Alphabetizing da a T

Abstract

As children in elementary school we were taught to recite the alphabet in order: “Aay, Bee, See, Dee, Eii, Eff, Ghee, Aaych, …, Why and Zee”. There is nothing natural about this particular ordering: it is strictly a matter of convention. (When and where it was settled upon I haven’t the remotest notion.) Then, having mastered the ordering, we were taught to apply that knowledge to alphabetize lists of words. The procedure is surprisingly complex, and its mastery by mere eight-year olds attests to the elevated intellectual capacities of human beings. One merely has to try to write down the procedure in a flow chart to see how complex it truly is. In any event, most of us probably emerged from the exercise of learning to use a dictionary believing that we knew all there is to know about alphabetizing. If only that were all there is to it. The trouble is that our third-grade teachers had not reckoned on our having to program computers to alphabetize..

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