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January 1, 2013

[eim] Alphabetizing by importance

A New Yorker article that profiles John Quijada, the inventor of a language (and a double-dotter!), mentions the first artificial language we know about, Lingua Ignota. The article’s author, Joshua Foer, tells us it was invented by Hildegard von Bingen (totally fun to say out loud) in the 12th century. “All that remains of her language is a short passage and a dictionary of a thousand and twelve words listed in hierarchical order, from the most important (Aigonz, God) to the least (Cauiz, cricket).” There’s more about Lingua Ignota over at our friend, Wikipedia. (And did you remember to kick in a few bucks to keep Wikipedia in booze and cigarettes?)

Ordering a list by cosmic importance (remember the Great Chain of Being?) makes sense if everyone agrees on what that order is. And it expresses respect for the order. That’s why some clergyfolk objected to the fact that Diderot’s Encyclopedia in the 18th century alphabetized its contents. Imagine Cows coming before God!

Before we sneer, we should keep in mind that we do the same thing when we make lists to be seen by others. For example, lists of donors put the Big Money folk first. For another example, we wouldn’t post a list of New Year’s resolutions in the following order:

My New Year’s Resolutions

  1. Floss regularly.

  2. Bring in an apple instead of snacking from the vending machine

  3. Don’t let the ironing back up for more than a week

  4. Quit meth.

  5. Refill the bird-feeder before it’s empty.

  6. Get those birthday cards in the mail on time!

And there are rhetorical rules for the order in which we give reasons to support an argument. For example, we often give the easiest reason to accept first, and lead up to the most serious reason: “It’s easy, it’ll save money, people will feel good about it, and it’s the right thing to do.” The phrase “most important,….” is not permitted to appear in the middle of a sentence.

Order is content.

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