In the previous post we explored these two questions: ‘where did the alphabet come from?’ and ‘is reading a left-brain or right-brain activity?’ We explored these questions by observing how certain languages like English, for example, make use of vowels while other languages like Hebrew don’t. Some make the fascinating claim that this causes us not only to read differently but, ultimately, to think differently. In other words, they maintain that people who use vowels make sense of the world differently than those who don’t. It’s a huge claim but there are some, like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who believe that languages like Greek or English cause us to be right-brained analytical thinkers while a language like Hebrew causes us to be left-brained thinkers. In this post I want to explore the second major difference that Hebrew has from English (and Greek): the direction in which we read. Specifically I want to explore this question:
Does the direction you read effect how you think?
My good friend Rock recently had a stroke.1 When I went to see him in the hospital he told me how he first realized that something was off. It started when he stood up and fell against the wall to his left. A few minutes later he was sick to his stomach. Knowing something was wrong he went to a walk-in clinic and was told that he had a virus. The next day he took a sip of cold water and immediately knew he was dealing with something worse than the flu when the water was only cold in the right side of his mouth. He had no feeling in the left side. When I asked him how he was doing he said that he was okay but still felt as if his internal steering wheel was stuck in the leftward position. All the signs of the stroke were on the left side of his body. The stroke, as you might have guessed, was in the right side of his brain. The right side of our brain controls the left side of our body while the left side of our brain controls the right side of our body.
Ancient alphabets like Hebrew read from right to left. The Greek alphabet started this way too but over time it went through a metamorphosis. The change started around the eighth or ninth Century BC when the Greeks changed their style of writing into what is called boustrophedon.2 Boustrophedon means something like “as the ox plows” which is a pretty good visual description of the writing style. Here’s how it worked: the first line was written from right to left while the second line was written from left to right. On the third line the pattern repeated itself. Here is a close example3:
This strange method of writing lasted until the fifth century BC when the Greeks settled on writing from left to right. The question that I am interested here is: How and why did this change effect the way people thought?
First the how. Marshall McLuhan, a cultural prophet of sorts, famously remarked that “the medium is the message.”4 What he meant was that anytime we change the medium – like the alphabet for example – something more fundamental changes too, namely, the way we think. Shane Hipps notes that “Writing has the power to restructure the worldview of an entire society.”5 Such restructuring happened when the Greek alphabet changed directions. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks records just how massive the shift in thinking was: “Something…of vast consequence was…taking place [at the time the Greek writing changed]: the emergence of the first philosophers and scientists, the first people to think systematically about nature, matter, substance…”.6 He continues, “It is impossible to overstate the significance of all this for the development of Western civilization. We owe virtually all our abstract concepts to the Greeks.”7 This is astounding. Sacks is arguing that when the writing direction changed, so did the way we thought. When the Greeks began to read from left to right they became left-brain thinkers. They changed the alphabet’s direction and – presto! – the alphabet changed them.
What about the why? Let’s think back to my friend who had the stroke. Remember how the stroke in the right side of his brain effected the left side of his body? It is precisely this directional brain activity that people attribute to the shift in our thinking. Think about this: when we read an english text our head or eyes will move in a rightward direction. So what part of the brain are we using? Our body movement (rightward) would suggest left-brain activity. So of course if someone reads in a leftward direction it suggests a right-brain activity. If you put together the two big differences – the use of vowels and the direction of reading – you can begin to see why the Greeks thought so differently from their predecessors.
So why does this matter? It matters because it has something really important to say about how we read the Hebrew scriptures. The truth is that the writers of the First Testament were not analytical thinkers. They simply were not concerned with a linear philosophical thought process or scientific methods. This is not to claim anything is wrong with these methods. It’s simply that this was not a part of the Hebrew thought process. They wrote from right to left (and without vowels) and guess what? They thought that way too. You can see, then, how it becomes problematic when we insist on bringing Greek questions and methods to a Hebrew text. We need to learn to how to understand the Hebrew scriptures on their own terms. In other words, we need to learn how to think from right to left.
In the next post we’ll explore the difference between what is knows as step logic, a very Greek way of thinking, and block logic, a very Hebrew way of thinking. After that we’ll dig into some scriptural texts and see how this is played out practically.
1 Thankfully he is recovering well. Love you Rock!
2 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership p. 43
3 It should be noted that this example is slightly off since it is supposed to begin from right to left not left to right.
4 Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture p. 29
5 ibid. 47
6 Sacks, The Great Partnership p. 43
7 ibid. p. 43