Monthly Archives: June 2014

Why are most writing systems horizontal?

Why is it that most text in the world is written horizontally?

It may be the case that horizontal movement is a tiny bit less costly than vertical movement; only two muscles are involved in horizontal eye movement, but vertical movement involves four.  We do have to consider that, first of all, even though I wear glasses I’m not an eye expert, and second, that eye movements are so tiny that any extra exertion from vertical movement as compared to horizontal movement is likely negligible. Still, even the tiniest things can add up over time, as we learned from Office Space, and writing systems have developed over millennia.

Another possibility is our environment. (Of course, this is related to the previous one, given that biological organisms evolve in response to their environments.) Imagine living in the pre-skyscraper days, when we still had, all around us, what some people refer to as nature. Turn around, and what do you see? Sure there are trees and hills and houses poking up here and there, but there is one thing that unites the entire scene: the horizon. The great divide between earth and sky. What we focus on when we gaze into the distance. (You do gaze into the distance, don’t you?) I might even say it’s central to our existence. We like to stand on even ground. Many people are afraid of falling.


From this perspective, it only seems natural that our writing should go horizontally. (Horizon is built right into the name.) Perhaps the real question is: Why do some weirdos write vertically?

An ecologist’s thoughts on orality versus literacy

I read widely, and the most recent book I cracked open (if you don’t count the handful whose introductions I read today) is Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, an interesting celebration of the sensual pleasures of the world around us by a leading ecologist. It’s pretty interesting so far, if you’re into that sort of thing. (But I expect most people would find it a bit too hippy-dippy.)

In any case, the author opens with some interesting thoughts on oral language as compared to written language:

While persons brought up within literate culture often speak about the natural world, indigenous, oral peoples sometimes speak directly to that world, acknowledging certain animals, plants and even landforms as expressive subjects with whom they mights find themselves in conversation. […]

Oral language gusts through us—our sounded phrases borne by the same air that nourishes the cedars and swells the cumulus clouds. Laid out and immobilized on the flat surface, our words tend to forget that they are sustained by this windswept earth, they begin to imagine that their primary task is to provide a representation of the world (as though they were outside of, and not really a part of, this world).

He also includes in his preface his thoughts on capitalizing the word “earth”:

The word “earth” appears often in the pages that follow. Today many writers prefer to capitalize this term whenever it appears. Such a gesture feels overly facile to me, since it leads us to imagine that we are respecting this wild planet, and according it appropriate honor, simply by capitalizing its name. In this work I have generally chosen to keep the term in lower case, in order to remember that the earth is not just the round sphere in its entirety but also—first and foremost—the humble ground beneath our feet, the winds gusting around us, and the local waters flowing through us.

Thoughts on written language do spring up in the most unexpected places.