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#12: Writing Systems II

In Jotting #7 (Jan./Feb. 2019), I discussed the various types of writing systems that a language could use, and mentioned some languages that used each, for illustrative purposes. When creating writing systems for world building, you might also want to consider how the glyphs from your writing system go together on the page.

Writing is, fundamentally, one-dimensional – that is, the glyphs are written and read in sequence, and the order in which they are read determines the words and their meanings that are communicated. But how that sequence is placed on a two-dimensional surface can vary.

Most languages known to be in use at present are read and written left to right and top to bottom. That is, one starts at the top of the page, reads across along the first line of text from left to right, and then returns to the left side of the page to read the second line, and so on. This appears to be by far the most common way of doing things; languages that use all of the types of writing systems mentioned in Jotting #7 are written this way. Some languages, most notably languages written with variations on the Arabic and Hebrew abjads, are written right to left and top to bottom.

Many of the languages of the Far East are classically written in vertical columns, read top to bottom and right to left. It is increasingly common to see these languages written left to right and top to bottom, perhaps under the influence of early computerization (modern computers can handle vertically-written text). An exception can be found in Mongolian; the classical script is written top to bottom and left to right.

While comparatively rare, there are known examples – some in limited but current use – of languages that are traditionally written and read from bottom to top. It is common, however, for these languages to be written left to right and top to bottom.

There are (historical) examples of scripts written as boustrophedons – that is, alternate lines are left to right and right to left. In most, but not all, known examples, the individual glyphs are mirrored on alternate lines.

The text of the Phaistos Disc is undeciphered, but those who have studied it generally believe that it is written spiraling inward in a clockwise direction. (One notable thing about the Phaistos Disc is that it is the earliest known certain example of the use of movable type for printing.)

The pre-European-contact Mayan language was written as pairs of side-by-side glyphs stacked vertically. Columns were read left to right. This pattern was also used in other mesoAmerican languages.

Several present-day languages (most notably Thai and Lao, and most languages derived from written Chinese ideograms/logograms) are written as scriptio continua, or without spaces or punctuation; often, language that now use spaces and punctuation were also originally written scriptio continua.

In C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels, one race, the T’ca, are so alien that their messages can only be represented in Hani [using English as a stand-in] as a 66 matrix of words, and one supposedly must read said matrix in all directions to understand the message. While an interesting idea, Cherryh does not carry it off well; the examples provided in the story are not difficult to interpret simply reading down the columns.

The Vulcan tanaf-kitaun script at korsaya.org can actually be written in any direction; a text starts with a symbol that unambiguously indicates the direction of writing.

The alien script from the movie Arrival is based on circles, and this is ostensibly tied in with their perception of time. There was never a complete decipherment in the film, and it is unclear from extant material how more complex concepts or extensive texts would be written.

Most (but not all) scripts derived from the Latin and Greek alphabets (including the Cyrillic script) include two forms of each letter, generally called “upper case”, “capitals”, or “majuscules”, and “lower case”, “small”, or “minuscules”, and there are grammatical and orthographic rules governing when each is used. Letters in scripts based on the Arabic abjad have varying forms based on the surrounding glyphs, rather than a “case” distinction. Other scripts generally have only a single form for each glyph (“monocase”). Constructed scripts are often, but not exclusively, monocase.