8

Real languages

I am aware of several types of writing systems.

The first one would be left to right and a prime example is English and also most of other languages, no matter if they use letters or other symbols.

Another type would be right to left, which can be seen in Hebrew writing:

illustration right to left

As you can see, the text in the image selected by me for illustration, a digital user interface of a Hebrew keyboard, is right bound.

japanese text

In the above image you can see Japanese text, which is traditionally read from top to bottom in either horizontal direction, in which I mean that both existed, not that you can read one text both from right to left and left to right after going top to bottom.

Constructed languages

Now I am wondering whether there is a constructed language that reads from the middle. I am pretty sure that there is no traditional language that does this, hence I am attending here.

concept

Let me just create a concept here for you to understand. In such a language above rows would have the same meaning. In that case it is read horizontally, but from the middle, so that it does not matter if something appears on the left or right side.

Another example:

example

You might be able to understand what I mean by saying "middle-written", i.e. you always start in the middle.

Conclusion

I think that a language like this should be really interesting and maybe useful, thus I am curious whether or not a constructed language written quite like this exists.

  • 2
    I think the SETI institute once dealt with the idea that aliens having lateral eyes (like parrots, or doves) would read from the centre to both sides. But I can't find any material on that any more. – Luís Henrique May 20 '18 at 0:03
13

The best possible approach to a writing system "from the middle" is probably a text spiralling outwards.

One famous artefact, the Phaistos Disk, shows a spiral layout of the text, but is is unknown whether it should be read inwards (most scholars prefer this) or outwards and the writing system is still undeciphered.

Your graphical samples suggest a symmetric progression of symbols to the right and left—I think this is unrealistic because lazyness and economy of writing will soon lead to the abandonment of one of the symmetric halves, leaving either right-to-left or -left-to-right writing.

  • 1
    This is an interesting system, though to me it seems like there is still a left to right tendency in the spiral. – creativecreatorormaybenot May 20 '18 at 9:58
  • 2
    The text spiraling outward is simply standard one-dimensional writing bent into a curve, no different really from boustrophedon. – Keith Morrison Jun 7 '18 at 16:20
  • I've heard an argument that the Phaistos Disc may not be a real written document with a specific meaning, but a board game. – Robert Columbia Sep 28 '18 at 0:34
7

There is something about language, which seems so obvious to us humans that it is rarely stated: Language is encoded in a linear, one-dimensional fashion. The words you utter (and the sillables in those words; and the phonemes in those sillables) form an ordered sequence in time. Imagine e.g. dicating a table to someone else: You have to pick a certain manner of saying each item in the table (e.g. "each row after one another" vs. "each column after another") You have to come up with a map (and agree upon with your correspondent!) from the two-dimensional paper to the one-dimensional verbal language.

Now, picking a direction of writing is perfectly analogous to drawing a curve (a line) on your writing material. There are many different ways you can do such a thing, the ones that natural languages use have a tendency to be sensible by virtue of being simple to write down, and not too ambiguous to read. Some examples (with no claim to completeness):

  • left-to-right (see e.g. Latin script)
  • right-to-left (see e.g. Arabic script)
  • top-to-bottom (see e.g. Japanese)
  • spiraling inwards, both clockwise and anticlockwise
  • spiraling outwards, both clockwise and anticlockwise
  • in the manner of the furrows a plough makes; (also with arbitrary starting directions, and perhaps vertically instead of horizontally)

Unfortunately, I did not quite understand your own examples, as they seem to violate that basic rule of being linearly encoded and not redundant. You can of course come up with orderings like "975312468" or "864213579"; which can certainly be described as "reading from the middle in a horizontal way". The problem with those is that it feels very cumbersome to write or read in such a fashion, as your eyes have to skip around way too much.

  • 1
    Boustrophedon seems like the exact opposite to "middle written" because it is very practical for reading and writing because you never have to jump with your writing hand or eyes. For me, writing from the middle in a symmetrical way should force "equality". It does not matter which way you read. I like that because I think that horizontal directions do not matter, but vertical do because of the way our eyes are positioned in our heads. I think that such a language could never be based around practical traditional writing. It would always be digital or calligraphic. – creativecreatorormaybenot May 27 '18 at 16:48
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    ”Language is encoded in a linear, one-dimensional fashion” - this doesn’t strictly apply to sign languages: while there is obviously still an important time component to speech, multiple signs may be made at the same time (or overlapping in time) on occasion, the spatial dimensions are made full use of (rather than e.g. always signing in the same location); furthermore things like grammaticalized facial expressions occur parallel to actual signs. – Adarain Oct 11 '18 at 16:41
2

Since most text is by its nature sequential, then if you start in tthe middle you will have to go in some direction from there, hence the various suggestions of spirals, top to bottom, boustrophedon, etc. But all of these methods have a direction, even if that direction changes as you go along. Even in normal writing you could start in the middle, just by leaving the first half of the first line blank.

The only way I can see to avoid this directionality is to set off in two directions at once. You could print something along with its mirror image, but in practice you would read one bit or the other. You could divide the information, for example by printing the vowels on the left, right to left, and the consonants on the right, left to right, but this would be hard to read.

But there is one other possibility which might count: how about a parallel text. You could print the Koran in Arabic on the left, with a line-by line translation in English on the right, or, similarly with the Hebrew Bible. I can't find any on the internet, but there must be one somewhere? Anyone interested in the traslation per se would have to look at both sides to see how something was translated.

2

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs could be written in any direction (LTR, RTL, TTB, BTT). On ornamental pieces and buildings, writing was frequently started at the center (e.g. the central temple gate) working outward in both directions. The best readable example I can show you is a replica of this writing style mimicked on the Memphis Zoo entrance:

enter image description here

You can derive the reading direction by checking in which directions the human and animal glyphs are looking.

Some of the hierglyphs are modern inventions for animals unknown to Ancient Egypt, but most of it checks out.

2

Some of Trent Pehrson's ornamental scripts (for conlangs) fit this description somewhat, in that they lack a sense of formal arrangement and can be organised in very creative ways which sometimes appear to focus on a central hub. Trent is a gifted calligrapher and I urge you to check out examples of his outstanding work: http://idrani.perastar.com/ISMS_orthography.htm

Maybe start here: http://idrani.perastar.com/orthography/ksatlai/eikiyo.html

I have designed concentric systems, where an utterance is written beginning with a central shape, enclosed in another shape, enclosed in another shape, and so on. Both Mayan glyphs and Jonathan Gabel's Mayan-inspired Sitelen Sitelen script for writing Toki Pona use enclosure to some degree, though not to the same extent as my example, which produced interesting but unwieldy heavily concentric text objects. (I started to think about making 3D realisations where the text would be read by cutting through the object and reading it in various ways sort of like tree lines.)

Recently I started work on a hub-and-spoke type script with no attached spoken language, where sentences are conceived of as wheels with different areas of the wheel being reserved for different syntactic roles, using a small glyph set of symbols whose meaning alters depending on its position in the wheel. These spokes can have spokes of their own. These sentence wheels can be combined around a central hub to create multi-sentence texts: the central hub contains emotional information about the writer's attitude towards the meaning of the text, and organisational information to help the reader decode the whole.

I also designed a phonetic abugida (originally for Pandunia, not that it needs or wants it!) arranged something like hangeul, with the oddity that words with more than three syllables are written with double glyphs which combine left- and right-facing halves: the left-most syllable cluster marks its vowels to the left, and the right-most syllable cluster marks its vowels to the right. The overall arrangement of each glyph is also bottom to top (I was sick of scripts assuming that you must always start at the top for everything...) See this bizarrely coloured example made in Pics Art of the Pandunia word 'musikosake', music bag, written first without vowels, and secondly with. The left-most half encodes 'musiko', the right-most 'sake'; m is at the bottom left, above it s, above it k; s appears again on the right, then k above it. Aesthetically the vowels are meant to look like bubbles floating upwards, and the letter shapes are designed so as not to impede the flow of the eye even though information is encoded on both sides of the main glyph.

pandunia du musikosake

This gave rise to the idea that words in a sentence should be arranged similarly, in balanced pairs or pyramidal shapes starting from the centre of the base. One could write on a square page by turning it lozenge-way, beginning above the middle corner-to corner line, writing from the middle first one way then the other, then going above, creating a pyramid fitting into the paper shape; then repeating under the line by turning the page upside down. Or by writing in upwards columns up to four glyphs wide, where the central or centre-left glyph is the first, aiming to keep syntactic groups such as phrases within one row of, at a maximum, 24 syllables. This would produce columns of glyphs read as 1, 12, 213, and 2134 depending on their weight. Whichever macroarrangement one might choose, overall its arrangement as a script is centrally focused in various ways, inspired by the central focus of each glyph.

I would say this has some precedent in various South Asian scripts such as Thai in which, whilst there is a firm left-right directionality in the flow of the syllabic characters, within each character there is a much more chaotic flow of information.

Rikchik's fascinating writing system is also arguably graphically 'middle-leading': https://www.omniglot.com/conscripts/rikchik.htm

As to whether any natural scripts do what you're asking about to any significant extent, other than the example about re Egyptian hieroglyphs and the minor concentric features of Mayan about which I am no expert, I am not aware of any examples - which doesn't at all mean they don't exist.

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