Friday, June 17, 2005

The Vagaries of Sort

Andrew West left a comment on my Siege of Belgrade post to this effect.

The lack of "J" is more likely to be a relic from the time
when "I" and "J" were not considered to be separate
letters. My 1785 edition of Thomas Dyche's wonderful "A
Guide to the English Tongue" (first published 1709) gives
three rather pedantic examples of alphabet poems, the
one quoted below omits "I" and "X", .... and the other two
omit both "J" and "U". Dyche himself vigourously asserted
the distinctiveness of "I", "J", "U" and "V" as independent
letters, but old habits die hard, and so even in the early
19th-century Watts may not have considered "J" to be a
proper letter in its own right.

I went to a Toronto website for further information on things alphabetical and found a book by Jean Florence Shaw called Contributions to a Study of the Printed Dictionary in France Before 1539. In section Arrangement of lemmata, every possible arrangement for entries in a glossary is presented, from the location of the word in a literary text to thematic and alphabetic order.

There is an overwhelming variety in the nature of alphabetical organization from the third century BC on, beginning with a glossary of hard words in Homer. Alphabetical arrangement was often only by the first letter of the word but some went to the second and third letter. However, two books are mentionned from the 2nd and 9th centuries which follow nearly perfect alphabetical order.

Here are some of the different principles of alphabetical arrangement which have been applied unevenly over the millenia.

1. Grouping together all words beginning with the same letter
2. Grouping together to the second letter
3. This was not always the second letter occuring in the word,
the second letter might be the vowel of the first syllable,
regardless of what other letter might intervene.
4. Words whose initial syllable was pronounced the same were grouped together
5. For "U" glossaries distinguished words beginning with a vowel
from those beginning with a consonant
6. "H" was often not taken into consideration either initially or medially
7. "Ph" was mixed with "F", and "C" with "K"
8. Double consonants were grouped with single consonants

Shaw concludes that "The determining factor in ordering entries was the syllable, not the letter." I believe she is saying that the order depended more on the pronunciation of the first syllable of the word than on the spelling of the word.

Since one of my interests is assisting dyslexics to search in google more easily, I wonder whether one could use a phonetic spellcheck to input into the search box and recreate the effect of a phonetic search order. How about typing "fonetik" into the box? or Kanada? and getting content that matches that pronunciation? Type fonetically, chose from a series of possible spellings (which you might recognize but cannot produce), check the attached dictionary function, select, confirm, input - sounds like Pinyin to me.

Back to history. Encyclopedic knowledge was not submitted to the indignity of aphabetization until the 18th century. This encyclopedia, described in Encarta, first published in 1704, was considered the first one, in English at least, to be alphabetically arranged. The Lexicon Technicum; or an Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences Explaining not only the Terms of Art, but the Arts Themselves.

Diderot & Alembert's Encyclop├ędie, 1751 - 1777, was arranged thematically.


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