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Why Are Semitic and Indo-European Languages Read in Opposing Directions?

By Jon, published on 22/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Arabic > Why Is the Arabic Language Read From Right to Left?

“Writing is painting through speech.” (translation by Mel Belin)


In this metaphor, Voltaire (1694-1778), a French writer and philosopher, expresses well the need humans have to express their thoughts by translating them into words.

The transcription of the voice onto stone, wood, paper, or, nowadays, digital media, since prehistoric times is proof of the primary human necessity to communicate.

Every society on the planet has developed some system of writing. However, people who don’t speak the same language have no way to communicate unless they learn how to read and speak a foreign tongue.

A native English speaker who knows a Latin-based alphabet will only see abstract drawings in Arabic script unless he or she takes a course to learn Arabic.

Of course, without instruction, we are unable to read the Arabic language, its 28-letter alphabet, the hamza, and the structure of Arabic grammar.

This poses a significant problem for people visiting the Arabian peninsula on holiday, those who want to learn more about Arabic and the Islamic world and the Quran, or those who want to do business in the Arab world, or with Arabs or Arabic speaker in their own country.

Getting to even a basic Arabic level therefore takes times, with more time being needed if you want a higher proficiency.

Unfortunately, differing writing directions and languages tend to divide cultures, be it right to left, left to right, or in boustrophedon fashion (alternating lines of left to right, and then right to left).

Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew are read from right to left and are referred to as sinistroverse.

On the other hand, in English we write from the left to the right, which is said to be dextroverse.

There is so much that we don’t know about Arabic, and no one quite knows for sure why Arabic words, phrases, texts and literature are written from right to left, but we’re going to explore the possible answers to one of the most frequently asked questions about the Arabic language.

The First Alphabet Was Written From Right to Left

To understand why the Arab language is written from right to left, a review of the history of language is in order.

The first evidence of the existence of a writing system dates back to the 4th millennium BCE, around -3500. Cuneiform writing was used in Mesopotamia.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared at about the same time.

Arabic writing has it's roots in that of the Ancient Egyptians Are today’s Arab nations indirectly descended from pharaohs?

Over the next 3000 years, that first writing system slowly evolved from a form of communication based on pictographs depicting objects to a system of signs representing sounds and phonemes.

People progressively went from using ideograms to communicate what they were seeing and thinking to using letters and an alphabet.

The first known alphabet is called the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet. It was an abjad, an alphabet composed of consonants used for writing in the ancient Middle East. It contained 23 signs that date back to the 17th century BC.

Archaeologists have found signs that appear to be a derivation of Egyptian hieroglyphs and syllables from other Semitic languages.

So, in what direction were they written?

For the most part, the hieroglyphs, cuneiform signs, and Proto-Sinaitic alphabet letters were written from right to left.

The Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alphabets were all derived from the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet.

Arabic Writing and the Heritage of Semitic Languages

In the 10th century BCE, people originating from the Middle East, whose descendants now live in Lebanon, Israel, and southern Syrian territories, came to economically and commercially dominate the Mediterranean basin. They were called the Phoenicians.

The loosely united Phoenicians revolutionized writing by creating standardized phonemes in the form of letters reminiscent of the Proto-Sinaitic writing. The Phoenician alphabet is the oldest verified alphabet.

Around 1000 BC, the Phoenicians abandoned cuneiform writing and adopted a linear alphabet, written from right to left, that was then used throughout the Mediterranean for several centuries.

Learn the Arabic alphabet to master Arabic script The Arabic alphabet comes from Arab-Muslim countries, in particular an ancient site near Aleppo in Syria.

What does this have to do with the direction in which Arabic is written?

Between 300 BC and 650 AD, in what is today Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the Persian empire adopted another Levantine Semitic language, Aramaic, as the first written official language of the Near East.

Aramaic was spoken from Egypt to Pakistan, including Palestine for nearly 900 years.

Aramaic, which is read right to left, was also the official language of the Assyrian, Mesopotamian, and Babylonian empires.

And from this Semitic language – Aramaic – came the Arabic alphabet (alif, ba, ta, tha, jim, ha, kha, etc.) in the 2nd century CE.

But, it wasn’t until 512 that documents attesting to the existence of right-to-left Arabic writing were found near Aleppo in Syria.

However, as the evidence was too old, no one can yet say why Arabic was written from right to left. We can only hypothesize.

Check out the link between the Arabic language and Islamic culture.

Why Is Arabic Written Right to Left: The Debate Rages On

We may know how Arabic writing has evolved since its discovery. And, we can certainly say that all Semitic languages are written from right to left, but there remains no sure historical explanation for the phenomenon.

The Arabic language, a Semitic language with triliteral roots (words written with three consonants), is clearly a direct descendant of Syriac and Aramaic.

Researchers have also found a large amount of Egyptian papyrus containing hieroglyphs written from right to left.

The Arabic language has a rich and important history The Arabic language and culture were alive during the first millennium BC.

Plus, archaeologists have found traces of cuneiform writing from 2400-2350 BCE, well before the invention of the Phoenician and Aramaic writing systems, transcribed from left to right.

Some simply believe that successive Near East civilizations simply borrowed from one another, and that the Arabic language is a derivation from the Phoenician and Aramaic empires.

Other hypotheses are based on the type of material used in ancient times.

  1. Going from right to left facilitated reading. Near East scribes unrolled their papyrus scrolls to the left while writing with the right hand.
  2. Before the development of writing, people engraved cuneiform signs on rock. Because more people were right-handed than left-handed, the process of carving the rock may have started on the right and proceeded to the left.
  3. The direction in which Arabic was written may be due to the scribe’s position at the time, seated on the floor, hand held at an angle holding a reed dipped in ink.
  4. Perhaps the scribes were simply using the writing techniques taught at the time.
  5. The writing direction may have been influenced by the way in which the writing instruments were used (quill, qalam, brush, clay, stone, reed, papyrus, stylus, etc.) Perhaps scribes used some kind of support for their hands. Did they use a pulling, etching, or punching technique? Was ink used, or did the scribe make notches on a stiff surface?

Arabic is a “roof”, or standard, language. Within Arabic are several dependent variations, or dialects specific to Arabic countries (Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Lebanese Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Algerian Arabic etc). There is also literary Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic (Msa) that is generally understood by every Arabic speaker no matter where he or she lives, be it in North Africa, Palestine, or Egypt.

Learning Arabic is, therefore, more complex than learning German, French, Portuguese or Spanish.

Before even attempting to write a sentence in Arabic, or read an Arabic text, you will need to be instructed on how learning Arabic involves writing from right to left.

This means that learning Arabic calligraphy as well as the religious language of Islam is important in any Arabic course.

Speaking Arabic is different as it focuses on a particular Arabic dialect, and the pronunciation that is needed to speak Arabic in a given way.

Therefore a beginner to conversational Arabic will have a different language learning experience to someone studying classical Arabic.

These Arabic language learners who study the written language will discover how to write letters according to where they occur in Arabic words. Letters may be isolated or in an initial, middle, or final position.

To study Arabic calligraphy and learn Arabic writing from right to left at home, find an Arabic tutor on the Superprof platform!

Click here to find out why Arabic is the most beautiful language in the world.

Why Do We Write From Left to Right?

Our writing system, a Latin-based alphabet, derives directly from the Greco-Roman civilization.

In Roman times, slaves were given the job of recording the language documents on papyrus. They were seated on the ground and wrote from right to left.

Free men who preferred not to adopt the position of a slave chose to write in the opposite direction. If this assumption is correct, they must have written increasingly from left to right as time went on.

The writing direction is one of many differences between Arabic and English Do we write from left to right because there are more right-handed people than left-handed people?

Evidently, the Greeks and Romans retained this writing direction which was then imposed on the rest of Latin Europe.

Another hypothesis involves the dominant hand of the writer.

In the past, being left-handed was bad, a stigma in fact.

Just ask a few people who went to school in the 1950s. They’ll tell you how even into the 20th century, left-handed children were made to write with their right hands.

It would be quite difficult for most right-handed people to write from right to left. They would be required to hold their wrist in an uncomfortable position, bending it severely in order to avoid smearing their ink as they moved to the left.

Or, they might try to write with their hand in a raised, and clearly exhausting, position.

That said, as a left-handed writer, I can remember spending a lot of time trying to find a comfortable position as I was learning to write in elementary school. The last thing I wanted was to smudge the ink and get yelled at by the teacher!

Ironically, reading and writing may be easier for left-handed writers when learning Arabic. They’ll actually be able to see what they’re writing!

Find out more about the link between the Arabic language and Allah.

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Matt Milne
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Matt Milne

I really enjoyed this read. Thoughtfully written.
I had questions as to the origin of dextroverse or rtl writing. I supposed, based on the current proven data that the majority of people are right handed over left left handed that it all may have begun with inscription carvings of the first written languages cuneiform, etc. In this case where the majority of people being right handed would have been an asset as the dominant hand would be the striking hand and therefore more accurate and less prone to mistake in hitting the chiseling implement.