Universals in text directionality?

English text is read and written in lines. In each line, the text goes left to right, and the lines themselves go from top to bottom. Simple enough. But when we look at other writing systems, we see that left-to-right (A in the diagram below) isn’t the only possibility. How else do humans write?


Many languages are written right-to-left, such as Arabic and Hebrew. In these writing systems, just as in ours, lines are read from top to bottom (B). Then there are the languages whose text is read from top to bottom, such as traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Here, the lines are read from right to left (C). Some languages are written in vertical lines that are read from left to right (D). Finally, some languages are written in vertical lines that are read from bottom to top, and these lines can either run from right to left (G) or from left to right (H). We should note that there are some special cases in the world, such as bi-directional text, but for now we’ll set those aside.

At first we might remark at the wonderful diversity of the world of text directionality. So many permutations! But when we look a bit deeper, we can see that it’s actually not that diverse. For example, the overwhelming majority of the world’s scripts are written as ours is (A). Check out the chart below and you’ll see what I mean.

Writing Directions Chart

Moreover, it is extremely rare for writing to go from bottom to top. You’ll notice that the theoretical possibilities E and F in my diagram are not realized in actual languages. According to Omniglot, there are only three languages that are written as in H, and only one as in G—and the G exemplar, Ancient Berber, was only written in this way sometimes; most commonly it is written as in B (in the chart above, it was counted in both categories).

Next, the very fact that languages are by and large written in successive lines is interesting. Sure, there’s boustrophedon, in which lines alternate right-to-left and left-to-right such that the text can be seen as a continuous stream of characters, but even that is written in lines. Let’s think outside the box a little. Again, Omniglot shows us some of the other possibilities: Ogham, an ancient Irish script, was inscribed on stones in a circular pattern, starting from the outside and working its way toward the center. Mayan was written in zig-zagging columns. Besides these, I’m sure there are millions of theoretical possibilities; perhaps many have already been explored in art.

Why is there not more diversity in the real world? Perhaps it is a reflection of the very purpose of writing: to organize information. Unorganized writing would, in some ways, cease to be writing at all. In other words, our writing has a natural preference toward lines. And within that preference, we have a clear bent toward unidirectional lines. (For example, ancient Greek was written in many different ways, including A, B and boustrophedon, but over time it settled on A.) 

Do we also have a universal preference toward left-to-right and top-to-bottom writing? Or is the fact that A is the majority pattern simply a testament to the influence the Latin writing system has had in the world?

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3 thoughts on “Universals in text directionality?

  1. An interesting overview. Interesting statistics, too.
    Now, how about the left to right plus top to bottom in various alphabets ? (cyrillic for instance).
    No time to check this out; I’ll leave it to you!^^

    All the best,
    bonne continuation


  2. Preferring Left to Right could have something to do with most writers being right-handed. They do not want to smudge what they have just written.

    1. That’s definitely something I’d like to pursue in future posts. Of course, being a lefty, I never really found the left-to-right direction all that convenient ;).
      Could lefties have been more prominent in the ancient Near East? Not sure how far beyond mere speculation we can get.

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