For an English speaker with 26 characters, the concept of sorting is ubiquitous. If I see a list, I inherently expect it to be sorted by one of the columns, and of course clicking a column to sort is useful to me if that column's value is what I seek.

I had/have never considered languages like Japanese, Korean and Chinese. My question is twofold, and I'll use Chinese as an example:

  1. Do Chinese readers expect and use some type of sorting system?
  2. Is it as useful to their mental process as alphabetic sorting is to say an English speaker?

I would really value input from a native speaker, especially someone who does say research on the web as part of their work.

  • 1
    Chinese, Japanese, and Korean use completely different writing systems, so there may well not be a single phenomenon covering all of them. Also, alphabetic writing systems don't always have a standard order; or if there is one, it may not be in use as a sorting system. A great deal depends on the level and scope of literacy in the culture.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 14:54
  • 4
    Korean can easily be sorted alphabetically, as it has an alphabet and Hanja are not commonly used (often just in parentheses to clarify in South Korea, and not at all in North Korea). Only catch is that order is different on SK and NK Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 19:32
  • 2
    @OliverWilliams, I share your respect for both Chinese writing and the movie Arrival, but in fact it should be noted that Chinese writing isn't literally "ideographic"—unlike the fictitious Heptapod B. Heptapod B represents pure ideas, in a way that's totally unrelated to their natural language, Heptapod A. Chinese writing, by contrast, represent Chinese words in a Chinese sentence (or, with adaptations, Japanese/Korean/Viet etc.) That is, they stand for particular words in a particular order in a certain language; not pure ideas directly, but language, complete with sound, syntax etc. Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 21:32
  • 2
    @OliverWilliams also, we should be careful to distinguish languages from writing systems (ways of representing languages as marks on paper). Chinese cannot be an ideographic language or English an alphabetic one, no more than algebra can be a blue-colored math. Korea moved from Chinese characters to a sound-based writing system, but their language is still Korean. If English speakers decided to adopt Chinese characters for some reason, their language would be the same one, English; only the way of putting it into paper would change. Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 21:38
  • 1
    @MarkS. I'm sorry, somehow YouTube's search gave me that, as I remembered the video but didn't really have the original URL. Deleting and reposting since I cannot edit: I cannot really give a better answer than the one you got, but I want to link to this video as it shows the difficulties of kanji not having one very obvious collation order, nor, perhaps more importantly, being easily searchable, in a funny way by a native speaker of Japanese.
    – LjL
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 18:07

2 Answers 2


Yes, all of these cultures expect and use sorting pretty much just like alphabet-using cultures do.

Japanese has a set of some 46 phonetic characters called kana. They're arranged by phonetics in a table of fixed order, called the 50 sounds table (gojūonzu), a descendant of Sanskrit phonetic tables. Textual data, glossaries, lists etc. are usually sorted in gojūonzu order, and speakers will mentally use gojūonzu order to find words in indexes, etc. There's also another system called iroha order. In the past, people learned to write with a poem called the Iroha song, which uses every kana symbol exactly once. The order of characters in the poem then doubled as an order for sorting. This is today old-fashioned, but you can still stumble on things sorted by iroha order from time to time.

For counting, Chinese had a set of 12 ordinals called the Earthly Branches (dìzhī, 地支), and a separate set of 10 ordinals called the the Celestial Stems (tiāngān, 天干). These are thought to derive from the 12 months of the lunar year and the 10 days of an ancient week system; they're used to count things like "A, B, C…" or "I, II, III…" in lists. (The 12 Branches were later associated with 12 Zodiac-like animals, providing an easy mnemonic.) By combining one Earthly Branch and one Celestial Stem to make a pair, and then iterating both of them together as if in a system of gears, you'll get an ordered sequence of 60 pairs; this is used for counting years in the sexagenary cycle. The Japanese use these Chinese counters for sequences, too.

Sorting Chinese text itself, like we sort text in alphabetical order, is trickier. Some dictionaries and things today sort by pronunciation, arranged in alphabetical order according to its pīnyīn spelling in the Latin alphabet. (That is, first convert Chinese characters to the pīnyīn alphabet, then use that spelling to sort them.) Older systems generally order characters by number of strokes, and by the components they have in common. By far the most used system for that is the list of 214 Kangxi section headers, originally the indexers of a dictionary dating from 1615.

In computing, the sort order of text is called "collation", and there are standard algorithms to sort text in the order expected by each language/script.

  • 4
    Note that the Kangxi ordering system is still used even with Pinyin sorting, to order the many, many homophones. So you'd first sort alphabetically by Pinyin (including sorting numerically for tones 1–5), then subsort by stroke count within each Pinyin syllable, and then sub-subsort by radical number. Or sometimes in reverse, subsorting for radical first and then stroke count afterwards. Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 18:13
  • 1
    but you can still stumble on things sorted by iroha order from time to time. Microsoft Word (as of Office 2013, and maybe newer) has Iroha order in one of the numbering options. This is in the regular English version, not Japanese! If you go into the dialog to tweak the format of a numbered list, it's one of the choices in the "Change number format" drop-down box.
    – Kaz
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 2:28
  • @Kaz Perhaps they did that to be compatible with CSS2 lists. The properties list-style-type: hiragana-iroha (and katakana-iroha) will give you the Iroha poem in your webpage lists, one character per item :) Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 4:52
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Wow I would love to see research regarding the impact this sort of complexity has/had on class permeability in China. It would seem that the complexity of this kind of system requires a lot of teaching which would be harder to attain for lower classes. Though this might be a general problem for complex writing systems, and might be interesting even with regards to phonetic vs. non-phonetic spelling.
    – DRF
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 7:38
  • @DRF I don't think it's much harder to teach. Dictionaries will usually say how they sort, and there's always a radical index somewhere where you can look up the order and number of radicals the work uses. Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 7:41

It's an old question, but no one gave an answer that covers Korean.

Korean is written in Hangul, which combines "initial", "middle", and (an optional) "final" letters in a single syllable block. For example, a syllable 팔 is composed of initial ㅍ, middle ㅏ, and final ㄹ. 구 is composed of initial ㄱ and middle ㅏ, without a final letter. Initial, middle, and final letters are ordered differently in the two Koreas.

In South Korea,

Initial: ㄱㄲㄴㄷㄸㄹㅁㅂㅃㅅㅆㅇㅈㅉㅊㅋㅌㅍㅎ
Middle: ㅏㅐㅑㅒㅓㅔㅕㅖㅗㅘㅙㅚㅛㅜㅝㅞㅟㅠㅡㅢㅣ
Final: ㄱㄲㄳㄴㄵㄶㄷㄹㄺㄻㄼㄽㄾㄿㅀㅁㅂㅄㅅㅆㅇㅈㅊㅋㅌㅍㅎ

In North Korea,

Initial: ㄱㄴㄷㄹㅁㅂㅅㅈㅊㅋㅌㅍㅎㄲㄸㅃㅆㅉㅇ
Middle: ㅏㅑㅓㅕㅗㅛㅜㅠㅡㅣㅐㅒㅔㅖㅚㅟㅢㅘㅝㅙㅞ
Final: ㄱㄳㄴㄵㄶㄷㄹㄺㄻㄼㄽㄾㄿㅀㅁㅂㅄㅅㅇㅈㅊㅋㅌㅍㅎㄲㅆ

Syllables are ordered initial-wise first, then middle-wise, and at last final-wise. A syllable without a final letter always comes before a syllable that shares its initial and middle letters but with final letters. For example, 나 comes after 강 but precedes 난, 남, and 낫. (This hold on either side of the DMZ.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.