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Foreigners Write Backwards

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So you have a Cipher Language or your characters write in Wingdinglish. But it needs to be made just a leeeettle bit more exotic. How would you do that?

Just mention someone writing it right to left, or top to bottom, or in other directions, and that instantly cements the language's foreignness! This writing order generally also carries over to illustrations or Feelies. The direction of writing is occasionally (now rarely) characterized to be a holdover from writing in ink or clay, the direction preventing a trailing sleeve from smudging the writing.

One particularly popular style of writing seems to be boustrophedonic writing (from the Classical Greek for "as the ox ploughs") in which the first line is written from left to right, the second line from right to left, the third line from left to right, the fourth line from right to left, and so on.


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     Right-to-left writing 
  • Inverted in A Canticle for Leibowitz: the Wandering Jew (well, a wandering Jew) refers to Gentiles writing backwards when he reads what Brother Francis writes on a rock — since Hebrew is written right to left, Western script looks foreign and backwards to him.
  • A plot point in Moving Pictures is a book written in pictograms depicts a "man behind the door", which is translated as "a prisoner". When the Librarian start reading it and follows his read with his finger, the protagonist notices him reading backwards and understands the man is in front of the door, "a guardian".


  • Referenced in My Fair Lady: "And the Hebrews learn it backwards, which is absolutely frightening."


  • Homestuck: the script used on Alternia is typed right-to-left.

Real Life

  • The Phoenician alphabet, the ancestor of the majority of Old World scripts, is written right-to-left. Some of its child systems switched to left-to-right (most notably Greek, which in turn gave birth to Latin and Cyrillic, and Brahmi). Others retain it, even as their forms changed. The most famous examples of these are Arabic (whose usage as official script in some 26 countries also makes it the most widespread) and Hebrew.

     Boustrophedonic writing 


  • In Gor writing on the planet Gor is done left-to-right for the first line, then right-to-left for the second, etc.

Real Life

  • Occasionally, geneticists write the code for DNA boustrophedonically.
  • Ancient Greek could be written boustrophedon style, which, given that it's also all block capitals and written without punctuation, can be confusing to read.
  • Rongorongo from Rapa Nui was apparently written with alternating lines rotated by 180º relative to one another - upside down as well as backwards. But no one now knows what it means.

     Other strange writing styles 
  • The Fairies in Artemis Fowl are mentioned writing in spirals. Later Defied by having the green text horizontal and explaining that the spirals gave the fairies migraines — the example shown is a very old piece of writing.
  • From Discworld again, in Mort, the book Death uses to work out who's due to die is read spiralling out from the centre of the page.
  • In one of the Professor Branestawm stories, the Professor is puzzled by a letter in mirror writing. While trying to decide what language it is, one that he mentions it definitely isn't is written around the edges of the paper.
  • The Lilliputians of Gulliver's Travels write "neither from the left to the right, like the Europeans; nor from right to the left, like the Arabians; nor from up to down, like the Chinese; nor from down to up, like the Cascagians; but aslant from one corner to the other, like ladies in England."

Live-Action TV

  • On Fringe, The Observer writes right to left in unintelligible symbols. The Child in the first season, who probably had some connection to the Observer, wrote in English upside down and backwards.
  • In Star Trek Vulcan is written vertically (with occasional links from one column to another) and Ferengi branches from a central point at 60 degree angles.

Tabletop Games

  • In Magic: The Gathering, the language of the sinister Phyrexian invaders is written upon a continuous line which can go in any direction. A long vertical stroke marks the beginning of each sentence.
  • In the Forgotten Realms, dwarves' runic script is often inscribed to circle around a central drawing, symbol or emblem.

Video Games

  • In The Elder Scrolls series, the language of the demonic Daedra is simply a substitution cipher for English, give or take a few letters. However, it has notably been written in various ways throughout the series, including in reverse, from top to bottom, upside down, with the first letter much larger (and in a different color), and even with the characters superimposed on top of one another.

Real Life

  • Japanese is traditionally written from top to bottom, with the columns starting from the right. This is why manga is published "backwards", and why many Western manga-style comics (MegaTokyo and Scott Pilgrim for example) will have a message printed on the last page reminding you to read the book starting from the other end because it's NOT from Japan. Zig-zagged in that nowadays it's usually written left-to-right outside of manga, which came about as books in both Japanese and Western languages meant people had to keep rotating the books to read text.
  • Chinese can be written vertically or horizontally, left-to-right or right-to-left. The most common direction is top-to-bottom, right-to-left, as the writing surface (bamboo) meant writing vertically easier. Zig-zagged in that nowadays it's usually written left-to-right, mostly so it's easier to print mathematical formulas alongside.
  • Korean was originally written using Chinese characters and likewise read vertically. When the Korean alphabet, called "hangul", was introduced, it also was written vertically but modern Koreans write horizontally left-to-right. Also, Korean clusters its letters in syllables that, depending on the vowel used, must be read vertically, horizontally, or a combination of both. (If you're confused, look at how these syllables are constructed: da=다, dal=달, dalk=닭, do=도, dol=돌, dolm=돎.)
  • The traditional Mongolian script, like fellow East Asian scripts, is written top to bottom, right to left. However, it is the only one that prescribes it, which probably contributes to its declining usage in modern times, since writing top to bottom in digital media all the time is very clunky. It also has a non-indigenous origin; the script is ultimately descended from Aramaic by way of the Sogdian alphabet.
  • Played With Bataknese script (Aksara Batak) from North Sumatra, Indonesia. It is written left-to-right just like most other Austronesian language in the region, but because the only writing medium is rock, bones, or bamboo AND they haven't invented work-table, it's rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise and written from bottom to top while the author holds the bamboo/bones in their laps with the left hand, and the carving tools in their right. The rarity of good writing medium in the first place and the mentioned difficulty (not to mention the risk of injury) of the writing process makes it that most people can't practice writing anyway (literacy level is decent enough, but most written text comes in form of public rules and the such) and contribute to the strong oral tradition (and Large Ham tendencies) that still present in Bataknese culture today.

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