Unalphabetical Orders

In many of the early indexes I’ve been looking at, it’s not uncommon for alphabetical order to be somewhat loosely practised. As modern readers, we’re used to seeing alpha order being applied not just to the first letter of a word, but to the second, third, fourth, and so on, as need be. So beetles come before budgerigars, but after beavers, etc. By contrast, it’s quite common in a sixteenth-century index to find that initial letters simply serve as a kind of bucket, wherein terms may be listed in any order: budgies, beavers, badgers, beetles… So one of the things I’ve been watching out for as I track through early modern book indexes is, How alphabetical is it? Then this one came up and caught me right off guard.IMG_3239

Ignoring the squiggles and nonsense words and looking just at the ordering: A, E, I… there’s clearly an alphabetical order here, but it’s an idiosyncratic one. Why start with the vowels? What order are the consonants in?

The book is called An Orthographie, conteyning the due order and reason, howe to write or paint thimage of mannes voice, most like to the life of nature. It’s from 1569, and the author is John Hart. Hart’s Orthographie is a call for spelling reform to bring writing into line with pronunciation. For a near-contemporary example of the opposite, think of the ludicrous Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, complaining that people should pronounce words exactly as they’re spelled:

…such rackers of orthography, as to speak ‘dout’ sine b, when he should say ‘doubt’; ‘det’, when he should pronounce ‘debt’,—d, e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf ‘cauf’; half, ‘hauf’; neighbour vocatur ‘nebor’; neigh abbreviated ‘ne’. This is abhominable — which he would call abbominable.

Hart wants us to write the way we talk, and to show us what he means, his small book contains an analysis of spoken English establishing the sounds we actually use. Many of these, of course, are already represented by letter forms in the Roman alphabet, but Hart notes that some letters are surplus to requirements: goodbye j, w, y, c and q. More significantly, Hart finds that there are certain sounds which can’t be divided into smaller units, but which don’t already have their own letters. Thus a few additional characters need to be invented for sounds like sh and th (both voiced, as in then, and unvoiced, as in thin).

To show he means business, the final third of Hart’s book is written entirely in his simplified orthography. This is a nifty trick: if we want to finish the book we’ll have to actually engage with the writing system, and thus (hopefully) discover that it’s not as tricky as it looks. (Another nifty trick: the first part of the book is set in blackletter, but the type changes into easier-to-read italics for this last section.) When it comes to the index, Hart includes this note about how his new alphabet should be ordered. *Scroll down for a translation.


It’s rather a wonderful book. Its phonetic analysis is sophisticated and reliable enough to present us with a valuable guide to mid sixteenth century English pronunciation. What’s more, it wears its learning agreeably lightly. In place of the usual Printer To the Reader epistle, in Hart’s Orthographie it is the compositor – the person who’s job it was to set the type, letter by letter – who gets his say. Here, in a short poem, the compositor recalls balking when he first saw the gobbledegook he was expected to set: ‘Loth I was the workman to bee’. Now, poor thing, he finds it hard to set type in our old, flawed way of writing: just one more reason to adopt Hart’s method.


*An advertisement touching the order of the following table.
Because the vowels and consonants are divided into such parts as before, this table doth keep them in the like order: to-wit first a, e, i, o, u, and then the four pairs which are made with a stopping breath: to wit b, p: d, t: g, k: and j, ch. Then the other three throughly breathed pairs, to wit th [voiced, as in then], th [unvoiced, as in thin]: v, f: and z, s. Then the 5 semi-vocals l, m, n, r, and [syllabic] l, and the two breaths sh, and h: also, for that in the order before used, these new letters are not comprehended. Wherefore this table is placed and set in such order as followeth.


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