Writing directions around the world

I understand why most of the Western world writes left to write. Since most people are right handed, it makes sense to start on the left and end on the right, so as not to smudge the ink with your writing hand.

But what about the other parts of the world, where they write right to left, or up/down. What made that happen? Did they not use ink so that they did not have this problem?

Languages were written “by hand” long after they were well-fixed for directionality. So handedness didn’t really have anything to do with the motive for the arrangement of the symbols.

A number of languages have changed their alphabet, just in the last century or so, like Turkish and Kyrgyz and Vietnamese… So people using those languages had to switch from leftward to rightward when there was an edict to change their alphabet. So it is less a characteristic of language/culture, and more of the choice of alphabet. Most languages adopted a pre-existing alphabet when literacy arose.

Thanks for the anwer, but I have trouble following you when you say that the directionailty precedes the written word. If the language was not written down, I doubt it had any directionality at all. Surely the act of putting it on paper (or stone or wax tablet, or what have you) determined its direction?

And also, changing the alphabet does not really answer my question either. It is the direction of the alphabet that I’m wondering about, not the language that it writes.

One direction is very useful, especially in a language that uses pictograms (which they all did at first). It was really just that one particular direction predominated. (Note that there were some usages where the direction alternated by line).

Of course, western writing all came from the same source, so they kept the same directionality.

The Greeks used a system called boustrophedon:

This is paralleled by a number of other older writing systems. And Egyptian hieroglyphics could be written either right-to-left or left-to-right.

Handedness is hard to sort logically. My understanding is that ink and smudging came later in almost all languages and that the origins of handedness are basically individual preference followed by tradition.

I once took good notice of how an Egyptian wrote in Arabic, because I wanted to know how he did that with a fountain pen. Apparently they hold their pens in a different way, so that the hand is UNDER the written line, instead of right on it like we usually do.

He was referring to ‘writing’ with ink to which you referred in you question. This is not a problem if you hack it out in stone or push it in a clay tablet like Babylonian Cuneiform …

This cannot be quite true. The earliest western alphabet is, I believe, the Greek from which the Roman and Cyrillic are obviously descended. But the Greek was based on Semitic alphabets and they go right to left. Of course, there was more to it than just copying the Semitic alphabet, two H sounds and a glottal and a pharyngal stop were turned into vowels, for example.

The origin has nothing to do with it indeed.

Actually there’s only one ‘source’ for all writing systems in Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. Arabic, Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew and Futhark (Norse runes) are all in some way derived from the Phoenician Alphabet. Even ancient Greek was often written in boustrophedon - see explanation above - in the early days. In fact, this lead to the strange appearance of the Etruscan alphabet which uses many familiar signs, but in its mirror image.

If I’m not mistaken, there are only two basic origins for all commonly used writing systems: Phoenician and Chinese characters, which are the origin of Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese etc. script. But I’m digressing…

The origin of Vietnamese script is Latin, purposely chosen by the Catholic missionaries who wanted something easier to learn and propagate than Chinese characters or Chữ-nôm. The origin of Korean script is from a scientific, linguistic project created to develop a logical, functional script for the Korean language.

I suspect it’s not as hard to switch as you might think, and so it is allowed to be somewhat arbitrary. Japanese speakers (and in Taiwan???) frequently switch between reading many books right to left in columns and websites left to right in rows.

The Chinese Manchu language (which is mostly extinct, although Xibe is a close cousin) is a rare example of left to right in columns.

I have plenty of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean friends who like to read books sideways (no jokes!) if they’re written “old style”. Thinking about it just now, it’s really not all that different from reading book titles on the spines.

Actually, I think you’re getting to the core of my question: if there are only two origins, how come that some decendents evolved into a left to right direction, and some the other way around? In other words, why is Arabic written right to left. It can’t be arbitrary. There must be something inherent in the language that makes it more logical to do so.

Why can’t it be arbitrary?

WRT the smudging thing, note that when writing e.g. Chinese calligraphy the traditional way, you write with a brush, that is held vertically in a very precise grip. You cannot rest your writing hand on the page.
So the direction of writing characters is arbitrary, although it traditionally went top to bottom, right to left, so would not be a problem for right-handers anyway.

Because the human mind doesn’t work that way. If there is a hard way to do something and an easier way, there better be a good reason to go for the hard way. So, if writing right to left is inherently harder (which for the purposes of this thread I’m assuming), then why did those alphabets evolve? Is it aestetically more pleasing, does it convey the message better, is it easier to read? There must be a better explanation than ‘just because’.

You know what they say about assuming? It’s not something you can do for a GQ thread. Standard writing directions were established before aspects such as smudged ink were important enough to worry about. Without those there is no significant and inherent preference for writing direction.

What there is is a strong tendency for picking a direction and then sticking with it.

I think your assumption that right-left is ‘inherently’ harder is incorrect - it’s harder for us because a) we use a script that was designed (as it were) to be written/read left-right and b) we were taught the left-right way from the day we were born. I’m not referring to when we first learned to read, but to the fact that any sequence is presented in a left-right way. Even these textile cuddly ‘books’ for babies are designed like a real Latin book (with the binding to the left of the front cover).

(This is where we get to the how-the-human-mind-works part and this discussion could escalate into an all out Chomski or nature/nurture war)

For the aforementioned reason, our mind develops in a specific direction with no way back after a few years. Some research suggests real differences in perception between people from cultures with different writing directions: East Asian cultures perceive visual information more vertically and Western cultures more horizontally. This is easily visible in the respective illustration tradition. Just think of the classic Chinese or Japanese illustrations which are generally longer at the sides than they are broad at the top and bottom as opposed to our ‘broad’ paintings (Which btw became the standard for TV-sets … I guess we won this format war)

Having said all that, I have to agree that ‘just because’ is too easy an explanation. Up and down are - from our earth based pov - physically different directions (which may explain why there are no scripts that go down-up) Left and Right on the other hand are only biologically different - most people are naturally right handed which has far reaching cultural consequences. Just consider how ‘right’ is a synonym for ‘good’ or ‘straight’, while ‘sinister’ (latin for left) is always something obscure/dark/bad. This makes it a very interesting question indeed.

I’m afraid you’d have to dig deep into the histories of the different scripts (as far as available) for something of an answer. I doubt however this will lead to any clear cut conclusions. It will at best be long stories of interaction between accidents, culture, tradition, politics etc.

Compare it to answering the question why Britons drive on the left side of the road while the rest of Europe drives on the right side, as does the US. This may have started out as just an accidental development, but the fact that they still do has at least as much to do with the fact that Britain is an island - unlike Sweden which had to switch in '67 - and a general desire to be different from mainland Europe.

I meant that it’s harder from a purely physical aspect. With most of us being right handed, writing right to left means always having your writing hand covering the letters you just wrote. Even when not using ink it makes writing harder. Positioning your hand so as to not have that problem, as you noticed with the Egyptian guy, results in a less natural position. Or maybe this is just not true when writing Arabic. Maybe the Arabic alphabet itself lends itself better to position your hand that way, but that is exactly the question I’m asking. Is it?

Once again, the way many languages were written developed before ink. There is no evidence at all that the possibility of smudged ink influenced writing. Writing came in multiple versions, not just left/right. And humans can easily adapt their writing style to any form of language.

You are thinking in reverse. You’re taking today’s processes and trying to force fit them to a time when they didn’t exist. Ink and paper is a latecomer to written language. That alone destroys your assumptions. In fact, you need to stop having assumptions altogether.

I find this position of the hand perfectly natural; it’s the way I always write. Holding the hand on the written line with the pen pointing left just seems weird.
(I’m right handed.)