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Thread: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

  1. #1
    Builder Why I Am a Destiny's avatar
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    Default Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    I was watching this guy read a Japanese newspaper on a train and it made me curious. You see, I am left handed, and when I was a little kid I used to construct little books. I'd make them read from right to left because that seemed the most natural way to me. It took my Mom quite a bit of undoing to get me to understand that books read from left to right. I would have felt right at home in Japan. I know that left-handed people are less predictable in terms of their neurology, and I wondered if left handed-ness and Japaneseness have anything conceivably in common from a brain structure perspective.

    I guess the essential question is why the Japanese write from right to left. If most of its population is right-handed, this just doesn't seem practical. Is it just pure happenstance? Did it emerge due to specific cultural circumstances? Did they change the presentation of the language on the page to better suit its structure, or did its structure emerge from the presentation? Is there any evidence that Japanese neurology has to do with how they read and write? Is the English way at all ''standard'' with slight deviations from select countries, or is written language orientation pretty much all across the board? Is it sheer coincidence that my left-handedness happened to manifest in a way that coincides with the Japanese way of doing things?

    Just curious.
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    Default Re: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    Traditionally, Japanese is read in columns, up to down, right to left. You could also ask why most European languages write/read from left to right. If I remember correctly, Hebrew is read from right to left. I'm not sure there's a definitive answer to this outside of "just because".

  3. #3
    Elephant
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    Default Re: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    If left-handedness and Japanese-ness have anything in common, then the educational system has really been shooting itself in the foot for the past few generations. You've heard horror stories about teachers in the US who would force left-handed kids to only use their right? That was the standard practice in Japan until very recently, and you can still get a double-take from adults here by holding your chopsticks left-handed.

    The kanji writing system is borrowed from Chinese (even though the spoken languages are very different), which is also written in columns from right to left. As for why Chinese uses that structure, I haven't the foggiest. Maybe it stems from the practice of writing with brushes rather than quills?
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    Default Re: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    Quote Originally posted by Angelsoft
    I'm not sure there's a definitive answer to this outside of "just because".
    I agree.

    There's several ways one could conceivably write a language -- left to right (as in the majority of writing systems), right to left (a substantial number, including Arabic and Hebrew), top to bottom and then in columns from right to left (traditionally, at least, used for Japanese and Chinese, although Chinese in the PRC is now typically written the way we do), top to bottom and then left to right (used by Uyghur and Mongolian, due to a sort of odd historical change). Which way any particular language was written was probably basically random. My own instinct makes me think that bottom to top is probably pretty unnatural but even that could just be some implicit bias towards what I'm used to (I don't think there are any writing systems that work that way, though.) Aside from that, I think it's mostly just a matter of happenstance that some places use one style and other places use another style.

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    Stegodon
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    Default Re: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    I've seen explanation based on most popular form of book:
    Orient using scrolls - as more convenient for writing in columns, where you can read columns by, well, scrolling the scroll.
    Occident using bound tomes of separate sheets - where you read lines and then turn page.

    Honestly, I don't find that argument very convincing. I think it was more of "first guy did it that way".

  6. #6
    Stegodon
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    Default Re: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    Quote Originally posted by puppygod
    I've seen explanation based on most popular form of book:
    Orient using scrolls - as more convenient for writing in columns, where you can read columns by, well, scrolling the scroll.
    Occident using bound tomes of separate sheets - where you read lines and then turn page.

    Honestly, I don't find that argument very convincing. I think it was more of "first guy did it that way".
    I don't buy that, as Westerners used scrolls before they used bound books. I mean, the Greeks and Romans used scrolls for literally centuries without exception, and Latin is read the same as English.

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    Default Re: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    Quote Originally posted by sublight
    The kanji writing system is borrowed from Chinese (even though the spoken languages are very different), which is also written in columns from right to left. As for why Chinese uses that structure, I haven't the foggiest. Maybe it stems from the practice of writing with brushes rather than quills?
    The way i've heard it, when using your brush and pot of ink, the ink being on the left side of the writing material would mean right-handers would have to move further away to redip their brush. So you have it on the right side. So then starting on the left, or even bottom, would mean you're tracking your inky brush right across the whole sheet, risking drippage. So you start at top right and move downwards.
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    Oliphaunt Baldwin's avatar
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    Default Re: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    I wonder if one factor might be the cultural prevalence of writing with a brush vs. writing with a pen. If you're using a pen, with your hand either resting on or occasionally contacting the writing surface, then writing left-to-right allows you to avoid smudging the ink with your hand (assuming you're right-handed). If you're holding a brush, your hand stays up above the surface.

    On the other hand -- when did people start writing with ink? Maybe the direction was already established when they were carving in stone or making impressions on clay tablets.

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    Default Re: Why do the Japanese read and write from right to left?

    Quote Originally posted by Baldwin
    I wonder if one factor might be the cultural prevalence of writing with a brush vs. writing with a pen. If you're using a pen, with your hand either resting on or occasionally contacting the writing surface, then writing left-to-right allows you to avoid smudging the ink with your hand (assuming you're right-handed). If you're holding a brush, your hand stays up above the surface.

    On the other hand -- when did people start writing with ink? Maybe the direction was already established when they were carving in stone or making impressions on clay tablets.
    I thought about the smearing thing, but my (quite possibly wrong) general impression is that these things were mostly established well before that was an issue.

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