When learning Arabic, the challenge begins as soon as you realize you have to flick the pages of your student book backwards. Unless you would like to proceed to reading the book from the end all the way to the beginning, you will have to incorporate this fact into your Arabic-learning rituals.

Conflicting script directions can specially be intimidating for Latin-based languages speakers, whose brain physiology is set to make their eyes wander from left to right while reading.

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 Psychologically speaking, the right hemisphere of your brain does not like Arabic. When we learn a new language [or a new activity], our right hemisphere goes into full swing. The bad news is that Arabic demands attention from the left hemisphere. This is because some Arabic characters are visually similar, with subtle details setting them apart, such as a line or a dot. Since the right hemisphere uses broader information to identify characters, attempting to fully comprehend the intricacies of Arabic can be a very difficult task for it. Conversely, the left hemisphere, which is responsible for logic and analysis, excels at fulfilling this task. The problem is that the right hemisphere’s hyperactivity at the first stages of learning does not give the left hemisphere the chance to interfere.

Israeli scientists at the University of Haifa conducted a research that involved flashing cards to a group of students who were fluent in Arabic, English and Hebrew. They found that when they flashed the cards in English and Hebrew, the students used both their left and right hemispheres to decipher the characters. However, in Arabic, they only used their left hemisphere to recognize the word. When they used their right hemisphere for simple words, they answered randomly, because they could not tell them apart at all.

The hemispherical function is, nonetheless, irrelevant to the hypothesis related to why Arabic favors right-to-left writing as opposed to left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

It is evident that our five senses have produced all languages. The manifestation of spoken language in written form was imperative to express concepts concerning daily life. The Sumerians invented written language due to long-distance trade which was needed for resources that were unavailable in the region.

Although it is hard to pinpoint why Arabic is sinistroverse, it has been theorized that before the papermaking process emerged in China, the Arabs used chisels to engrave the ideas and concepts they wished to manifest on stones. Due to its longevity, stone was preferred over leaves, skin, bones and shells. Considering most of the “writers” [and individuals in general] were right-handed, they would use their right hand to hold [and carve with] the chisel and the left hand to hold a hammer. Such direction is more natural because it involves an outward motion and is, therefore, easier to perform from a motor point of view. A left-to-right motion would have been counterintuitive, especially with the risk of personal injury involved.

Writing systems for Latin and Greek were invented later when paper was made available. In order to avoid smudging the ink on the paper [also due to the majority being right-handed], a left-to-right direction was found to be more favorable.



2 thoughts on “Why is Arabic written from right to left?

  1. Benjamin

    This is so stupied.
    “Israeli scientists at the University of Haifa conducted a research that involved flashing cards to a group of students who were fluent in Arabic, English and Hebrew. They found that when they flashed the cards in English and Hebrew, the students used both their left and right hemispheres to decipher the characters. However, in Arabic, they only used their left hemisphere to recognize the word. When they used their right hemisphere for simple words, they answered randomly, because they could not tell them apart at all.”

    Makes no sense at all, hebrew is written from right to left so why would the same not apply for people who speaks hebrew?
    Also would be great to link to the research you write about so one can get a better understanding to why the result is what it is.

    Reply
    1. Pangeanic Post author

      Dear Benjamin,
      Regarding the research we spoke about in the article (which you can read about extensively on https://www.bbc.com/news/health-11181457), it is not about right-to-left writing system per se. Here is the extract from our article which specifies this:
      The hemispherical function is, nonetheless, irrelevant to the hypothesis related to why Arabic favors right-to-left writing as opposed to left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
      This is why this rule does not apply to Hebrew. It is not about reading the language from right to left. It is however because a wide range of letters in Arabic are similar to each other which makes it difficult for the right hemisphere to tell them apart.
      Best regards.

      Reply

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