There might be no better-known song in the English language than the alphabet song. It’s taught to every child because, well, the alphabet is important. Beyond being the building blocks for language, knowing alphabetical order is necessary to exist in society. And no matter what age, people will sing it to refresh their memories.
Where did the alphabet song come from, though? Also, do other languages have their own alphabet songs? We looked at the alphabet songs around the world, and we learned they might not be as ubiquitous as we thought.
English Alphabet Songs
While the English language has been around for many centuries, the first copyright for the alphabet song we all know came in 1835. The official name of the song, as written by Boston music publisher Charles Bradlee, is “The A.B.C., a German air with variations for the flute with an easy accompaniment for the piano forte.” That’s kind of a mouthful, which is why it’s usually just called “The A.B.C.’s.”
The tune of the alphabet song, as you might already know, is the same as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The history of that tune is a bit convoluted, though. Without going into too much detail, it’s based on an 18th-century French jingle by an unknown composer. The song’s original title is “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman,” which are the first words of both a poem and a nursery rhyme, both of which use the tune. The song was especially popularized in the early 1780s when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote “Twelve Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,’” a composition for the piano. It proliferated, and you can hear it in “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and, of course, the alphabet song.
On one last note about the English alphabet song, there’s the question about the final letter. While Americans still pronounce the letter Z as “zee,” most of the rest of the English-speaking world pronounces it “zed.” Although it messes up the rhyme scheme in the song if you change the last letter from “zee” to “zed,” most people aren’t bothered by that and just ignore it.
Alphabet Songs In Other Languages
We’ll be honest, we went into this expecting to find lots of fun alphabet songs from all over the world. As it turns out, though, they’re not super common. We asked fellow employees at Babbel who grew up speaking other languages if they had a song like the alphabet song, and most said there’s nothing that matches the style of the English alphabet song. Undeterred, we collected an assortment of songs that have been used to learn languages, even though they’re not quite as ubiquitous as the ABCs.
The first Spanish song that was suggested is Sopa de Letras (“Soup of Letters”) by Gaby Rivero. This song teaches all the letters by imagining a soup with a bunch of food mixed in, with each letter of the alphabet represented by the food (A for arroz, B for bombon, C for col and so on). It’s not as straightforward as the English alphabet song, but it has a fun, very ‘80s music video.
Another song, mentioned by a Babbel video producer from Cuba, is La Marcha de las Vocales (“The March of the Vowels”) by Cri-Crí. This song only teaches vowels, so it’s not quite as useful. It does have the added benefit of describing the shape of each letter, however, which is useful for small children learning to write.
Similar to the second Spanish song, the song that our video producer who grew up in Portugal learned only teaches the vowels. The song is AEIOU from Big Show SIC, a Portuguese children’s variety show from 1995 hosted by singer Ana Malhoa. If you thought the first Spanish song was wild, this one is truly over the top. The video has people in animal costumes running around, children in the stands and a legion of scantily clad dancers. It’s a lot to take in, but you’d probably remember your vowels after watching it.
Another song that isn’t exactly an alphabet song is Abecadło Z Pieca Spadło (“The Alphabet Dropped from the Stove”) by Julian Tuwim. Based on a nursery rhyme, the song features a lot of the letters, along with a story about how they were damaged when they fell from the stove (the H broke in half, the A dislocated its legs, etc.). It doesn’t teach children the alphabet in a straightforward way, but it’s still a fun song to familiarize kids with the letters and what they look like.
The first comprehensive alphabet song we found that sounds nothing like the English alphabet song comes from Swedish. It’s just called the Alfabetslåten (“Alphabet Song”), and it’s from an old children’s show called Fem myror är fler än fyra elefanter (“Five Ants are More than Four Elephants”) Two elephants sing the letters to the alphabet, including the four vowels that Swedish have that English doesn’t. Most importantly, it’s pretty catchy.
The vast majority of alphabet songs tend to use the tune of the English alphabet song and change them to their needs. This German song is just one example, and it’s called Das ABC-Lied (“The ABC Song”).
Non-Latin Alphabet Songs
So far, all of the alphabet songs have been written for languages that use the Latin alphabet (the one you’re reading right now). There are other writing systems out there, though! And with them, a whole new kind of song is needed. Here are a few more teaching songs from around the world.
The Cyrillic alphabet is not too different from the Latin alphabet, but it is a major stumbling block for Russian-learners who are just starting out. There are a few possible versions of the song out there, but we chose one from a reliable source: Улица Сезам (you might know it better as Sesame Street). It’s pretty similar to the English alphabet song, but with a different beat and an unfamiliar Muppet.
The Chinese languages use over 50,000 characters, which presents a whole new problem. It’s impossible to make a comprehensive song because that would take way too long to sing. The solution is using the 千字文, or the Thousand Character Classic, which is a poem over 2,500 years old that is exactly 1,000 characters long, each used once and collected in rhyming stanzas (so it can, in theory, be sung). While it’s only a fraction of the full written system, the poem provides a useful introduction to written Chinese. The video below shows an excerpt of the poem being painted by calligrapher Cai Xingyi.
Japanese only has 46 characters, so there is a song that can capture all of them. Japanese doesn’t have an alphabet, however; they use a mixture of two syllabaries and Chinese kanji (thousands of characters that were taken from Chinese into Japanese). The main 46-syllable hiragana is the best place to start, however, and the song is simple to learn.
Hebrew went from being widely spoken to nearly extinct, and then back to widely spoken again. The language was kept alive for religious reasons, and most people outside Israel likely encounter it during the bar/bat mitzvah process. Having a helpful alphabet song to teach legions of children and pre-teens how to read the language, then, is useful. Fortunately, Jewish singer Debbie Friedman created The Alef-Bet specifically for Hebrew school students.