8

The Greek alphabet and all of its child systems such as Roman, Cyrillic, and Gothic are conventionally left-to-right writting systems. But why is that, considering it comes from the Phoenician alphabet, which is a right-to-left system?

Normally, you would expect a child system to follow its parent's essential traits, such as order, as Phoenician child's Aramaic (which is the parent of Hebrew and other arab right-to-left languages) does; however Greek is different. In this picture you can see the Greek alphabet (top hemisphere) and Aramaic (bottom hemisphere) — greek text doesn't go all the way to the right, aramaic doesn't go all the way to the left.

It seems this kind of change isn't uncommon, considering that the system from which Phoenician descends, ancient egyptian hieroglyphs, was actually left-to-right. So Greek's timeline roughly goes as left-to-right (egypt) -> right-to-left (phoenician) -> left-to-right (ancient greek), staying as left-to-right until today (modern greek).

So, how do some languages just suddenly shift their writing order, and more especifically, how did it happen in Greek's case?

  • 4
    The Semitic influence was right-to-left, but the Minoan influence was left-to-right. Greek is a child of both Phoenician and Linear B. – amI Mar 6 at 3:15
  • 6
    And boustrophedon writing -- like an ox plows a field, alternating right and left, sometimes alternating the letter shapes -- was not uncommon in many early writings. – jlawler Mar 6 at 3:26
  • 3
    @aml Linear B had not been in use for several centuries when the Greek alphabet came into being, so it's unlikely to have been an influence. – TKR Mar 6 at 4:09
4

I'd added and asked also why arabic numbers kept their direction (less significant digit is the last - i.e. number comes from the right-to-left as arabic text flows).

As for writing directions, I prefer to see the roots in: physiology (humans right-handedness), sociology (the way we're stickin to traditions) and technology (paper, stone, ...)

It is suitable for right-handed man to carve in stone with a mallet in the right hand and chisel in the left and the force vector will be pointing from right to left thus sequential carving in right-to-left direction is very natural.

But for paperwork (or something paintable) it is desirable to not touch the freshly drawn objects and left-to-right sequential moving is very comfortable for populating sheet.

Boustrophedon was very natural too. I think, at first stages the text field populating was imitation of a field ploughing as well-known and respectful activity of the early societies but later as usual it was simplified for one-directional writing.

  • 3
    Also weaving, which probably came earlier than large-scale agriculture. Note the number of weaving metaphors in cognates of PIE roots like *teks. – jlawler Mar 6 at 15:53
  • and wer -- text, texture, word, -ward, verb, warp, ... (to turn a phrase) – amI Mar 6 at 18:27
  • I like this answer and I can green check it once some source is added. – William Mar 10 at 3:48
3

The issue of the direction of writing is more complex than just Left-to-Right or Right-to-Left, but also includes Top-to-Bottom, and rarer Bottom-to-Top or even Spiral. Spiral alphabetic writing is attested in Carian. Bottom-to-Top is attested in Lybico-Berber alphabetic inscriptions. Greek is also attested in boustrophedon, that is to say "as the ox plows", in alternative Left-to-Right and Right-to-Left directions in one line to the next. So the issue is more complex than your initial question. Ugaritic script is a cuneiform-looking archaic alphabet that is mostly L-to-R. So the historical facts are that some alphabets stabilized a Left-to-Right or a Right-to-Left direction, out of an initial state of affairs, where almost everything possible is attested.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.