Is there REALLY a reason for why we read left to right?

So, Cecil said in Today’s Question that there is “obviously not” a reason for why we read from left to right. But, after doing a little bit of digging and research, I’ve found some evidence that may oppose this. When we read, our eyes send a signal to the visual cortex. One area of the visual cortex, which is located in the left hemisphere of the brain, is essential to reading written language correctly. Then, when the left hemisphere is done doing whatever it is that it has to do, it sends this information to the right hemisphere of the brain, where the meanings of the words are processed. This includes the association of words with their actual definition and also the deciphering of metaphors, allusions, and the interpreting of questions like “Do you have a light?” Maybe its because of this left hemisphere to right hemisphere path that the information takes that it is more common to read left to right… But I don’t know! Tell me what you think! :slight_smile:



Can you suggest a reason why a particular pathway in the brain would affect which direction we write in?

On the other hand, visual information from the left side of the visual field is processed, (initially, anyway) in the right hemisphere, and vice-versa, so this would suggest the opposite of what you say.

I take it you did not mean to say visual cortex there. Visual cortex in both hemispheres is going to be involved in reading, but it is true that language is mainly processed in the left hemisphere (which, as I already said, also processes the right side of the visual field). However, what you then go on to say about the right hemisphere is a gross oversimplification and a huge extrapolation from the known facts. The truth is that we do not really understand very much about where “the meanings of the words are processed” (as with much of neuroscience, we have lots of facts, but little idea how to make coherent sense of them), and probably most of the brain plays a role in it. The role of (certain parts of) left and right hemispheres in this may be somewhat different, but both hemispheres are vitally involved.

The best evidence that there is no particular reason why we read from left to right is that not all scripts do run from left to right. If direction of reading were a result of some fact about brain structure, then every writing system, or, at least, most of them, would run the same way.

ETA: Also, 74westy makes an excellent point. Even if information in the brain did flow from left to right during reading, why should that affect the direction we read and write in?

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Boards, gnarshredder, we’re glad you found us. For future ref: when you start a thread, it’s helpful to other readers to provide a link to the column in question. Yeah, it’s on the front page now, but in a week or so it’ll slide into the depths of the Archives. So the link saves searching time and helps keep us on the same page. No biggie, I’ve added a link to your post, and, as I said, welcome!

As has been pointed out, other languages go the other way.

The real truth: we read left-to-right because we write left-to-right. And we write left-to-right because, for right-handers, it’s easier, when writing with a stylus or a pen. With a brush, on the other hand, it’s easier to write right-to-left.

How’s that?

I always thought that text direction was related to writing rather than reading.
Most people are right handed. If writing from right to left, the right hand obscures words that have been written (and for some forms of writing smudges them.)
This would explain why most forms of writing go from left to right and the majority of the exceptions read from top to bottom. (I am not aware of any text forms that read from bottom to top.)

I recall there being a theory (now discredited) that Ancient Egyptians were predominantly left-handed. This theory was surmised form the predominance of right-facing profiles in hieroglyphs. This was discussed in the context of the order to read hieroglyphs. (Which I believe is left to right.)

There are biblical records of communities with a predominance of left-handed people. The tribe of Benjamin was one such group. If there were similar pockets of lefties among other Semitic groups, this might help to explain the tendency of languages in that region to be written right to left.
ETA Beaten to the post by JWK.

I have my own wacky theory why some scripts go from left to write, and it has nothing to do with reading, but with writing.

If you develop your writing system with pen, ink, and paper, and you write with your right hand, you’ll smudge the ink if you write from right to left since your hand will go over the freshly written letters. Thus, if you start your writing system at a time when you’d mainly be using pen, ink, and paper, you’d want to develop a left to right writing system.

Interestingly, the ancient Greeks started off with the Phoenician alphabet and probably the Phoenician writing of right-to-left, then later developed a Boustrophedon right-to-left-to-right system, and finally by the peek of Hellenistic civilization, adopted the left-to-right system which the Romans picked up.

Expanding on this crazy theory, if your writing system doesn’t involve pen, ink and paper, but painting on walls, using a stylus to make impressions in a tablet, or carving letters in stone, you might find it easier to write from right to left because you can start off with your right hand. Thus, the oldest Western writing systems were right-to-left.

The ancient Chinese also used pen, ink, and paper, but solved the smudge problem by writing from top to bottom. By the time you got back to the top of the paper, the letters would have been dried, and you could write from right-to-left. Other cultures who adopted the Chinese way of writing also adopted a similar method. Now, most Oriental languages now use a left-to-right, top-to-bottom direction.

Then again, this could all be due to random quantum fluctuations. The invention of writing is a rare event, and maybe when someone invented writing, they simply chose a random writing direction. Other cultures around that didn’t have a writing system simply borrowed what someone else invented. Thus, we have three random ways of writing which could easily stem from three random events, and what we see are other cultures around adopting whatever happened to be around.

I had a friend from Japan who told me that before WWII, all the street signs in Japan were written right-to-left because the Japanese wrote from top-to-bottom, right-to-left. Street signs were written the same way, but since were only one letter deep, each column only had a single letter.

After WWII, the Japanese adopted the Western left-to-right, top-to-bottom directionality. Thus, street signs were now written left to right.

In China, they mainly write left to right, but cars, buses, and plane are usually written from the front of the vehicle to the back. Thus, on the left side of a vehicle, the wording goes from left to right, but on the right side, it goes right to left. Sometimes, they do the same thing for the English, and you’ll see the English written backwards on the right side of a bus or truck.

You hold a writing brush differently from a pen, and work it differently, so the smudge and vision problems work out differently.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are mostly written right to left, but were also written left to right, or top to bottom -the direction the human and animal symbols are facing should indicate direction for reading (unless it’s obviously in columns, they don’t face down :smiley: ).

Sometimes arches would have the same phrase written both to the left and right, starting from the middle in both cases.

Historically there’s been a common understanding that most cultures write left to right to avoid the smudging. Keep in mind that writing with a quill the smudging is much more an issue than with modern implements. Da Vinci, who was left-handed, is known to have written backwards for the sake of not smudging his work.

I’m not sure if Cecil’s comment about the copy editor who read upside down was intended as a joke or if he actually doesn’t know why the copy editor reads upside down. Having done this myself, it’s not uncommon when editing for spelling, grammar, and punctuation, to do so - you read upside down or backwards. It helps keep your mind focused on the editable material and not actually following the content of what is being said too readily. Otherwise your brain starts getting ahead of the writing and makes assumptions and you more easily miss minor errors such as missing or swapped letters and double-words such as in the following example:

A bird in the
the hand
is worth two in the
the bush.

That makes sense. Much of reading is pattern recognition. We don’t look at each letter, we look at whole words or even phrases. We train our brains to recognize and then fill in the details. When one is copyediting, one is trying to look at the details. Thus, it makes sense to take steps to break the pattern recognition filters from overshadowing the details.

I’ve long had a theory – but lacked the time and background to research it. I’d be interested to know what others on here think.

It strikes me that there is a strong correlation between the historical calendar of a particular culture, and the historical writing direction of that culture:

Chinese: Lunar cycle is more important than solar cycle (months are tied to the lunar cycle, and an intercalary month is sometimes added to adjust to the solar year); historical writing is right-to-left.

Hebrew: Lunar cycle is more important than solar cycle (months are closely associated to the lunar cycle, and an intercalary month is sometimes added to adjust to the solar year); writing is right-to-left.

Arabic: Lunar cycle is the only cycle (months are absolutely tied to the lunar cycle; no adjustment is made for the solar year); writing is right-to-left.

Latin: Solar cycle is more important than lunar cycle (months are adjusted to fit in the solar cycle irrespective of lunar cycle; historically there was a closer tie to the lunar cycle, but even then the calendar always reset according to the solar cycle); writing is left-to-right.

Cyrillic: Calendar and writing style both derived from Latin culture.

The reason I think this is more than coincidence: Viewed from the northern hemisphere, the sun appears to move across the sky in a left-to-right direction, while lightness and darkness move across the face of the moon on a right-to-left fashion.

Greek and Rongo-Rongo are outliers with their boustrophedonic writing. And I don’t know of any examples of the evolution of writing in the southern hemisphere other than Rongo-Rongo. But the correlation has always stuck me as something worth considering.

.esnes yna ekam t’nod sdrow eht tfel ot thgir morf daer uoy fI

Actually, Cyrillic is based on Greek glyphs, and from a time when Greek wasn’t boustrephedonic. Has nothing to do particularly with Latin at all. Which is not surprising, given the historical tension between Greek Orthdox and Roman Catholic churches, and the fact that the lands that Cyrillic took hold in were heavily evangelized by the Greeks, not the Latins.

As to the connections to calendar… coincidence, and inconsistent, since the moon also moves across the sky the same way as the sun. You have to explain why the movement of the moon itself is less important than the movement of the lunar terminator. Also neglects that the dominant direction of written Chinese is not right-to-left, but top to bottom. Which aspect of lunar phasing accommodates that?

ETA: I’m not saying the idea is impossible, just not self-evident or self-supporting. Bring some research supporting any part of your assertions and it’ll be a great insight.

Missed edit window, but it occurs to me that I should have said that the historical tension at the particular time I’m talking about (creation of Cyrillic by Cyril and Methodius) hadn’t quite built up to schism yet. The Greek Orthdox church didn’t exist in name yet, but it almost certainly did exist in spirit, and that spirit would have rendered quite unlikely any Latinate influence. Cyrillic is the cultural child of the middle Byzantine Empire and its state church.

Totally wrong about Latin. The Roman calendar was predominantly lunar until 45 BC, centuries after Latin had settled on left-to-right.


The reason is this:

(I’m going to spoiler it)

Because that’s the way it was written down.

There’s an exception, of course. I’ll spoiler that, too.

Except then it’s written in down a different direction.

“Professional busybodies have often suggested that every other line of type on a page should be printed “backwards,” so the eye could quietly drop from the end of one line to the beginning of another without having to go zipping back and forth across the column.”

That would be backspace hell.

No, there’s another reason. If you are reading from the metal type, rather than from a printed copy, it’s easier to read upside down because then the text still goes from left to right. Try reading some text in a mirror, and see. If you proofread a newspaper or magazine in a hurry, you can do it like this without waiting for a printed proof sheet. (I worked on a student newspaper nearly 50 years ago, which is when I learned this trick.) However, the need to do this went away with the coming of computer typesetting and the death of Linotype machines.