Different Formats of Written Languages

One of the oddities of human language is the number of ways that words can be written down around the world. It’s well known to most people that some languages, like Chinese and Japanese, can be written right to left, and sometimes even top to bottom vertically, but the variety goes much deeper than that. Other major world languages were originally written in various directions but eventually settled on one direction. Ancient Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and the oldest Latin could be written in both directions. Both Arabic and Hebrew, and the non-Semitic languages using the Arabic or the Hebrew alphabet, such as Farsi and Yiddish, are written from right to left (except for their numbers!).

Until the 1980s Korean was usually written from right to left in vertical columns. Since then writing from left to right in horizontal lines has become popular, and today the majority of texts are written horizontally. Japanese can be written from right to left in vertical columns or left to right in horizontal lines. Horizontal writing was first used during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) in Western language dictionaries of Japanese. Today both orientations are used.

Chinese can be written from right to left in vertical columns, left to right in horizontal lines, or occasionally right to left in horizontal lines. In Taiwan, it is often written vertically, while in China and Singapore it is usually written horizontally. In newspapers and magazines with vertical text, some of the headlines and titles are written horizontally right to left across the top of the main text. If you’re a top level scholar of languages, there’s even Boustrophedon, one of the rarest of them all, written in horizontal lines running alternatively from right to left then left to right. The name comes from the Greek words for “ox” and “to turn”, because it resembles the path an ox makes when plowing a field, turning at the end of each row to return in the opposite direction.

Why some languages are written in one direction and others in another direction is still a much-debated mystery to scientists and historians. It might have something to do with the writing surfaces and implements originally used locally, the preferences of the creators of the writing systems, (or the left or right preference of the current king) or other factors.

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