Monthly Archives: March 2015

Rational Orthography

What do DVORAK, polyamory, and home schooling have in common? They’re all about doing what’s weird-but-effective instead of what’s popular. What else is like that?

About three thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks invented a form of writing called boustrophedon. The first line was written left-to-right, the second right-to-left, and so on in a winding pattern. The advantage of the new system was that it was faster and easier to read – instead of constantly darting your eyes back and forth from one side of the page to the other at the end of each line, you just let them continue naturally.

The disadvantage was that it was hard to write, for much the same reasons most people would have trouble writing backwards now. So although boustrophedon and straight left-to-right Greek competed for a couple of centuries, in the end straight Greek won because the scribes were too lazy to do what was most convenient for their readers. According to Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures:

A risk when offering any historical description is what has been called ‘the Whig interpretation of history’, the easy presumption that everything leads straightforwardly and inexorably to the highest state of humankind. Such an interpretation fails to look at the entire historical picture, ignoring the losers – in our case, the writing systems that became extinct […]

Boustrophedon, the writing of the ox, is, as it were, on the horns of a dilemma; either it is easier to read and more difficult to write, or vice versa. It is not surprising that it rapidly died out in ancient writing. Perhaps more surprising are moves to reintroduce it. Computers can be programmed so that only the standard twenty-six letters have to be typed on the keyboard, but the screen display or printout has normal or mirror-reversed letters according to the direction of the script. Enthusiasts claim boustrophedon is easier and quicker to read because the eye does not have to find its way back to the beginning of the next line.

These sorts of things have to start somewhere. So I asked SSC reader Bakkot to create a script that causes this blog to display in boustrophedon. I think you’ll agree that the experience is much improved. If there’s enough demand for a “classic” view, I can ask him to create some kind of optional browser add-on that will disable it, but I’d urge you to try the new version for a couple of weeks before turning to that “solution”.

More important: what if you want everything you read to be in boustrophedon from now on? For that I can unreservedly recommend The Boustrophedon Text Reader. Right now it only works on .txt, but hopefully as the movement catches on someone can turn it into a full browser extension.