Who wrote the alphabet song?

Whether you learned your ABCs on Sesame Street, from your grandmother, or in kindergarten, you probably learned them. The clever tune is imprinted in the brains of most of us English speakers. When you look up a word in a print dictionary, you may still sing the song to yourself to remember if L is before J or not.

We take the song for granted today, but someone had to write that tune. Though you may not recognize it, the tune of the alphabet song is based on the tune of a very common nursery rhyme: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. In the 1780s, Mozart originally composed the tune as a variation on a classic French nursery rhyme “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” (which means “Ah! Would I tell you, mother?”). Fifty years later, an American music publisher Charles Bradlee put the useful lyrics to that catchy tune: A, B, C, D… you know how it goes. In 1835, he copyrighted the song. The song’s legal title was “The A.B.C., a German air with variations for the flute with an easy accompaniment for the piano forte.” (Nursery rhymes of all stripes help young children learn the rules of language. Learn more here.)

Obviously, the rest is history. Today, the tune is standard for alphabet songs, not only the English alphabet, but also French and German.

Similarly, other languages have alphabet songs to help children learn and remember the written language. In Arabic, the alphabet song is also a child-friendly tune called “Alif Ba Ta Tsa”. Both Japanese and Chinese have poems that express all the characters in the language. In Japanese, a poem, “Iroha”, contains all the syllables of Japanese, called kana. A more common organization of the language, though, is the gojūon, which also has all the Japanese kanas. In Chinese, a poem called the “Thousand Character Classic” helps schoolchildren learn all the Chinese characters. Clearly, we all need alphabets and mnemonic devices to help us remember written language.

Do you still use the alphabet song regularly?

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