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Quizzing the Anonymous - Why do we write from left to right?
January 25th, 2011
12:54 pm

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Why do we write from left to right?
Europeans write from left to right (LR) because the Greeks broke their regional pattern of RL reading. Phoenician, hieratic and demotic Egyptian, etc. all went RL, and so did the early Greek writing. In Egyptian and Anatolian, the glyphs went in any direction; the glyphs were mirror-flipped to indicate reading direction.

...Early Greek was written right-to-left, just like Phoenician. However, eventually its direction changed to boustrophedon (which means "ox-turning"), where the direction of writing changes every line. For instance, you start on the right of the tablet and writes leftward, and when you reach the leftmost end, you reverse your direction and starting writing toward the right. The orientation of the letter themselves is dependent on the direction of writing as well [like Egyptian glyphs]. Boustrophedon was an intermediate stage, and by the 5th century BCE, left-to-right became the de-facto direction of writing. The Greeks tried writing once before. Between 1500 and 1200 BCE, the Mycenaeans, an early tribe of Greeks, has adapted the Minoan syllabary as Linear B to write an early form of Greek. http://www.ancientscripts.com/greek.html

Linear B, which is a mixture of syllables and logograms, was written boustrophedon. This style is rare: only old Hungarian runes, Rongorongo of Eastern Island, and South Arabian (Sabaean) were written in this style. It is said that Luwian hieroglyphs occasionally read boustrophedon. Perhaps Linear B originated in the fusion of two different ways of writing: hieroglyphic, in which mirroring was the historic norm, and syllabic, in which it did not occur. When the Greeks switched from Linear B to alphabetic writing some of them kept on using boustrophedon . These Greeks were your regular da Vincis reading and writing mirrored texts with ease.

I can see why this might be strenous; it is also clear why LR writing became optional (whatever was the original reason to use boustrophedon). It is harder to explain why boustrophedon was resolved into LR rather than RL writing. My own guess is that the Greeks were using mirror writing to make it harder for the others (that were using similar alphabet) to read their transactions and messages, using the crucial advantage developed by their routine use of boustrophedon, i.e., it was folk cryptography.

There is surprising lack of ideas what caused this LR-directional resolution. It was suggested that in people who can read boustrophedon vocalic scripts, LR reading is faster than RL reading, whereas for consonantal scripts, RL reading is always faster - just because the human brain operates this way:

...Cerebral hemispheric functions that might be involved during fixation pauses in reading suggest that horizontal ancient Greek was read more efficiently from left to right than from right to left, the other direction in which it usually was written. The same considerations suggest that horizontal consonantal scripts are read more efficiently from right to left than from left to right. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2695892

The others went further, claiming that the LR shift indicated that this very brain had changed:

...80% of right handers drawing a human profile, direct it towards the left. The neurophysiological basis for this fact and the dominant role that the right hemisphere plays in higher visual performances is discussed. The preference for the left profile direction is traced back to the early Greek period in paintings, drawings, coin portraits, gems, cameos, and vase portraits. Fifty thousand objects have been analyzed. A 60% prevalence of face direction towards the right occurs in the cultural centers of the Mediterranean before 600 B.C. Before the early Greek period: the Assyrian, Egyptian, and Sumerian cultures faced more profiles to the right. This tendency for right profile direction can be traced back to Stone Age cave drawings. The profile shift from right to left occurs in the early Greek period and is related to a shift in script and in letter profile at the same time. This profile shift occurs simultaneously with an acceleration of intellectual and cultural development which also influenced our present culture. Although the percentage of right handers might not have changed considerably since the Stone Age, the profile shift from right to left suggests a hypothetical change in dominance of the cerebral hemispheres for the higher visual perception which may have induced a left preference in the period around 600 B.C.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7004398

Why do we write from left to right?

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From:kobak
Date:January 25th, 2011 07:04 pm (UTC)
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Why would one try to explain a direction of spontaneous symmetry breaking? It's symmetric.
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 25th, 2011 07:16 pm (UTC)
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Not when it had already been broken around.

Interesting that you remembered it. Dmitry Budker of UCB likes to say that Yb-atomic parity violation experiment could only be suggested by a Frenchman, because

A
T
O
M

is symmetrical, whereas

A
T
O
M
E

isn't!
From:saccovanzetti
Date:January 25th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
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I always thought it was related to invention of ink and early paper, or whatever they used to write ink on; for right-handed people, writing left to right is naturally cleaner (your fist doesn't run over fresh ink).
From:dmpogo
Date:January 25th, 2011 07:33 pm (UTC)
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+1
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 25th, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
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Nope.
From:dmpogo
Date:January 25th, 2011 09:22 pm (UTC)
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It is interesting why you are so certain. I'd say cryptography idea hold even less water.
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 25th, 2011 08:16 pm (UTC)
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Hieratic was written RL in ink for 1500 years before the first Greeks arrived.
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From:vdinets
Date:January 25th, 2011 07:21 pm (UTC)
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Alphabetic characters are simpler and can be easily corrected; may be writing left to right allowed seeing errors immediately and correcting them?
The last link is really interesting, thanks!
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 25th, 2011 08:35 pm (UTC)
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Phoenicians used their RL alphabetic writing for hundreds of years before the Greeks. BTW, neither were particularly concerned with correcting errors.
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From:vdinets
Date:January 25th, 2011 08:41 pm (UTC)
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But, according to you, it was initially used for religion-related activities. When commerce and accounting became the primary uses, small errors began to matter :-)
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 25th, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
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You are right that almost all early Greek writing was records of transactions. But they seldom used ink in the marketplace, so this shouldn't've been their concern. They had time to think what to scribble -- and their spelling was outrageous anyway. They had no-nonsense approach to it.
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From:nikitchm
Date:January 25th, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
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Could it be simply because most people are right handed? In this case after finishing one letter and moving to the next you don't cover the former (and don't erase it). So, technically, for right-handed population, it should simply be a faster way to write.
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 25th, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
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I do not quite see what right-handedness has to do with it. People can read and write RL in Hebrew as rapidly as you read and write LR in English. In any case, speed had rarely been their concern.

A couple of days ago, I was looking at the legal documents written in Hieratic at the exhibit. There I found a marriage contract written by a court scribe in a beautiful hand. Naturally, I expected that each party signed or sealed it. Instead, each party reproduced the entire text (about a page) in their own hand - nine times. It is obvious (from the way it looked) that some of them had no idea how to write: they copied the lengthy text at the best of their ability. They had plenty of time.
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From:nikitchm
Date:January 25th, 2011 10:13 pm (UTC)
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Well, I bet you can learn how to right RL as fast as LR, but ergonomically, if you write with your right hand, it's easier to write LR. Imaging you're writing on sand. If you write LR, all the letters you've already written stay on the left and you don't touch them any more. But if you write RL, the probability of smear the letter increases.

I don't know if this reason alone was enough for Greek to switch the directionality of their writing, but it certainly does break the symmetry in favor of LR writing.
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 25th, 2011 10:49 pm (UTC)
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They did not write on sand. I am old enough to remember writing using ink and a dip pen in my first grade. Boy, was I making smears... Take my word that writing LR does not help when you do not know how to write and makes no difference whatsoever after you learn how to do it properly, LR or RL. I think you are on the wrong track.
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From:nikitchm
Date:January 25th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
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On the marriage certificate. I wonder, why did they reproduced the text at all..? Apparently, for some reasons, these people did have time for the indeed. But in general, I don't believe they didn't care about time.
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 25th, 2011 10:55 pm (UTC)
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No one knows. In the majority of documents the seals and signatures were quite sufficient, and there seems to be no system in the choice of the documents. But this practice provides a rare glimpse at the writing skills of ordinary people.

Time was not always money .
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From:bzeev
Date:January 26th, 2011 02:03 am (UTC)
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Why are most people right-handed? Our eyes, ears and nostrils are, for most, symmetrical.
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 26th, 2011 02:04 am (UTC)
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That's an excellent question, but it's a long story. Some other time; I promise.
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From:ptitza
Date:January 26th, 2011 02:41 am (UTC)
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Не очень симметричны, кажется. Ноги точно нет -- одна растянута лучше другой; толчковые разные; глаза не симметричны, любой очкарик скажет; да и ухи тож. Зубы поразному стачиваются справа и слева. Всякие другие вещи тоже, не будем показывать пальцами. Даже и не знаю, что у нас функционально-симметрично. Визуально ничего, это понятно. Симметричен только труп :(
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From:bzeev
Date:January 26th, 2011 04:22 am (UTC)
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"глаза не симметричны, любой очкарик скажет; да и ухи тож"

Я сам и такой, мне никого спрашивать не надо, но это все-таки аномалия.
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From:nagunak
Date:January 31st, 2011 08:36 pm (UTC)
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Have you read this book: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? It may have the answers to the questions that you are posing.

The process of writing orientation may had been a part of the evolution of the mind.
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 31st, 2011 08:51 pm (UTC)
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I did not read this book, but I am familiar with the argument. I do not think answering this question needs such a radical revision. In other parts of the world (e.g., in India) LR writing is found from the outset. To me it is more a question about the Greeks: who were they? For a hundred years the paradigm was the "Dorian invasion;" presently, no one believes it even happened. The same is true about the Helleno-Armenian theory, and many other theories. What happened in the Dark Ages from 1200 BC to 700 BC remains anyone's guess: it is as if the whole people disappeared and suddenly reappeared completely transformed. Isn't it strange? - we largely owe the Greeks our civilization, and yet it is mystery who were the Greeks, what was their early history, how they became what they were. The evolution of their language and writing is part of this larger mystery.
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From:nagunak
Date:January 31st, 2011 09:03 pm (UTC)
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Ancient Greek language is closely related to Sanskrit and other Indo-European classical languages, like Old Persian, deciphering of Linear B proved a lot of the predicted evolution of Proto-Indo European dialect into Greek. Now, who were the "Indo-Europeans" who gifted the language to half of the Eurasian mass? You may want to read "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World". Not sure where the were between 1200-700, it is conceivable that they migrated temporarily out of Peloponnese due to climactic conditions.
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From:shkrobius
Date:January 31st, 2011 09:22 pm (UTC)
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The problem is that no one was able to find Dorian "Greeks" outside of Greece, to explain the three waves of Greek migration. It is as if they were falling from the sky. Check, say,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorian_invasion
There is no doubt that the "Greeks" contacted Indo-European migrants and adopted their langauage; it is far from clear whether they were such migrants. Some of the recent genetic studies are truly mind-boggling, suggesting that non-Macedonian Greeks are most close to the Ethiopians rather than the rest of the Mediterranians!
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11260506
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12392505
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