Why is English written and read from left-to-right as opposed to right-to-left, top-to-bottom, or (not even sure any language does this) bottom-to-top?

  • 6
    If it had been written in another direction, wouldn't you still have asked the question? :-) – ShreevatsaR Dec 22 '10 at 16:37
  • 3
    @ShreevatsaR: Naturally, but in another direction. :-) – Chris Dwyer Dec 22 '10 at 17:09
  • 10
    I can actually answer the second half of the question. English is read left-to-right because it is written left-to-right. I imagine it would be quite hard to write it in one direction, and read in the other. Hope that helps. – RegDwigнt Dec 22 '10 at 17:24
  • 6
    @RegDwight: LOL. But fact is stranger than humour: Wikipedia says "Several scripts used in the Philippines and Indonesia, such as Hanunó'o, are traditionally written with lines moving away from the writer, from bottom to top, but are read horizontally left to right." Incredible! But it turns out Hanunó'o is usually written on bamboo sticks and the writing is done bottom-to-top (this answers one of Chris's questions as well); presumably they rotate the bamboo stick before reading. – ShreevatsaR Dec 22 '10 at 17:42
  • @RegDwight: I'm looking at my "written and read" as one entity. But, I understand your quibble. :-) – Chris Dwyer Dec 22 '10 at 18:16
up vote 32 down vote accepted

Writing in English was derived from writing in Latin (it's mostly the same alphabet, after all), which in turn was derived from writing in Greek — which was written from left to right. So this is why all European writing systems go from left to right: because they're derived from Greek.

But why did the Greeks write from left to right? I'm not sure. They adopted their alphabet from Phoenician (or, if you wish, Proto-Canaanite), which was actually mostly written right to left (and sometimes boustrophedonically: direction alternates every line, so that each line starts just below where the previous line ends). In fact, Greek used to write from right to left for a while, before they switched to left-to-right.

Another derivative from Proto-Canaanite was Aramaic, from which Hebrew, Arabic, Persian etc. are derived, and they're all still written right-to-left. It is also believed that Brahmi (the family of Indic scripts) was derived from Aramaic and was written right-to-left for a while, before switching to left-to-right.

Why did this switch happen, in Greek and Brahmi? According to a theory mentioned on Wikipedia without a citation (so it may just be an urban legend),

Many languages that existed before the invention of ink were written right to left since this is the more natural for right handed people to hold a chisel in the left hand and the hammer in the right. After ink became the main method of writing, writing from left to right became preferable since it avoided smudging the ink.

Make of that what you will. It is known that Chinese, Japanese and Korean are written in vertical columns going from top to bottom and ordered right to left because it "facilitated writing with a brush in the right hand while continually unrolling the sheet of paper or scroll with the left". (The Chinese invented paper, after all.) So there may be merit to the explanation quoted above, that the medium influenced the writing direction.

  • 3
    That sounds rather convincing. Note that the Chinese did not invent paper, just a new, inexpensive way of making it. – Cerberus Dec 23 '10 at 0:42
  • 7
    As a right-handed person I must say smudging when writing in Hebrew is really annoying. – configurator Dec 23 '10 at 2:27
  • 3
    "boustrophedonically" -- I'll have to start using that word in my everyday speech. :) – Mitch Schwartz Dec 23 '10 at 7:18
  • 2
    @Cerberus: Depends on your definition of paper. I don't consider papyrus, parchment or vellum as being really paper, so the history of paper begins with China IMO. – ShreevatsaR Dec 23 '10 at 7:52
  • Hmm well I suppose that this is open to discussion. While I'd never call parchment or vellum paper, I do like to think of papyrus as paper. Which part of the process is it that you find essential? The use of small fibres? I heard that modern paper can be made of all sorts of plant materials. And some shops specialized in paper also sell modern papyrus, i.e. "paper" made by pressing unprocessed slices of reeds or leaves or other parts of plants together and letting them dry. I especially cannot get over judging the word that our word "paper" came from as non-paper... long live Antiquity! – Cerberus Dec 23 '10 at 17:27

English writing, like almost all alphabetic scripts used today, ultimately derives from a Phoenician alphabet used around 3000 years ago. The direction of writing was variable early on - some texts are written in boustrophedon, "as the ox ploughs", which means that alternate lines are written in opposite directions. At some point Greek script settled down to left-to-right, and all the European scripts which derive from it (Latin (i.e. English), Cyrillic, Georgian, Armenian) adopted this pattern. Most middle-eastern scripts (eg Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic) settled down to right-to-left. Descendants further out (eg Indian and south-east Asian scripts, and also African scripts such as Amharic) are mostly left-to-right.

Nobody really knows why particular scripts settled in particular directions; but it has often been remarked that left-to-right is easier for right-handed scribes using pen and ink, because there is less chance of smudging what you have already written.

  • 7
    I've just recalled that many of the letters in Phoenician turned through 90 degrees at some point, and there is a theory that this happened when scribes changed how they held their tablets and came to write horizontally rather than vertically. I don't remember the details though. – Colin Fine Dec 22 '10 at 17:42

protected by tchrist Feb 22 '13 at 22:34

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.