The history of Mediterranean and Western writing

The Hebrew alphabet is one of those which were and are written in the Mediterranean and Western worlds. Human beings have been writing for only 6000 years or so: the beginnings of handwriting are the beginning of our history. The transmission of knowledge from one culture and generation to another made possible the accelerated cultural change that has left biological evolution far behind. Written language is associated with oral language, which antedated it. The relations between spoken language and written language differ widely from one civilization to another.

Until now, two elements of writing have been studied extensively:

  1. The system of graphical signs used by various civilizations.
  2. The written objects. Egyptologists and Assyriologists, epigraphers and Greek or Latin papyrologists, have all spent centuries collecting their objects. They have deciphered them, classified them, and analyzed them, figured out how the characters are drawn and reconstructed the history of alphabets and their letters, setting written objects in time and space.

The written object is a witness of reading and writing, and its study from the point of view of reading has been done frequently. However, these two activities are very different.

Reading means following the written lines, never changing them in any way. It can be repeated as many times as one wishes, in whatever rhythm one feels comfortable with, at variable speed; it is selective and discontinuous. It usually involves movements of the eyes and head only. Reading leaves no traces behind: to know what took place, you have to find the testimony of writing.

Writing is a dynamic act that unfolds in three-dimensional space, in a single, homogeneous and linear block of time. The scribe's body movements, the motion of the hand guided by the eye, support and accompany the path of the writing implement through space, a path that leaves a mark only on the surface of the writing material, whatever it may be.

What was needed was a history of writing from the point of view of writing. With this in mind, I worked with physicists and physicians, looking at as the motions involved, the posture of the human body, the form of the book, the forms of the letters. This finally provided me with a solution to the conundrum (2500 years old!) of why Hebrew and Arabic are written from right to left whereas Greek and Latin are written from left to right.