LINGUIST List 15.1211

Wed Apr 14 2004

Sum: Writing System Directionality

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Rebecca Treiman, Summary

Message 1: Summary

Date: Tue, 13 Apr 2004 10:57:58 -0400 (EDT)
From: Rebecca Treiman <>
Subject: Summary

A while back, I posted the following query (Linguist 15.966): 

Some writing systems are arranged in columns, and others in rows. They
may go from right to left or left to right. Virtually all writing
systems, though, go from top to bottom. Very few, if any, have
adopted a consistent bottom-to-top direction. I have looked for
discussions of why bottom-to-top writing is so rare, but haven't been
able to find much information on this. Any input would be appreciated.

Several possible reasons for the rarity of bottom-to-top writing were

1. Smudging may occur if one is writing from bottom to top with
something wet like paint or if one is using clay. This is a reasonable
explanation, and it was mentioned by several respondents. However, it
is not applicable to carving or inscribing, which also show a
preference for a bottom-to-top direction. There may be a deeper
motivation for this preference as well.

2. It is hard to see what you wrote if it is covered by your hand or
arm. This could be another motivation for not starting at the bottom
of a surface, if one assumes that it's more important to see what
you've already written than to see where you're going to go next.

3. Several respondents suggested that there is a general cognitive
preference for the top. Maybe it's something as basic as the fact that
the top of our visual field is usually more important than the bottom
-- we look up at people's heads when talking, we look up to see where
we're walking. However, one can argue this either way. The bottom is
closer to the viewer. And the bottom edge of the paper seems to be a
natural "ground" on which to rest items.

Thanks to the following respondents:

Ghil'ad Zuckermann
S. N. Sridhar
Chuck Bigelow
Michael Swan
Toby Paff
Matthew Walenski
Baden Hughes
Ed McDonald
Lameen Souag
Gunna Funder Hansen
Pete Unseth
Brett Kessler

Thank you all for your input. 

Rebecca Treiman
Professor, Psychology, Washington University
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