Why does Europe write left-to-right?

In the beginning was the Word

About 4,000 years ago the necessity to write appeared, which meant providing other people with information not through spoken word, but by written word. The first attempt to do so was by pictograms (drawings). Writers of the past were probably very proud of themselves, however, we understand that their ability to describe qualities and emotions was poor.

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The pictograms developed into hieroglyphs. In addition to drawings of subjects those images carried descriptive information. Each hieroglyph had its specific meaning, and the quantity of such hieroglyphs was growing.

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Disadvantages of such writing:

  • There are more than 500,000 words in any modern language. The need to remember thousands of hieroglyphs is an impossible task for most people. The profession of hieroglyph writer/reader was a very respectable one and demanded long years of training, so people, in general, were completely deprived of such opportunity.
  • Each hieroglyph makes sense only within the group of people who have agreed upon the meaning of this hieroglyph. A person not from this group wouldn’t understand this hieroglyph. Therefore, hieroglyphs were not suitable for information exchanging between different groups of people.

Hieroglyphs were written in all directions, but the most prevalent were right-to-left and top-to-bottom. The reason for that is simple: these directions were more comfortable for the right-handed person, writing on a stone with a chisel in his left hand and a hammer in his right hand.


I write what I hear

(Here it’s recommended to read the article “Exodus: Behind the Scenes“).

In the middle of the 17th century B.C. forefather Yaakov’s family moved from Knaan (Canaan) to Egypt. The Jews were taking active part in economic and trade activities. Hieroglyphs and pictograms were absolutely unsuitable for making records. That is why special characters that made it possible to WRITE DOWN SOUNDS OF HUMAN SPEECH were invented. It was the first phonetic alphabet.

In the beginning, each character of this alphabet consisted of a consonant and vowel combination, i.e. was an open syllable. Here is one version of the character list (not all have been understood yet):

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There are 88 characters in this list. Actually, their quantity can vary from 50 to 100 at different stages of research and in different researchers. Like in almost all languages nowadays, each consonant could be combined with one of 5 vowels for an open syllable formation, for example:

Pa, Po, Pu, Pi, Pe.

We can see on the picture the inscription made in the 16th century B.C. It was found in Egypt at the Wadi el-Hol (the Sandy Gulch). It is the oldest inscription written in phonetic alphabet ever found. Such a way of writing is called today a linear script because of writing along the horizontal line, unlike the previous forms of writing with hieroglyphs which have been written in all directions.

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The Wadi el-Hol is in Egypt about 500 km from Cairo upstream the Nile River, approximately near the mythical Land of Goshen or to the South from it, i.e. in the area where the Jews used to live in the 16th century B.C.

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The linear syllabic script has been improving during the 16th and 14th centuries B.C. In the 13th century B.C. there was a revolutionary jump in the development of such writing –we’ll talk about it below.

After deposition of the 16th dynasty of Hyksos Pharaohs (hycsos, Ὑκσώς, היקסוס) in 1550 B.C. the attitude of the authorities and local people towards the Jews became hostile (read the article “Who are you, Pharaoh?“). That is why the Jews began to emigrate from Egypt to different regions of the Aegean Sea, Crete, Cyprus, and Sicily, as well as to other areas of the Mediterranean Sea coast.

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The Jews lived in these areas during the period between 1550 and 1208 B.C. and, naturally, brought with them the linear syllabic script. A lot of documents with different versions of such writing have been found in excavations of the Minoan and Mycenaean periods.

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If we take any language and remove the vowels from words, it won’t, in most cases, lead to misunderstanding of the text, but will considerably shorten it. Let’s try to write this sentence by removing the vowels, except those at the beginning and at the end of words and the vowel “o”.

Lt’s try to wrte ths sntnce rmovng the vowls, excpt those at the bgnnng and at the end of words and vowl “o”. A lttle strnge at frst, bt thn if you gt usd to it, qte clr.

The Jews have been writing and reading this way for more than three thousand years. The structure of Hebrew, where practically all roots of words consist of three consonants, makes the understanding considerably easier. Such a way of writing saves time, paper, and ink, as well as developing variational thinking.

By the end of the 13th century B.C., i.e. by the time of the Exodus from Egypt, having removed all unnecessary characters, the Jews created the alphabet consisting of 22 letters. Here it is:

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Dear reader! Stop and look at the picture above!!! Before your eyes is the greatest invention in the history of mankind! The invention of wheel, gunpowder, penicillin and the Internet is insignificant in comparison with it. This is a universal way of spreading information all over the world. Without it the mankind developing would have stopped 3200 years ago.

This alphabet had the following revolutionary advantages:

1.   It allowed writing down ANY combination of sounds IRRESPECTIVE OF the language that a person was speaking and even without understanding the meaning.

2.   It was available to EACH person for studying within a few days, i.e. it opened the gates to education to all people.

The 10 Commandments were written on the Tablets of the Covenant by these letters (read the article “On the laws of nature and on the nature of laws“).


The Alphabet Export to Europe

(Here it’s recommended to read the article “Full Circle“).

Between 1194 and 1154 B.C. the Exodus took place. The Jews left Egypt and settled in Canaan.

During the next 450 years immortal masterpieces such as The Torah, The Psalms of King David, Solomon’s Song of Songs, and a great variety of others were written in Hebrew using this alphabet. And what were the people of Europe doing while the Jews were learning to read and  write, building Jerusalem and arguing about morality stated in 10 Commandments?

The Europeans of those times were walking around the woods wearing animal skins, getting food by picking mushrooms and berries, as well as by primitive hunting, and living in caves. They worshiped the stones and lightning. All this could go on and on, BUT…

In 732 B.C. Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III began the invasion to Canaan. The war lasted for 31 years. During this period a significant amount of Jews escaped from Canaan and settled on the coast of the Mediterranean.

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The number of refugees reached millions of people (read the article “Numbers“). Most of them settled in the Aegean Sea coastline and islands. That was the end of dark ages of Greece.

Immigrants have also brought the alphabet to the Aegean Sea region. That was the beginning of the European aducation.


Development of Writing Technologies

In the 7th – 5th centuries B.C. there was no paper. People used ceramic, papyruses, and animal skin for writing.

Writing on specially treated animal skin was the most convenient. That skin processing technology has remained up to now. It is used while making the klaf – a piece of skin with  the “Hear, O Israel!” prayer which is put inside the mezuzah. The same technology has been used and is being used nowadays for making the Torah scrolls.

The bigger a piece of skin was, the more information could be written on it and therefore, the more value it had.

Reading from a big piece of skin had one uncomfortable disadvantage – it was necessary to turn your head while moving from line to line. To overcome this discomfort between the 6th and the 5th centuries B.C. a tendency to change the direction of writing every line appeared and was developed. This means that one line was written right-to-left, the next left-to-right, and so on. For example:

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It’s unusual for us, but after minimal training quite acceptable.

Bidirectional writing system (boustrophedon) had existed together with right-to-left writing for about 200 years. Then, at the end of the 5th century B.C., there was a new technological jump: skin processing technology became much cheaper, big pieces of skin lost their value, and people started cutting them for small rectangular pieces. The need for bidirectional writing has disappeared. However, there was no quick-drying ink that time, so while writing right-to-left a right-handed person often wiped off this writing.

As a result, at the end of the 5th century B.C. the left-to-right writing direction became predominant.


The Greek Alphabet

Writing direction changing has lead to changes in the form of some letters of the Hebrew alphabet. That’s how the Greek alphabet was created. See the following table for comparison:

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1.   Some letters just changed the direction. In Greece they were written from left to right instead of from right to left: bet, gimel, he (hey), kaf, resh.

2.   Some letters turned 90º: alef, dalet, lamed, shin.

3.   Some letters didn’t change or changed a little: chet, tet, nun, ayin, vav.

4.   3 letters were added: phi, chi, psi.

5.   In general names of letters didn’t change, but they were adjusted to pronunciation.

This Greek alphabet has become “father” of the East European alphabets.


The Latin Alphabet

(Here it’s recommended to read the article “The Golden Triangle”)

Escaping from Tiglath Pileser III some of the Jewish refugees settled on the west banks of the Apennine Peninsula and along the Tiber River. They founded 12 cities. This group called itself (Aram) ראשנא [rashna] = (Heb) הראשונים [harishonim] = (Eng) the first, pioneers. During the same period the city of Rome appeared and developed to the South from Rashna. The first seven kings of Rome were rashna. After about 150 years the Romans began to call rashna the nickname “etruscan”.

Commercial and cultural contacts of Rashna with the Jews of the Aegean Sea were very close, therefore during the period from the 7th to 4th centuries B.C. the alphabet of Rashna has experienced the same evolutionary changes as the Greek alphabet (see above). The Latin alphabet was the result of this process. Since the end of the 5th century B.C. people of the Apennine Peninsula have been writing in Latin from left to right for the same reason as in Greece.

Latin has become a source of West European languages and alphabets: Romanian, Italian, French and Spanish, from which, in their turn, other West European languages have developed.


Why didn’t the Romans Speak Roman?

The Germans speak German, the Russians speak Russian, the Arabs speak Arabic. Why did the Romans speak Latin, but not Roman?

There is a word לשון [lashon] = language in Hebrew. In language of Rashna this word has been changed:

lashon → lathon → lathin → latin

That is why the Romans called their language as latin = (eng) language.


The Alphabet Development in Hebrew

As stated above, the ancient Hebrew alphabet appeared and developed during the time of Egyptian slavery. At the beginning of the 12th century B.C. the Jews brought it to Canaan.

At the end the 8th century B.C., when millions of Jews settled in the Mediterranean Sea coasts, the alphabet experienced some changes there. Those who stayed in Canaan continued using the old alphabet.

In 586 B.C. the king of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and took the Jewish intellectual elite as captives. In Babylonian captivity the Jews had the possibility of living according to the laws of their religion and culture. During this period the FORM of letters in the Hebrew alphabet has changed under the influence of Aramaic writing: so-called square letters appeared. The quantity and meaning of letters remained the same.

After 70 years of the Babylonian captivity the Jews came back to Canaan and brought with them a new form of letters. This new form existed along with the ancient one for about 600 years, gradually replacing it. The last usage of ancient letters by the Jews appeared to be in 132 A.D. on Bar Kochba’s coins.

Square form of letters is the most widespread form used for writing in Hebrew nowadays.

In the following table the ancient and square forms of letters are compared.

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The Samaritan Alphabet

A lot of Jews still remained in the territory of the Kingdom of Israel after its capture by Tiglath Pileser III and his successors in 732-701 B.C. Part of them were taken to Assyria, and another part mixed with the Assyrian soldiers and immigrants. So that’s how a new nation evolved – the Samaritans.

The Samaritans still use the ancient Hebrew alphabet (with small changes). This picture was taken in 2013 in Samaritan settlement on the Grizim Mountain. “The Good Samaritan Center» is written on the board.

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A person who reads in Hebrew can quickly learn to read in Samaritan.

Here is an exercise for those who can read in Hebrew and are interested to learn the Samaritan alphabet in 15 minutes. The names of 12 Tribes of Israel are written on these plates:

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The Berber Alphabet

The tribes of Berbers, with up to 6 million people nowadays, live in the desert regions of Libya and Algeria. They use the alphabet based on the ancient Hebrew alphabet. There are many versions of this phenomenon, but we’ll mention two of them:

1.   The Berbers are descendants of the Jews who came out of Egypt to the west during or after the Exodus (the 12th century B.C.).

2.   The Berbers are descendants of the Jews who went to the desert from Carthage after its destruction by the Romans (in 146 B.C.).

Both versions can be right as they don’t conflict with each other.

The Conclusion

A person walking down the road needs to see the place where he is going to put his foot but not the place he has already passed. Likewise, a person, while writing, needs to see the place of paper where he is going to write but not the place where he has already written something.

In conclusion, a right-handed person should write right-to-left in any language. With inventing of ballpoint pens and pencils the reasons for writing left-to-right, which had been actual 2.500 years ago, disappeared.



There are other articles on this site. A list of them here

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