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Heymatt:

Being right-handed it seems natural that I write from left to right on the page. This way I can see what I've written. And since most people (at least in the Western world) are right-handed, it seems natural for them to write left to right. But in the Middle East people write from right to left. Could it therefore be reasoned that the majority of them are left-handed?

-- PN, San Diego

About 100 years ago, an archaeologist used the same reasoning but never convinced many colleagues to hop on his theoretical bus. From their writing, he postulated that ancient societies were left-handed and we've only recently come to favor the right. Most others studying cave paintings and ancient tools, weapons, and documents believe there never was such a thing as a left-handed society. And there still isn't. Righties rule, worldwide.

Writing evolved when there were finally enough of us around to require business records and the identification of personal property. And of course the first writing was pictographs, not script. It was read from top to bottom, right to left perhaps because the first records were counts and tallies.

The earliest records were marks pressed into small tablets of damp clay with a sharpened reed or scratched into dry clay slabs. At first when we only had to keep a few counts of bushels of wheat or dates or whatever, scribes could use small tablets that fit into the palm of the hand. The most common theory goes that the clay was held in the left palm and steadied with the thumb, which would cover part of the left side of the tablet, making the right side the logical place to start. There also might be a natural inclination for right-handers to favor the upper right-hand corner as a starting point. Even today, in left-to right reading societies, this is a prime location The big front-page story of the day begins in the right-hand columns of a newspaper, not the left. And advertisers often pay extra to have their ads placed in the upper right-hand corner of a page.

But even thousands of years ago, paperwork begat paperwork and the clay slabs became too large and unwieldy to hold in the palm. The most comfortable, efficient solution was to turn the rectangular tablet on its side and rest it along the scribe's arm. At the same time, they also rotated the pictographs to their sides and began to write horizontally, still beginning in the upper right-hand corner. The system stuck and is still used in Arabic and Hebrew writing.

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