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I have seen a video where the host said the reason why Semitic languages are written right to left is because in the old days in that region paper-like material was scarce and people usually carved text on stone, and carving is easier from right to left.

Is this is an accepted theory?

EDIT: corrected the obvious typo.

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    Akkadian is written left to right, as are Ethio-semitic languages.
    – fdb
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 15:47
  • 11
    I would have a hard time believing Arabic descended from stone-written orthography Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 23:58
  • I can't prove this at all; but the answer I was given long ago is the equipment used by Egyptian scribes made right to left more convenient.
    – Joshua
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 2:08
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    Direction of writing seems quite arbitrary, so why does there have to be a "reason" for it at all?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 14:01

2 Answers 2

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This is not even a widely heard of theory. The reason why English is written left to right is that our ancestors wrote left to right, so the underlying question is what was the direction of the first writings. Questions about Latin and Greek therefore have to defer to an answer about earlier Semitic, which has to defer to an answer about Egyptian and Sumerian, then of course there are analogous questions about Chinese and Mayan hieroglyphics, and other undeciphered systems. Chinese is traditionally top to bottom right to left. Direction of writing can be variable ("boustrophedon") and changeable over time. Egyptian was preferentially written RTL (glyphs face the beginning of the text), and I can't find any indication of the majority direction for Sumerian.

The premise that writing started with inscriptions chiseled in stone is also extremely implausible and contrary to known fact. The two dominant media for ancient writings are clay and ink-plus-surface. If you are right-handed (the majority case), it is easier to avoid smearing what you've just written if you write left-to-right. Post hoc functional stories based on a priori notions of "ease" are not very explanatory, given that writing direction is simply conventional.

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    Wouldn't left-to-right be easier to avoid smearing if you're right-handed? If I write right-to-left, the side of my palm rests on the text I just wrote.
    – Draconis
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 16:30
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    Yes, which is why functional explanations are vacuous: one post hoc fits an specific "explanation" to the observation.
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 16:47
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    The reason for writing > left to right is quite clear, but what are the reasons for writing < right to left? Why so many scripts chose the < right to left direction?
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 21:14
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    Boustrophedon is more specific than just "variable"; if you say variable I would think like modern Japanese, which can be written left to right (lines top to bottom) or top to bottom (lines right to left), at the discretion of the writer. Boustrophedon is alternating between right to left and left to right on alternate lines, so the overall direction of writing follows a zigzag pattern.
    – Hearth
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 1:11
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    Lots of good info in this article, but also lots of confusion. For example, the direction of Sumerian cuneiform writing is well attested from wall and statue inscriptions: it changed over time from top-down columns (ordered right-to-left) to left-to-right rows (ordered top-down; coincidentally the same order as we use for English today). Akkadian (an east Semitic language), Hittite, Old Persian and other languages that borrowed or imitated the Sumerian cuneiform writing system also inherited this left-to-right order. Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 12:52
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The claim that right-to-left emerged because of chisel technology was quoted from Quora by the Children's Museum of Indianapolis website as a potential theory, and was also on Wikipedia's article on Right-to-left script. User ShreevatsaR wrote an answer on English StackExchange in 2010 to the question Why is English written and read left to right?, with the caveat that it may be an urban legend. It is noted that generally, hieroglyphs did have to be painted or drawn on the stone surface first before carving; red ochre and black chalk seem to have been popular choices.

Medium cites the top-to-bottom then right-to-left method (as employed by the Sinosphere but also commonly on Egyptian papyrus) as being functional for those with right-handed dominance, because it allowed the left hand to unfurl the scroll as the right hand was writing - another Wikipedia citation, this time on the page Horizontal and vertical writing in East Asian scripts (still extant as of early October 2023).

Both of these claims were nonetheless espoused in a published paper - from the International Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics by Y Nishiyama (2010). The first claim is also the titular one from the 2008 book Why Hebrew Goes from Right to Left: 201 Things You Never Knew About Judaism.


Some data on hieratic on papyrus comes from a chapter by Colette Sirat entitled The Material Conditions of the Lateralization of the Ductus, in the 1988 book The Alphabet and the Brain: The Lateralization of Writing. The example in the image there is the 18th Dynasty hieratic papyrus E 3230 A from the Louvre.

The scribe held the unused portion of the roll in the left hand, while writing with the right. The written portion fell by the right side of the body, and as writing progressed, the papyrus could be rolled up again if it began to unravel. This control using the right hand was very simple when sitting on the floor.

However, 'tablet and stylus' for Sumerian cuneiform differs in quite a large way from 'papyrus roll, ink and reed' for hieratic:

The form of the signs, as well as the materials used, show that they were written with a raised hand, and, as we would predict, the horizontal lines ran from left to right. The tablets were palm sized, and were probably held in the left hand.

A 2019 Linguistics SE answer from Ilmari Karonen gives further insight into the mechanics of cuneiform and some more inscriptional evidence.


It is perhaps useful to use WC Watt's classification of written systems into eographic, neographic, mesographic and cenographic. Only at the mesographic stage, where rapid writing of large quantities of text, does a 'standard' cursive system emerge, making 'ease' the main factor, dependent of course on the 'hardware' available.

The Greek alphabet is standardised in the sixth to fifth centuries BCE, before which there was much more variety in direction. But this had been preceded by a large increase in literacy through the eighth century BCE, moving all of these into a 'mature' mesographic phase:

This movement of true alphabetization was seen amongst the Phoenicians, the Canaanites, the Israelites, and the Greeks. Reading and writing ceased to be the privilege of scribes and became accessible to all people, whatever their rank might be.

So the real question here is why the split of the Greek tradition from the Semitic tradition of writing. Sirat ascribes this to the socioeconomic perceptions of writing:

The almost absolute dichotomy that we see in Greece between writing as a profession and writing as a means of communication is based on two principal reasons. The first is intellectual, affirming the superiority of speech over writing. Writing was never the "sacred character" or the "divine writing," but an inadequate transcription of discourse. [...] The other reason is related to uses and customs, which prohibited a free Greek from sitting on the ground. In fact the Greeks, like the Assyrians before them, never sat on the ground but always on seats.


A different (and admittedly even more obscure) explanation for right-to-left (or the split of the left-to-right from the right-to-left among mesographic written systems) comes from D. de Kerckhove, in the chapter Logical Principles Underlying the Layout of Greek Orthography, where he says that abjad systems are contextual for readers i.e. "reading will depend primarily on pattern recognition", rather than being a contiguous system as the modern alphabets are. From this, it is concluded that:

Consequently, the types of scripts that require speed of feature recognition to establish appropriate contextual relationships (such as consonantal alphabets) will be read to the left of the visual field better than to the right; while those that require speed of connecting the contiguous relationships of the sequence of characters [...] will be read better to the right than to the left of the visual field.

The author then cites the Etruscan alphabet and the Kharosthi abugida as right-to-left counterexamples. Further on, the same author cites some neurobiology, while classifying abjad 'words' as being iconic in their neural processing:

In addition, it appears that within the visual system of a normally lateralized - i.e., right-handed - subject, the right hemisphere is better at deciphering icons and images, while the left is better at analyzing sequences. [...] These preliminary observations first led me to speculate that, all considerations of posture and writing material aside, iconic and pictographic writings might favor a kind of neurological processing quite different from that which is elicited by phonological systems.


Personally, I think this is a fascinating, if murky, topic, where epigraphy meets historical art depictions and neurolinguistics during a period of social upheaval and the consolidation of traditions. It is bound to have been a multifactorial shift that 'standardised' the directions of the Semitic scripts - after all, according to Astoreca (2021):

[I]f we look at other writing traditions, not related to alphabetic Greek, it is not uncommon to find long periods in which writing is not visible in the archaeological record, after which it is usual to see a continuity in the writing system that shows that writing was not abandoned altogether but has simply disappeared from the surviving record and cannot be traced. This is the case of the Cypro-Minoan syllabic scripts of the 2nd millennium [...] Similarly, Semitic writing also experienced a gap between proto-Canaanite to Hebrew and from Nabatean to Arabic.

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