writing direction influences spatial representation

Persons’ spatial representations of an action described verbally are biased in the spatial orientation of the action. Recent research indicates that a left-to-right bias develops from experience of a culture’s left-to-right writing system, and a right-to-left bias likewise from a right-to-left writing system.

The Morgan Bible of Louis IX and the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, two magnificent books, illustrate this cultural effect. In the Morgan Bible:

The repetition of a figure moved rightward in a painting corresponds to temporal sequence. Figures generally enter a scene from the left, and exit to the right. Bringing Benjamin back and the repulsion of the Israelites are painted with predominate right-to-left directions of action. In these and other instances, the reversal of the visual convention of European text signals a spatial or conceptual reversal.

The Shahnameh, created in a Persian culture with a right-to-left writing convention, depicts action in the opposite direction:

Among the 258 figural paintings in the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, on my count 70 of these to have a predominate horizontal line of action: 50 from right to left, and 20 from left to right. Left to right lines of action associated with reverse meanings include folio 42v (Faridun’s eldest son retreating), 98v (Turanians invading Iran), and 102v (retaliatory killing).

Writing systems are not neutral communications technology. Like any communications technology, they have a physical structure that generates particular sensory effects and representational biases.

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