Boustrophedon

So, I haven’t exactly been jumping back in the saddle, more like dipping my toe in the water. I have been subbing for a journalism class a couple of times in the last month.

It’s a basic class in design, touching upon typography, layout, gray scale, etc. I’m shocked at the amount of weird information that I have collected over the thirty to forty years of teaching. Sometimes it is so esoteric that only serious majors in the field would be remotely interested. And barely then!

The above is a perfect example. It is well known that the Greeks borrowed the letterforms from the Phoenicians. What is lesser know is that the Greeks were not constrained in how they were used.

The entire world had adopted written characters that were meant to be read from right to left. There are several theories to this. One that I like is that the scribes wanted a clear view of where they were going, and a right-handed scribe could easily see the future end of the line.

I don’t know if a problem existed with the hand smudging the ink, but the Greeks decided that they would write from left to right. They also liked the idea that were different from everybody else. (The Egyptians generally went from right to left but weren’t constrained to that, they were trained to read into the “faces” of the character. If the character was flipped they read in that direction.)

Then the Greeks compromised for about three hundred years. They wrote paragraphs in a unique pattern. They called it writing “like oxen plowing a field”, or boustrophedon. Or every other line went backwards!

This went on for three hundred years, characters written in one direction then flipped to be written in the next line going backwards. And by the way, at this point in time there were no spaces between the words. How difficult was it to invent a space?

So I bring this up for two reasons, for one it is a historical fact, interesting for those who like the history of things. And the other reason is to explain why some leters are flipped from their original design.

At some point the Greeks just bit the ballet and decided they would right from left to right. Maybe the ink smudging just drove them crazy. In the process of doing this they determined that some flipped letters looked better than others.

By the time that the Roman’s stole the letter forms, the “E”, the “R”, and some others were flipped around.

It this important to know? I suppose it depends. Does it change how we use typography? Probably not. But it is knowledge that can be known.

In any case, it turns out that I have collected thousands of weird, very esoteric pieces of information, and if I’m not teaching, then this stuff just sits there, waiting for the opportunity to vomit forth, with some violence.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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