Alphabetical Fish.

Last year I posted about Judith Flanders’ A Place For Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order; now Joel at Far Outliers is posting excerpts, and I thought this one was piquant enough to repost here:

In Europe, … where alphabetical order was used, in many cases it was considered not as a tool of reference but as one of recall, a way of imprinting a series of items onto the memory in a culture that continued to rely heavily on oral transmission. It may be for this reason that the second-century Sentences of Sextus, 123 maxims on how to live a philosophically good life, were arranged in alphabetical order. Or it may not have been: once again, all we have are later copies, which might well have been reordered. (And, in addition, the named author, Sextus the Pythagorean, is unlikely to be the actual author of the work.) We know this type of reordering was routine. Fables by an author named Babrius, some of which are today collected under a generic authorship as Aesop’s Fables, survive in copies that were organized by the first letter of the opening word of each fable. Yet an Oxyrhynchus fragment of the same fables, dating from the second century, shows that at least one earlier version was not in this order. The purpose of the reordering may well have been to help listeners remember the stories so that they, in turn, could retell them. For memory was a recurring component of alphabetization: the Greek grammarian Athenaeus listed eighty-one species of fish in first-letter alphabetical order, “in order that what is said may be easier for you to remember.”

(I have complained about fish names more than once, e.g. here.)


  1. “That guy. Sure, I remember him. Always complaining about fish names.”

    Do biblical alphabetical acrostics count? I didn’t see them in the earlier post.

  2. Indeed, Psalm 119 comes to mind and predates these examples by hundreds of years.

  3. I was amazed when I learned that the order of the surahs in the Koran was determined simply by listing them from longest to shortest. This has the probably unintended effect of the putting the chapters with the detailed rules that Mohammed dictated for the administration of his caliphate, which tend to date to later in his life, largely before the his earlier, shorter, more apocalyptic, material.

  4. I always feel mild panic when I see the common Japanese decorations that list a lot of fish names, like this headache-inducing tote bag:

  5. : I was amazed when I learned that the order of the surahs in the Koran was determined simply by listing them from longest to shortest.

    Not strictly true; that is the general trend, but there are many exceptions (for example, Surah 8 is shorter than Surah 9). The key point is that they are not ordered chronologically.

    In premodern Arabic material, rhyme-alphabetical order is more usual, starting with the final letter rather than the first one, as in several medieval dictionaries. Looking through the manuscripts of Djenne, I came across an interesting little acrostic(?) poem that doesn’t seem to have been published anywhere, with each section successively rhyming in a different letter of the Arabic alphabet: “Maktoub fi lougati” (the title is a misnomer).

  6. Athelstan John Cornish-Bowden says

    In 1980 I was wandering around the fish market in Valparaíso with my wife-to-be (though I didn’t know she was my wife-to-be at that time). The fishmongers assumed their customers would know which fish was which, and didn’t label them. I asked my guide what a particular fish was, and she said she thought it was merluza [mer’lu̟sɑ]. Oh, [mer’lu̟ːθə], I said (in those days I thought one should try to speak like a Madrileño; I’ve learned better since), and she asked how I knew it was spelt with z rather than s. I didn’t but I just though merlusa wouldn’t look right, and I still think that.

    I’ve subsequently learned that merluza is hake, possibly the most boring fish that God created.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW the conventional ordering of the Pauline Epistles in the New Testament is (with complications) also in descending order of length: first Romans down to 2 Thess (with one small anomaly in the ordering of Galatians v. Ephesians), then starting again with the “pastoral” epistles but again giving that separate groupoing in descending length order, and then with Hebrews (recognized early on as a definite outlier of some sort even without a consensus of what sort) stuck at the end. It was recognized early on that this was a non-chronological order, because even if the current modern scholarly consensus or semi-consensus on order had not yet been reached, no one in the Patristic era thought Romans was first in time.

  8. jack morava says

    There is a confused literature circling around possible relations between the phoenician/greek abjad/alphabet and the `day signs’ of IIRC mesopotamian astronomy [A my name is Aleph, I look like an aurochs-head and I come from Algeria.] The issue is not the shape of the symbols but the significance of the order: aside from number systems, long (maybe more than seven) enduring ordered sequences of culturally significant things are hard to come by. [The mesoamerican long count uses twenty numbers and an ordered cycle of thirteen more enigmatic and variable items; it has been suggested that it was originally used to keep track of human pregnancies.]

    In off-topic but interesting late-breaking news, bottle-nosed dolphins (males at least) seem to have proper names

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    It has been known for years that all male bottle-nosed dolphins are called Dave. The researchers have been confusing personal names with matronymics.

  10. jack morava says

    @ David Eddyshaw: a palpable hit! I am reminded that in `The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai …’, the alien Lectroids all have first name `John’, eg Lord John Whorfin, John Bigboot\’e, John Yaya, u z w…

  11. I think most of the sutras in the tripitaka are arranged by length:

    Digha Nikāya (dīghanikāya), the “long” discourses.
    Majjhima Nikāya, the “middle-length” discourses.
    Saṁyutta Nikāya (saṃyutta-), the “connected” discourses.
    Anguttara Nikāya (aṅguttara-), the “numerical” discourses.

    The third one is a grouping by topic, and the fourth one is a very interesting organizational concept (to me) – the sutras grouped in the Anguttara Nikaya are grouped according to how many items are listed within the sutra. Sutras with one thing in them come first, gradually moving up to sutras with eleven things in them.

  12. ə de vivre says

    Cuneiform not being an alphabet, an alphabetical order never developed, but lists with ad hoc groupings of entries with the same first sign were pretty common. There’s a whole genre of texts conventionally called “literary catalogues” that consist of lists of first lines of “literary” compositions. The lists were probably inventories of physical baskets containing tablets, and they were organized by type of composition (placing ritual laments together), subject (placing texts about Gilgamesh together), and also by first sign (placing texts that begin with ‘u4’ together).

    Exercises for teaching students syllabic cuneiform signs did adopt conventional sequences of syllabic values (including an implicit order of vowels, “u, a, i”), but AFAIK, this order was never used outside of this one specific pedagogical context.

Speak Your Mind