Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/September 1881/Writing Physiologically Considered

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MODERN investigations have shown us that certain parts of the brain, situated in the region of the temples, have a predominant share in the formation of articulate language; or, to express it in a short phrase, that the majority of men speak by means of the third frontal circumvolution of the left cerebral hemisphere. All who have occupied themselves a little with physiology know also that the nervous fibers cross each other in the brain, so that the movements of the left arm are commanded by the right hemisphere, while those of the right arm depend on the left hemisphere. Rushes of blood, extravasations, and apoplexies are unfortunately more frequent on the left side than on the right side of the brain: attacks of the left hemisphere are consequently followed by paralysis of the right limbs, and aphasia, or an impossibility to speak; bat injuries to the right hemisphere, while they paralyze the left limbs, generally leave language untouched.

Does this center exist for writing as well as for language? Inasmuch as we are in the habit of writing with the right hand, it is evident that the movements necessary for the action of writing must be paralyzed by an affection of the left hemisphere. But we may learn to write with the left hand. The question, we see, becomes general; it extends to the general movements in writing, and is concentrated at last in a single point: are there facts which force us to admit a particular cerebral center, on which the movements in writing depend? In other words, does the manner in which we write depend upon a physiological necessity—determined by the structure of the brain? All peoples write with the right hand. It is of little importance whether this preponderance of the right is founded on a particular structure, or whether it is in great part the result of education and habit; man, writing with the right hand, writes therefore under the direction of the left cerebral hemisphere.

If this is a general fact, and I know of no exception to it, we may ask how it happens that the arrangement of the letters and the lines is so different among different peoples. The peoples of Eastern Asia, as a rule, arrange their letters from above down, and the lines from right to left; the Shemites and the Europeans put the lines one below another, but the Shemites arrange their letters from right to left, while the Aryans arrange theirs from left to right. The Shemites have centripetal writing, the Aryans have centrifugal writing.

The subordination of these three so different directions of writing to a single physiological principle is possible only in case we can show that there is only one normal direction in writing, and that the deviations from this normal direction are due to powerful causes and influences, which have prevailed over the direction primarily imposed by the structure of the brain.

It is necessary, while we are occupied with this question, to distinguish between the order of the lines and the letters and the formation of the letters themselves. The two things are in a certain degree independent one of the other. The individuality of the writer is manifested in the form, in the proportions of the letters, while the manner in which the lines and the letters are arranged one after the other displays no character of individuality.

A complete analysis of all the external influences that can have acted on the manner of writing is necessary to decide whether there exists only a single order of letters and lines imposed by nature, or whether the diversity which Ave see to-day is produced solely by external causes.

But the solution of this question, whatever it may be, will not suffice to furnish a detailed analysis of the cerebral functions that are put in action by writing. The formation of a letter by the hand that writes supposes necessarily that, by the movements of the fingers and the hand on one side and the visual impression of the eyes on the other, a conception of the figure produced is formed in the brain, which is retained for a certain time by the memory. The time required for the formation of the conception and the transmission from the brain of the will to produce the action is shortened by frequent exercise till the act comes to appear nearly unconscious. The more frequently a man writes, the more also will the figurative images produced by writing be fixed in his brain. But as his impressions and images are transmitted to his brain only by the muscular sensation of the single right hand — with the coöperation of the eyes, indeed — we have a right to expect that experiments and observations made on certain cerebral parts of paralytic patients will cast some light on the manner in which these figurative and largely unilateral images of the writing are formed and preserved in the brain.

For the present, we will occupy ourselves with the question. How did the ancients, how do the moderns, write? What were and what are the materials that they employ? Can we discover any connection between purely external causes and the manner of arrangement of the letters and lines?

So far as we know, representation by images has been the point of departure for all writing. Three primitive methods of writing were developed in the Eastern Hemisphere from the initial imagery: that of the East of Asia, or the Chino-Japanese method; that of the West of Asia, or the cuneiform; and the Egyptian, or hieroglyphic writing. From the last were developed, step by step, the hieratic writing and the demotic alphabet, or current hand. The arrangement of the hieroglyphics was determined by no rule, but was dependent only on the form and size of the space in which the inscription was to be written.

It is absolutely indifferent to us whether we know what part the Egyptian demotic or the cuneiform writing has taken in the formation of existing alphabets. It is enough to know that we have three entirely independent forms of writing: the Chino-Japanese, which arranges the letters from the top down, and the lines from right to left, or centripetally; the Shemitic, which arranges the letters centripetally from right to left, and the lines one below the other; and what we may call the Aryan, which arranges the lines in the same manner, while it places the letters centrifugally, from left to right.

The last two styles may have been formed through a mingling of the demotic and cuneiform methods. Their common point of departure is in any case to be found in the hieroglyphics, and it is doubtless to this origin that we should attribute the absolute want of a fixed rule in the order of the letters and the lines in the most ancient specimens. Mr. J. J. Leslie, in his lectures on the origin and destination of man, speaks especially of the complete indifference of the ancient writers in regard to the placing of their letters. Many of the old Greek inscriptions were written alternately from right to left and from left to right, turning the direction as one turns a plow in the field, and this style was called "boustrophedon" (turning like oxen). The Egyptians often wrote in the same manner, and M. Stern says that the hieroglyphic inscriptions might, according to the nature of the characters used, run from the top down, from left to right, or from right to left—the latter direction, as in Shemitic writing, being the most common.

We conclude, generally, from these facts, that the arrangement of the images which were transformed successively into phonetic signs and letters had no rule as long as those images, signs, or letters, were engraved or painted on an immovable material, as stones, columns, or architectural monuments. The arrangement was governed by the character and shape of the material; it was horizontal on a cornice, vertical on a post, spiral on a column, according to the convenience or fancy of the writer. There is no place here for a fixed rule based on physiological necessity.

It was only when the man ceased to move before an immovable material, but when, on the other hand, the material (plates, tablets, paper, etc.) became movable before the man having a fixed position, that the normal directions as we now observe and distinguish them were established.

Do physiological reasons exist for the present methods of writing? Let us examine, with regard to this point, all the exterior conditions under which writing is done, beginning with the Chino-Japanese system. The people who employ this system do not write; they paint, using a brush which is manipulated slowly and makes a thick stroke, and follow the order of arrangement of their mural pictures. Their temples are made of wood, and it is the posts that are ornamented, naturally from the top down. This direction is also most convenient in all painting, since it corresponds with the natural movements of the joints of the fingers.

The Shemitic peoples—the Bedouins of the desert, Arabs, Turks, and Mohammedan negroes—write squatting on the carpet, or sometimes standing; the right hand, holding the pen, hangs free from the arm over the paper, and the arm is not supported. The left hand, also free in the air, or supported on the raised left knee, holds the paper stiff or laid on a little board. The right hand stays unmoved in the same place; only the fingers are put in motion for the shaping of the letters; while the left hand continually pushes the paper from left to right, so that the letters assume an arrangement from right to left, or in a centripetal direction. Thus the Shemitic people in writing perform movements directly opposed to ours. We hold the paper still, and move the hand; they move the paper, and hold the right hand almost still, as the Koran orders them to do.

An alphabet of two hundred phonetic signs representing syllables was invented in 1832, by a negro of the Yei tribe, who had learned to read from a missionary. He taught his people to write with a reed pen and ink; but, while he wrote from left to right, the whole nation to-day write from right to left. If as some believe, our centrifugal system of writing from left to right is founded on physiological considerations, the Yeis would not have departed from it after having been taught in it.

M. Erlenmeyer accounts for the direction of the Shemitic writing on the supposition of its having been originally centrifugal, by assuming that these people first wrote with the left hand, to which the direction of their writing would be centrifugal, and afterward changed the hand without changing the direction of the writing. This is exceedingly improbable, for the Shemitic races consider the left hand impure, and regard writing as a holy act, which they never could have thought of performing with an impure instrument. Another explanation must be sought.

Holy acts, with the Shemitic peoples, are performed looking toward the east; therefore, in writing, those people would turn their faces to the east. The light would then come from the south, and the scribe would write from the light toward the shadow, from the unrolled part of his paper toward the roll which he is continually unrolling with his left hand. If he wished to write from left to right, he would require to have the roll in his right hand, and, in that case, the thicker the roll the more it would cut off his light and be in his way. The centripetal direction, from right to left, was then for the primitive Shemitic peoples, and still is for the Orientals, the only natural direction; it is founded on the posture which the writer takes, his position with reference to the light, and the material he uses, and has become dominant by custom. Persons who are acquainted with the Eastern languages tell me that it would be as impossible for them to write in one of them from left to right, as it seems to be to write in a Western language from right to left; yet most of these persons learned to write in German or French before studying Hebrew writing. The direction in which we write, from left to right, is the most modern of all. It is common to all the Aryans, but was probably not adopted till after the emigration from the primitive countries. In the face of the facts we have mentioned, we need not ask why the Shemites write from right to left; but we should rather reverse the proposition, and ask why the Aryans abandoned the more ancient Shemitic direction, of which they doubtless had some knowledge. Whence did they get the centrifugal direction, from left to right? Difference in material does not account for the divergence; no more does difference in position, for the ancients were not acquainted with our table and desk. And even now, all French youth in the higher institutions write on a tablet supported on their knees, which is held by the left hand while the right hand holds the pencil, precisely as the Oriental writes, except that the paper is held still while the right hand moves—the converse of the Shemitic manipulation—and the direction of the writing is reversed. I have sought for information respecting the manner in which the ancient Aryans wrote in the absence of chairs and desks, without finding anything which could furnish an explanation of our mode of aligning the letters, so contrary to those of other peoples. The direction has become hereditary with us, transmitted from generation to generation, and our furniture, implements, and positions have become conformed to it. In setting our tables and adjusting our positions, we always seek to bring the light from the left, while the Shemite looks to the right for it. In both directions, centripetal and centrifugal, we write from the light toward the shade. If this is a general characteristic, and if, as we have sought to show, the primitive position of the writers depended on certain religious ideas, we may ask if there did not also exist particular religious reasons for the ancient Aryan method of writing.

My friend M. Charles Mayer, of Stuttgart, has remarked to me that the Aryans, in emigrating from their primitive home, followed the course of the sun, from the east toward the west. Their faces turned toward the setting sun, they had the noonday sun on the left. The left side, then, was the side of the light, of good luck; the right hand, the side of shadow and bad luck. The same signs had an opposite significance, accordingly as they appeared on one side or the other, in the inverse sense to that in which the Shemites regarded them. Have we not here a justification for the hypothesis that the Aryans turned their faces toward the west when they gave themselves to the holy operation of writing, and that, having the sun on their left, they wrote like the Shemites, from the light toward the shadow, and consequently from left to right? If I insist so much on the primitive sanctity of the action of writing, it must not be forgotten that a close connection exists, even in our day, between the great religious domains and the method of writing. Buddhism, with all the Oriental religions of Asia which have preceded or followed it, writes from the top down; Islamism, the real continuation of Shemitism, writes from right to left; and Christianity, the emigrant product of Shemitism, which has left its father to settle among the Aryans, is scattering writing from left to right over nearly the whole world. Each of the three great religious groups has, then, a direction of writing peculiar to it.

I am far from meaning to pretend that all the questions are solved, and that the series of proofs I have presented is continuous. If I publish the results so far obtained, it is to excite interest and awaken discussion. But it seems to me to follow, from what I have said, that the direction of writing, the order of the letters and the lines, are in no way the forced consequence of a physiological cause, of a particular structure of the brain. I believe that I have proved, on the other hand, that the order of writing was primarily dictated by exterior causes, which, in many cases, may have wholly disappeared, but the result of which has been retained by habit and hereditary transmission. Our organization permits us to write with equal facility from the top down, from right to left, from left to right; no physiological condition has compelled us to choose a particular direction. If we select a determined order and drop the others, it is because we have learned to do so from our ancestors; and this order has been imposed on our ancestors in consequence of different external circumstances.

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