Up, Down, or Sideways

M

ost languages are are written horizontally: English, Greek, even Arabic, albeit in the opposite direction. East Asian languages, on the other hand, are written vertically, with the lines progressing right to left. This is probably old news for most of you since most of you have East Asian Heritage. But I’ve always wondered if this approach to writing had a cultural explanation, perhaps a reflection of how East Asians view the world.

I’m no anthropologist, but I have made a few observations over the years that may seem rather mundane and obvious. Reading texts horizontally, left to right, suggests that perhaps people read verticall. The opposite is true of Japanese; reading vertically, up to down, is is conducive to reading laterally. A consideration of reading scrolls–or even the internet for that matter–is revealing.

行く川の流れは絶たええずして、しかももとの水にあらず 淀よどみに浮うかぶうたかたはかつ消きえかつ結むすびて、久ひさしくとどめりたる例ためしなし 世よの中にある人とすみかと、またかくのごとし

You’ll probably need Windows XP or a Mac to read this text properly. It will appear like horizontal text typed sideways. to some.

Back in the day of when the Greeks and Romans wrote long texts on scrolls, the text was lateral but to advance to the next line, the next paragraph, one had to “scroll down”. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean texts on scrolls are written vertically, but to go to the next line or paragraph, the movement was lateral. Indeed, many of my students have been amused by the phrase, “as mentioned to the right,” when they realize that it is the same as “as mentioned above” in English.

In a way–and in a very amateurish conclusion–it always seemed to me that in English lateral movement is a momentary convenience to read, but to understand the greater text the movement was ultimately vertical. East Asian languages are just the opposite: read vertical but to advance into the text one had to move laterally, right to left.

Does this have greater implications? Probably not. But it is interesting to note that the West sees things in vertical terms and Japan–I don’t know enough about China and Korea to make any generalizations–views things laterally. In religion classes, I think the general perception is that heaven is above and hell is below. While I think we can all agree that heaven and hell–for those who believe in such concepts–exist in a realm that defies such human distinctions as up and down, but terms such as ascending to heaven or descending to hell are pretty common, are they not? Remember, I’m considering cultural–i.e. human–perceptions. In Japan, paradise is not viewed in vertical terms, but in terms of distance. In Jodo Shinshu, one only needs to chant the name of the almighty to guarantee his/her place in paradise, the Western Paradise. Of course, back in the day, that would mean China. Hahahahha. But that’s not the case. They realized as well that paradise is a place beyond the realm of our existence, but still labeled it in lateral terms.

Social phenomenons are similar. Struggles for power also move vertically in the West, and this is best illustrated in the horizontal structure of groups. In this horizontal society, people sharing characteristics–a lateral spread, as it were–try to gain power against another strata of people: the bourgois class against the French monarchy controlled by the Roman Catholic Church (those ne’er-do-wells), the commoners against Tsarist Russian government. Even in our modern society, people of the same occupation–a lateral construct–form unions to stand up against executives. In contrast, Japan is a vertical society. Groups of people do not bond because of shared traits–peasants, Russian intelligentsia, retail clerks. Instead they bond in a vertical fashion–a construct from which the ie, household, system came. Everyone from the head down to the lowliest member of a group will bond to fight against their perceived nemesis. That is why you never hear of the kind of social unrest you hear in other cultures. The peasants never revolted against their masters, they bonded with them. Modern day unions are structured similarly: by company. Mistubishi Heavy Industry, Sumitomo Chemical. They all have their own unions, usually made up of the rank and file of the company from the maintenance worker up to mid-management.

Again, I stress, I am not an anthropologist and cannot back anything I’ve said. But the observations are correct, as far as I know. And the parallel between vertical and lateral is something I find interesting. But of course, an old geezer like me tends to ponder about things that have nothing to do with his work, and adds absolutenly nothing to the social dialogue that is… Xanga? Hehehehhehehe

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