For Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese, writing was done in 漢字 (English spelling may vary), going down and stopping and switching to the next line on the left and repeating the process again. Now, all of them write in the same orientation as English - going horizontally to the right and stopping and switching to the next line below the previous line and repeating the process again.

However, there are exceptions. Chinese-language novels published in Taiwan or in Hong Kong may be printed in the traditional orientation. In Mainland China, books may also be printed in the traditional orientation.

Then, there are Arabic and Hebrew.

My conjecture is that Chinese, Korean, and Japanese are all arranged in syllabic blocks. So, it would be relatively easy to change orientation. However, the same cannot be said for Arabic and Hebrew. Those are abjads, and the letters must be arranged in a specific order. And there is the Mongolian script, which is a vertical alphabet, again a specific order.

It would be as if English letters were arranged vertically like this:












So difficult to read!

My question above can be expressed alternatively. Is it possible to write Arabic or Hebrew or Mongolian in the same orientation as English? Is the inability to change writing orientation purely linguistic, or are there social/historical/cultural factors involved?

  • 3
    It is almost entirely social/cultural, though there were some practical considerations early on, depending on the predominant technology used for the particular script (chisels vs. reed styluses vs. pen and ink). Writing is in every case a learned technology, and there is nothing "linguistic" about the direction.
    – Colin Fine
    May 23 '19 at 21:31
  • It may still not be practical to write in a different orientation. I mean, English letters written vertically looks weird. If English letters were arranged and read from right to left, then current readers wouldn't be able to read it. Current English readers remember the word as a whole, not the individual letters. Therefore, there is a neurological basis and practical basis too. Perhaps, that may suggest something about the nature of alphabets or abjads.
    – Double U
    May 24 '19 at 1:13
  • Hmm, your last comment feels like it was meant as an objection to @ColinFine's comment, but I fail to see the objection. Exactly as he says there is nothing "linguistic" here. Changing the orientation without a reason would be a very dumb idea for the reasons you've just listed. Therefore, it is important to figure out why the change occurred for Chinese/Japanese/etc. Once this is known it will become clear that no such incentives exist for English. neurological basis - well, there is no way to prove my point but I'm sure that for a child learning to read there is no difference how ..
    – tum_
    May 24 '19 at 8:09
  • .. letters are oriented. So your neurological basis can only be understood as "people who already can read will find it rather challenging to read backwards or downwards", which is quite obvious, but there is nothing 'genetic' here, it's just a question of learning.
    – tum_
    May 24 '19 at 8:12
  • As to the question in your title I find this Wiki article very helpful. It covers Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Note that the questions you ask in your last paragraph are very different from the one in the title.
    – tum_
    May 24 '19 at 9:37

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