The Alphabet: An Algorithm

James Gleick in his information novel entitled, The Information, touches on the different forms of communicating, and in turn, computing and understanding the information that we encounter in our lives. From the use of “talking drums” in Africa, to the use of the Alphabet, Gleick is able to provide thought provoking analysis about how communication has changed over the course of his novel.

In the course of reading the novel so fair, I’ve noticed the amount of time that Gleick spends on discussing the Alphabet, how it has used, and how it has changed since its invention. Particularly, in chapter 3, Gleick writes,

“That Crawdrey should arrange his words in alphabetical order, to make his Table Alphabeticall, was not self-evident. He knew he could not count on even his educated readers to be versed in alphabetical order, so he tried to produce a small how to manual…

Thou shall learn the alphabet, to wit, the order of the letters as they stand, perfectly without booke, and where evert Letter standeth: as b neere the beginning, n about the middesti, and t toward the end. Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with an a then look in the beginning of this table, but if with v looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with ca looke in the beginning of the letter c but if with cu then looke toward the end of that letter. And so of all the rest. &c” (57).

Crawdrey, who sought out to write the first dictionary (although that wasn’t what it was called at its creation in 1604), struggled with how to format his work by the alphabet because during the time period, few knew the alphabet and how to use it. In fact, according to Gleick, even the very words and definitions that Crawdrey was recording were commonly disputed and no one was quite certain what the exact meanings and spellings were.

In the above quoted passage, the reader, finds not only can find roots in computer science, but also in the humanities and the english language. The reader finds what is possibly the first algorithm, created by Crawdrey, as well as language itself, the very thing that humans use to communicate and facilitate the spread of ideas that we still use today.

The way in which Crawdrey decided to instruct users on how to use his dictionary using alphabetical order can be likened to one of the first algorithms used in society. By follow those step by step instructions, Crawdrey expects the user to get a certain result – finding the particular word that they are looking for. The steps done change in regard to the word you are looking for. Today, when we think of algorithms, one may think of a robot being given a certain input to complete a job, like flagging tweets or facebook posts for deletion. However, algorithms are also step by step instructions that you use to complete a task. For instance, anyone can learn how to solve a rubiks cube if they learn the different algorithms. The algorithms to complete the task don’t change depending on how the cube is mixed up, they’re always the same serious of terms. Crawdrey’s instructions to look up a word are the exact same type of process, just with different wording.

Crawdrey’s dictionary can be viewed as representing the first algorithm, but it is also inherently a way of communication and has a distinct connection to humanities. A core feature of humanities is the way that human beings record, share, and spread new information. By creating the first dictionary, Crawdrey recorded, intended to share, and facilitated the spread of not only the alphabet, but a more uniform and common way of defining and spelling words. Now, obviously, we know that from previous class discussions that the humanities don’t have one exact definition, goal, and study – the humanities are inherently a combination of multiple things lumped into just one category to explain human nature and thought. With this in mind, we know that while Crawdrey’s dictionary was never reinvented, we know that it was changed, edited, and adapted and time went on, human nature changed, and humans learned more information. The human race doesn’t have just one dictionary, we have more concrete definitions and spellings for each word then we did in 1604, and we have more then one producer of dictionaries (Mariam Webster, the Oxford Dictionary, The Cambridge Dictionary, etc.), we even go as far to have dictionaries that translate different languages into English.

In general, one of the most interesting thing about Gleick’s novel, The Information, is that, as a reader, it opens your eyes to not only what technology was before the age of smartphones and computers, but it opens your eyes to the way information itself has transformed since the beginning of time. Crawdrey’s dictionary, his explanation and steps used to understand alphabetical ordering, and the various interpretations and editions that were created after its original publications shows signs of not only the beginnings of computer technology, but it is a perfect example of the humanities and the way in which this form of study allows for interpretation, communication, and the spread of information.

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