Category Archives: Directionality

The (vestigial) influence of support on layout

I wrote before about the exhibition on historical books in India currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you’re in the area in the near future, it’s worth a look! There’s another interesting tidbit from this exhibition that I’d like to share.

I’ve considered before questions related to text directionality. Basically, what is it that determines how we write? We have text written upwards spiraling in fanciful directions, such as on the ancient Ogham monuments in Ireland. We have vertical texts and we have horizontal texts. And then we can consider all the supports writing has seen over the years: stone, turtle shells, clay, wood, leaves, paper, metal, skin, pixels… all of which have limitations with respect to size and shape. Did these limitations contribute to text directionality in the early days of human writing? Who knows.


One thing we can be sure of is that the support played a large role in how pages were designed. Above we see pages made from palm leaves. Of course, palm leaves are long and narrow, so the pages had to be designed such that they could be read in this format.

There are samples of similar texts elsewhere in the exhibit, with an interest twist-slash-historical-development. As the signage explains:

The earliest Jain manuscripts were made from palm leaves. Since the size of the leaf could not be changed, the text and images were designed to fit its surface. In these pages, a few lines of writing run from the left to the right margin. Images occasionally punctuate the text, each encapsulating an important episode. The hole in the middle of the page was for the string that once tied the pages together and secured their wooden covers. To read a book, a person would loosen the string and flip the pages vertically.

When paper replaced palm leaf in the 1300s, artists could change the dimensions of the page to accommodate more text and larger images. However, the long horizontal format was sanctified by religious tradition and continued to be used. Likewise, even though paper manuscripts were no longer tied together with string, artists regularly placed a red circle in the middle of each page to imitate the hole from the palm leaf tradition.

This, I suppose, is another example of skeumorphism, which I’ve discussed before. Now, religious sanctity is one thing, but taking advantages of the non-limitations when changing support is an important opportunity. So let’s consider: What are we missing out on when we model e-books after physical books? 

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?

The meteoric rise of left-to-right writing

Previously we considered the possibility that there is something innate in humans that causes us to prefer left-to-right writing systems. Today we will look at the historic unfolding of writing system directionality. In this light, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, ingrained preference for any particular writing direction. What, then, has driven it?

The timeline below chronicles the history of human writing systems by directionality. The numbers on the y-axis refer to the total number of scripts written in each direction. Each dot represents the emergence of a new writing system (rounded to the nearest 100-year mark). Scripts included on this chart were retrieved from Omniglot’s writing direction index, and the dates of emergence were retrieved from Omniglot, Wikipedia or dedicated niche websites. It should be mentioned that these dates are mere estimates; especially in the BC era, the oldest preserved sample of a script is very likely not representative of the emergence of that script. In any case, we must go off the data we have available, and for this project, rough estimates are sufficient.

Text Direction Timeline

Here it is clear that left-to-right writing was not the first to come about. If there were an innate preference for left-to-right, shouldn’t it have emerged first? But alas, first we experimented with boustrophedon and other helter-skelter arrangements of symbols, then right-to-left came about, and then left-to-right-top-down, until finally, around 1800 BC, we came to Linear A and B, which stabilized as left-to-right-horizontal scripts.

From that point through the next several centuries, there was a healthy mix of all sorts of writing system directions around the world. But somewhere along the line this changed, and since 800 AD virtually all new scripts have been left-to-right-horizontal. What happened?

The answer, of course, is Latin. A descendent of Linear A and B, Latin as a distinct script emerged in the 7th century BC. It was then championed by the Roman Empire, became the official script of the Catholic Church, and was used in Gutenberg’s printing press. Thus, a likely explanation for the prevalence of left-to-right scripts in the world is not innate preference, but rather a series of geopolitical reasons, centered on the success of Rome. By the time the Roman Empire fell, the Latin script had been irrevocably established.

In other words, we have happenstance to thank for the left-to-right majority. Okay, there’s a bit more to it… but that’s outside the scope of this blog. If you’re interested in why Europe (and later modern America, a descendent of Europe) rose to world power instead of, say, Aboriginal Australia, I highly recommend the book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond.

Besides establishing left-to-right-horizontal as the world’s preeminent script direction, all this has had a few interesting side effects in history. For example:

  • As a Roman religion, Christianity promulgated the Latin script. Thus missionaries who traveled to remote (and illiterate) parts of the world to spread the Gospel created writing systems—based on Latin, of course—for the native languages in each zone, which allowed them to later translate the Bible into those languages.
  • Because the fifteenth-century printing press used the Latin script and was successful, languages were pressured to use the Latin script as their own writing systems, often with diacritic marks to represent sounds not found in Latin. As a result, alphabets with characters not found in Latin fell on the wayside. For example, þ and ð were letters in Old English, but we don’t use them anymore.