How Do You Alphabetize…
Without an Alphabet?

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing required a lot of planning, but one of the biggest challenges was the Parade of Nations. Participating countries usually march in alphabetical order in the language of the host country, but Chinese does not have an alphabet.

Chinese has more than 100,000 characters, and believe it or not, there is no standard way to organize them! Because there is no standard way of ordering Chinese characters, Chinese speakers can choose from several methods to organize lists.

Even dictionaries don’t agree. Some dictionaries sort by the radical or root character. Others use the number of brushstrokes in the first character, then the second, and so on. Still others sort alphabetically by the pinyin, the standardized system that transcribes the sounds of the Chinese characters into Latin script. Most dictionaries use one method in their main body and then include an index or two that use another method, in the likely case that the reader is more comfortable with one of them.

In Beijing, the countries marched in order of the brushstroke method, which coincidently, placed the Chinese athletes near the front. (Use of the pinyin method would have placed China near the end of the parade.) If it weren’t for the flags, though, even Chinese-speaking spectators would have needed a guide to be able to find a country in line.

This is a stock photo of alphabetized file tabs.

Sorting data in Chinese is doable, but it is time-consuming and cumbersome, and there is no right way. For the domestic U.S. market, Inline’s standard practice is to leave the Chinese items in the same order as the English, often placing the English word in parenthesis after the Chinese entry. For translations for overseas markets, you may need to speak to your local managers or distributors to determine their preferences. Likewise, your existing translations of other or similar materials may help us decide which Chinese ordering system to use.

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