Re: Japanese RTL (was RE: Mongolian (was RE: Syriac and Mongolian

From: Kenneth Whistler (
Date: Tue Jan 11 2000 - 18:32:47 EST

Andrea Vine asked:

> "Reynolds, Gregg" wrote:
> >
> > ... But on the other hand, I think it does demonstrate the basic
> > horizontal neutrality of Japanese letterforms, since it (and other examples)
> > shows that it is at least possible to publish such text. ...

> I find it interesting that in writing the characters, the direction is
> definitely LTR, top-to-bottom, juxtaposed with the theory that there is no
> inherent directionality in Japanese letterforms.

Well, I cannot claim native fluency, of course, but did spend many years at
this. The unusual situation for Han characters (and associated subsidiary
scripts like the kana) derives, I believe, from the millennia-old Chinese
conventions of writing text vertically, and then assembling lines right-to-left
across the page. (With the associated inverse layout of tables and of overall
book structure from that established in Europe.)

The adoption of left-to-right text flow for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean
is a relatively recent phenomenon, only a few centuries old, and most
strongly associated with the increased flow of technical information from
Europe into East Asia in the last century and a half.

However, by now, with both conventions well-established in East Asia, it
is clear that from the point of view of horizontal line layout, Han characters
(and kana) are *strong* left-to-right. Perusing, for example, any magazine
layout that freely mixes both vertical and horizontal text flows will
demonstrate this. If the predominant body text flow is vertical, with
horizontal columns, the magazine will be laid out "back-to-front" from
a European point of view. However, on each page all horizontal text
(titles, picture captions, boxed text, ad text, even "tatechuuyoko" which
puts little horizontal snippets inside vertical lines) will be laid out
left-to-right. Even on a two page layout that has page 74 on the right
and page 75 on the left, with the main body text laid out vertically in
horizontal columns that progress right-to-left, a
two-page banner spread across the top of the page will start at the left
side of page 75 and proceed to the right to end on page 74! You have to
be pretty strongly left-to-right to want to run your text flows "backwards"
up the page count like that.

Exceptions to left-to-right layout in normal text layout are quite
rare. As Gregg did, you have to look long and hard to find a conditioning
context (such as glossing right-to-left Arabic text) strong enough to
force it.

Where you do see right-to-left Han layout a lot is on old-style shop
signage, temple title boards, memorials, and such -- and then (almost?)
never in a mixed, bidirectional context. As someone pointed out, most
of these can be interpreted as vertical text with the columns one
character long. And if the text is ambiguous, these can be problematical
even for native speakers to interpret without pause.

I don't think this has much, if anything, to do with the stroke flow
for writing individual Han characters. The calligraphic traditions were
established long before European left-to-right horizontal text flow
typesetting conventions came into East Asia. It is true that writing an
individual Han character is generally done left-to-right and top-to-bottom
in stroke order, but remember that it was done so for centuries in an
exclusively vertical text orientation. The left-to-right convention for
the individual character in calligraphy probably does stem from
handedness considerations, as Gregg speculated. If you are right-handed,
it is just easier to see what you are doing and to avoid smudging the
text if your brush tip moves from left to right across the character you
are writing.

> I am not a native reader, though. I would be interested to hear from native
> Japanese and Chinese character readers as to whether they sense a
> directionality, or behave as though there is one. For example, in interpreting
> obscure characters, where do they first look for a helpful radical?

The position of a radical in the character also likely has nothing to do
with text directionality. A majority of the common radicals are on the left side of a
character, but there are also many common radicals that occur on the
top, bottom, or right side of a character. They are learned by overall
pattern recognition that (I believe) is independent of left-to-right
or right-to-left directionality.


> Andrea
> --
> Andrea Vine,
> Sun-Netscape Alliance i18n architect
> Necessity is the mother of strange bedfellows.
> -- Dr. Dave Farber (father of SNOBOL and one of the creators of Token Ring)

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.2 : Tue Jul 10 2001 - 17:20:58 EDT