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Why are some languages written from right to left?

Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi and other ancient languages have a common denominator: they are languages written from right to left. It is said that right-to-left scripts can be indicative of how ancient the language is because of the medium of writing that was used to carve these languages in stone. In other words, the likelihood that a language is written from right to left is greater if the language came to existence before paper was invented.

Some of these languages are: 

  • Arabic.
  • Kurdish (Sorani).
  • N’ko.
  • Hebrew.
  • Persian/Farsi.
  • Urdu.
  • Syriac.
  • Aramaic.
  • Azeri.
  • Dhivehi/Maldivian.
  • Rohingya.
  • Fula

What scripts are written from left to right?

Most of the modern languages in Europe, North America, South America, India and Southeast Asia are written from left to right. These languages feature the Latin, Modern Greek, Cyrillic, Indic and Southeast Asian alphabets and are therefore written from left to right.

The reason for these languages being read and written in this direction is not well known, but some prominent theories point to the medium that was used to represent these words in written form.

Languages that developed their scripts after the paper-making industry emerged in China around 100 BC adopted a left-to-right script because of the convenience of this direction from a motor point of view. Writing from right to left on a piece of paper would cause the ink to smudge because most individuals are right-handed. 

languages written from right to left

Hebrew is one of the languages written from right to left.

Mediums of writing for languages written from right to left

Ancient Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic were chiseled into stones in ancient days. Words and pictographs had to be recorded on a visual medium, such as hard objects, because paper did not exist. Some ancient writing materials include rock, clay and popular papyrus. Writing on these materials ensured the words were preserved for many generations. It is said that Moses used stone tablets for the Ten Commandments.

The problem is that this medium of writing involved risk of injury if the writer was to carve from left to right. Since most individuals were right-handed, they would use their right hand to hold (and carve with) the chisel and the left hand to hold a hammer.

The opposite script direction could have put the writer's hand in danger because it increased the likelihood of them accidentally beating their hand with the hammer. For this reason, many ancient languages found right-to-left writing to be more favorable.




Special care for right-to-left languages

In the translation world, these languages have to be handled with care because a lot of translation software is not well-prepared for right-to-left scripts.

Knowing the correct script direction is very important for authors and web designers. This is because languages written from right to left not only require translation, but also a localization process to make sure the text direction is correct.

All the elements in the layout also have to be mirrored to ensure it flows naturally for the target reader.

It is important to keep in mind that, in addition to these right-to-left languages, there are numerous variations and permutations. For example, some Asian languages are written vertically. In order to localize these languages, you will need an entirely new formatting strategy to accommodate that directionality.


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