brings me to English and our approach. So far as I can tell, no on really knows why English letters are ordered as they are, and that’s because English is a fairly bastardized language in-and-of itself at this point. But, even the roots of Western writing don’t offer a lot of definitives. Somewhere between the 19th and 15th centuries before the common era somewhere in what’s now modern Egypt the Canaanites or the Semitic or potentially one of the regional maritime civilizations began the process of translating (for lack of a better word here) glyphs into an alphabetic script. The scripting concept spread throughout the region and was either adapted, adopted or inspiring to many local languages, such as Ugaritic, which was a precursor to the Phoenician alphabet that gained widespread acceptance. Theirs would eventually be adapted by the Greeks and Etruscans, among others. The Latins then began another series of adaptions which would become Roman and due to the Empire’s vast footprint throughout the Middle East and Europe gained even greater dominance.
All this tells us were the alphabet originated, not why it functions the way it does. Anthropologists, linguists and other scientists have a number of working theories which logically would make sense, such as: being based on how the letters were originally either phonetically pronounced or functionally used to spell; it was a mnemonic device for early ‘translators’; it was engineered from a numerical component; it was designed around ease of writing using early implements; or it was quite arbitrary with little practical meaning. Nonetheless, subsequent cultures adapting and adopting those ancient concepts appear to have retained many of the elements likely out of convenience, familiarity, or lack of necessity to change it.
So, we’re stuck with an arbitrary list of letters that have no correspondence to either how they sound or where they are used in spelling — and I sit here with my Padadawn contemplating:
What do we say “A” as “Ayh.” Sure, in “bake” it makes that “ayh” sound, because the letter “E” helps it out. But in “alphabet” it does not. Nor, in “artist” or “aluminum” or “aspirin” which are all examples of works where the “A” stands alone.
And, “B” we say as “bee” which of course works when you’re referring to the insect with the stinger that pollinates flowers but fails miserably with the aforementioned “bake” or “book” or “blemish” or “labor” which functionally are “Beh.
Then, there’s “C” which is said like “see” but used more like like “Kuh” in words like “cat,” “creature,” “cuddle,” and “calamity.” Of course, under Caesar it makes a “see” sound, but more often than not it’s challenged by another consonant and changes much to the “sees” chagrin.
We’re only three letters in and how many words can you think of where B and C are even paired together? Perhaps with A being a vowel it makes sense with B but the pairing of two consonants with no relationship with one another seems wasteful. Of course, all of those linguistic pairings that should be teamed up are always far apart. T and H? C and H? N and T? N and G? S and C? Nope we have fantastic foursomes like J-K-L-M and W-X-Y-Z and P-Q-R-S. Because those grouping are so common they deserve to be put together for posterity just so they can have meaning together (because you’re never going to create a use for them any other way!
And, we wonder why learning English is a Herculean task. Look at the basis from which we begin!
Continuing on there’s “D” which like “C” employees that same “ee” sound for the alphabet only to disguise itself as “duh” for “dirty,” “dog,” “dumb,” and “demagogue” and even “and” uses it. Sure, “demand” employees the “dee” but it doubles down with a determined “duh” at the end.
“E” is said “ee” but sometimes it’s not. As a vowel some of it’s employment is determined by your accent but in a lot of cases if it’s not silently acting on another letter it’s more of an “eh” type of tone.
Which brings us to “G” with another familiar “ee” in stating the letter’s name. What’s your “game” letter “G?” Are you “going” to “get” “great” with a “guh” sounds or are you relegated to only making sense with the colloquial “Gee” wiz?
Point being, we spend all this time learning the letter names and the alphabetical order when they’re rarely ever used in that way. Sure, it fits the melody of “Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman,” a French folk song from the 1760s as well as the English melodic adaptions of tunes like “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” but that’s no reason to keep something that’s otherwise useless.
When I bring this up to other people I get crossed looks. Depending on your socio-political background questioning this is nothing short of heresy in some cases (No kidding too, I’ve literally been told to “eff of libtard” in person by someone eavesdropping on the conversation.) while others it appears to be one of the more interesting insights we can contemplate.
I’m not an educator, linguist or scientist with the ways and means to do more with this other than point it out. Maybe, someday someone will stumble on a better way. Till then, I’ll casually sing my “ah” “beh” “kuh” “duh” “eh” “ffff” “guh”‘s with a giggle and hope that Padawan is eventually in on the joke