I am in the middle of designing a con-lang that features, among other things a letter reading order that alternates by line from left-to-right to right-to-left and back again. My justification for this is ease of use

I've started reading about Hangul and the old Uyghur alphabets to inspire me. My alphabet is constructed from glyphs simplified from symbols.

I have a history that may explain the formation of this alphabet (or Abjad):

  • The original inhabitants of my continent are displaced by an invasion of now-extinct peoples. The invaders use banners bearing abstract heraldic symbols
  • New settlers colonize the area. They are illiterate and take inspiration from the symbols on ancient ruins and structures.
  • Countless different city-states form each with somewhat mutually intelligible alphabets
  • Centralized monarchy appears and begins a move to unify these glyphs.
  • The alphabet is constructed and spread throughout the continent.

The above takes place over a few thousand years. I have also been thinking that the system is alphanumeric, they use letters as numbers in their counting system.

I want to know if I am missing any important steps or if the circumstances I imagine are not relevant to some details or even if my history has some difficulty leading to the result. I am aware that few if any systems around the world have alternating writing order and would like to know why if possible.

Edit, some additional events historically that occured:

  • The medium of writing switched to rock carvings and architecture
  • The centralized government appeared constructed this writing system based on the different alphabets being used throughout the area.

In response to some responses, I have thought of some explanations:

  • The ancient people who lived before the settlers used some movable type or woodblock printing that some of their descendants still remember, therefore increasing the ease at which this writing can be applied.
  • The original writing system was written vertically
  • Several of the city states used a right-to-left or left-to-right system with several inhabitants learning both.
    • the balance was fairly even due to influence of different cultures and a desire to implement the original writing system in easier to write form with the new medium, paper.
  • Numbers may be written in left-to-right, but with a special mark denoting that they are numbers.
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    $\begingroup$ Reading order is a convention, but nothing prevents you having any other convention. This idea does, however, present issues when paragraphs and new pages occur, possibly even new chapters. Justification and lists also present some issues. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenG I see then. I had thought about paragraphs but not lists and jusitification. I'll think about that. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ This is called boustrophedon. It was actually used, sometimes, in some places. It was abandoned. (And, for fun, the Ancient Egyptian inscriptions could be written both LTR and RTL, with the hieroglyphs themselves indicating the order depending in what direction they were facing. This enabled them to have truly symmetrical inscriptions on the left and right of some axis.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 27, 2020 at 8:55
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    $\begingroup$ What are you asking? Is this a reality-check question? Are you asking us to validate the con-lang construct within your world's rules? Otherwise this is opinion-based and should probably be migrated to Constructed Languages. Remember: one-specific-question/one-best-answer. One of the very few exceptions to that rule is the reality-check tag. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 27, 2020 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Yes it is a reality check. I wanted to know if my process for achieving this result was missing something. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 22:24

3 Answers 3



Yes, a system that switches the writing direction was a thing. It's called boustrophedon and was used for example in runic inscriptions in elder futhark. It means literally "As the ox plows". Note though, that the reverse row does mirror the letters.

Nowadays, printers work in the same fashion, and early typesetter did often build one row from the left, then one from the right, making holding the types in place with one hand easier while the other moved to take the new types.

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    $\begingroup$ I would be surprised to see a boustrophedon Elder Fuþark mirror the letters in alternate lines. But Egyptian Hieroglyphs kind of do what you describe. Hieroglyphs sometimes depict humans, and these always face the beginning of the line. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ @OmarL Hedeby Stones have this - the runes flip "upside down" on the reverse row, for example Skarthi Stone DR 3. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Oct 27, 2020 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ Well I never! I used to be able to read runes okay. But I have never seen that. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 19:39

I'm not sure that history explains adequately why the alternating style is in use - that history could apply to most of the planet reasonably accurately. I'm not sure you can explain why this choice arose from a historical event.

It definitely would be nicer to write without moving your hands so much, and even type (on a typewriter) without having to return to the far side (assuming the typewrite as a "advance left vs advance right" switch that was triggered by the enter key. It's also easier to read long prose with minimal line spacing without having to break the text up into columns of about 60 characters to ensure that the eye can follow the lines.

There are some issues with this regarding usability that I think you need to consider:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the
;diov dna ,mrof tuohtiw saw htrae eht dnA .htrae
and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And
eht fo ecaf eht nopu devom doG fo tirips eht

  • First thing I noticed: I tried writing this and my middle finger smudged the wet ink of the even lines. Left handed people can obviously write left to right so there is a skill to this - I just don't have it.
  • Second thing. Information recovery. I can tell which line is reversed because it looks like random letters, but some words in English can have meanings when reversed, and some languages have even more. Pictographic languages it may be impossible to tell. If I loose an unknown number of lines (eg I start reading halfway down a document, or start from the second page), the meaning becomes ambiguous. You may need to mark which lines are forward or which lines are backwards so that the reader can tell. Perhaps vary the line spacing so that forwards and backwards lines are in pairs?
  • English grammar rules obviously aren't a good fit for your language - but "end of concept", "end of phrase", "start and end of quote" are going to need to be applied to your language too somehow, so you're going to have commas at the end and start of words. Capitals are also at the end of words.
  • Adding a line to the start of a document will require flipping all the below lines of text. If I'm inserting text into a draft at the start I'm going to have to add an even number of lines to avoid having to reflow the entire document.
  • Copying a document from one place to another with a different column width is going to be pretty tricky - you're going to have to flip the "writing" part of your brain and the "reading" part of your brain at different times.
  • Flipping numbers changes their value (501 vs 105), and this could be ambiguous. Having a system with letters also used as numbers is going to make it even more ambigious.
  • I don't know how you are going to do maths at all:

The formula for finding the roots of a quadratic equation is:
But that could be perhaps cleaned up as the equally confusing:
However if there was an
odd number of lines now the equation is:

  • Humans read in several passes, as a first pass we look at the outline of the words (how long, where it goes above and below the lines, etc). This allows to very quickly skim read a sentence, and the ability to read a word with spelling mistakes. Your readers are going to have to learn both forward and backward forms of a word in order to effectively skim read and correct typos, eg this gem:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

  • There Atlantean language in Disney's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" movie uses this writing style.
  • $\begingroup$ I'll edit the history. Admittedly I kind of rushed it out. I'll add the remaining details $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 4:56
  • $\begingroup$ i had also more recently thought of the idea that there is a class divide, meaning that higher classes are expected to write in alternating order while lower classes may write in one or the other. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 5:11
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    $\begingroup$ The concept of alternate direction does have precedence, for example in some aincient greek. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boustrophedon $\endgroup$
    – lijat
    Oct 27, 2020 at 6:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash do you have any insights on how writing like this might emerge? Drive some conversation. I'll think about accepting your answer if you give some. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 22:29

The easiest way to have this happen and persist is for writing to be a closely guarded skill learnt only by scribes or high caste people. So the harder it is to learn the better, no one wants the plebs getting hold of such a lucrative and important skill and interfering with things.

This situation has happened in many places.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you elaborate on where? $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2020 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ Many places I would think, Hieroglyphs, ogham etc,. were known only to a class of people, the most esoteric would be Easter Island rongorongo script. But many locales had a period wherein the writing was kept as special knowledge. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Oct 27, 2020 at 14:26

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