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Title: Boustrophedon  
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Subject: Bi-directional text, Abjad, List of Greek words with English derivatives, Scroll, Avoiuli
Collection: Writing Direction, Writing Systems
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Ancient Greek boustrophedon inscription, Gortyn code, Crete, 5th century BC
The Forum inscription (one of the oldest known Latin inscriptions) is written boustrophedon, albeit irregularly: reading from top to bottom, lines 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 16 run from right to left; lines 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 13, and 15, from left to right; 8, 9, and 16 are upside down. (From a rubbing by Domenico Comparetti.)

Boustrophedon ( or ; from Ancient Greek: βουστροφηδόν, boustrophēdon “ox-turning” from βοῦς, bous, “ox” and στροφή, strophē, “turn”; that is, turning like oxen in ploughing) is a kind of bi-directional text, mostly seen in ancient manuscripts and other inscriptions.[1] Every other line of writing is flipped or reversed, with reversed letters. Rather than going left-to-right as in modern English, or right-to-left as in Arabic and Hebrew, alternate lines in boustrophedon must be read in opposite directions. Also, the individual characters are reversed, or mirrored. It was a common way of writing in stone in Ancient Greece.[2]


  • Explanation 1
  • Reverse boustrophedon 2
  • Example of Hieroglyphic Luwian 3
  • Other examples 4
    • In constructed languages 4.1
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Many ancient scripts, such as Safaitic and Sabaean, were frequently or typically written boustrophedonically, but in Greek it is found most commonly in archaic inscriptions, becoming less and less popular throughout the Hellenistic period.

By analogy, the term may be used in other areas to describe this kind of alternation of motion or writing. For example, it is occasionally used to describe the print head motion of certain dot matrix computer printers. In that case, while the print head moves in opposite directions on alternate lines, the printed text is usually not in boustrophedon format.[3]

Reverse boustrophedon

Schematic of reverse boustrophedon text, in the fashion of rongorongo, but using the Latin alphabet
An example, in English, of the style of Boustrophedon as written in ancient manuscripts in Greece

The wooden boards and other incised artifacts of Rapa Nui also bear a boustrophedonic script called Rongorongo, which remains undeciphered. In Rongorongo the text in alternate lines was rotated 180 degrees rather than mirrored; this is termed reverse boustrophedon.

Example of Hieroglyphic Luwian

The Egyptian language, represented with hieroglyph texts and wall reliefs, is the major hieroglyphic language from antiquity; the only other language that also had a hieroglyph version, was the Luwian language and its hieroglyphic Luwian, read boustrophedon;[4] (most of the language was in cuneiform). Other languages that appear to have hieroglyphs are explained as glyphs that make up a language with "script characters" or sets, (with some characters that are virtually identical to varieties of hieroglyphs).

The Hieroglyphic Luwian is read boustrophedon, with the direction of any individual line pointing into the front of the animals or body parts constituting certain hieroglyphs. However, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs with their numerous ideograms and logograms which show an easy directionality, the lineal direction of the text in hieroglyphic Luwian is harder to see.

Other examples

A modern example of boustrophedonics is the numbering scheme of sections within survey townships in the United States and Canada. In both countries, survey townships are divided into a 6-by-6 grid of 36 sections. In the U.S. Public Land Survey System, Section 1 of a township is in the northeast corner, and the numbering proceeds boustrophedonically until Section 36 is reached in the southeast corner.[5] Canada's Dominion Land Survey also uses boustrophedonic numbering, but starts at the southeast corner.

The term is used by postmen in the United Kingdom to describe street numbering which proceeds serially in one direction then turns back in the other. (The same numbering method is used in some European cities.) This is in contrast to the more common method of odd and even numbers on opposite sides of the street.

In art history, it additionally means that you read from bottom left in a series of pictures; as in the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Another example is the boustrophedon transform, known in mathematics.[6]

Sometimes computer printers with a typewriter-like moving type head print boustrophedon text if set up wrongly.

The IBM 1360 Photo-Digital Storage System records its data boustrophedonically.

Additionally, the Indus script, although still undeciphered, can be written boustrophedonically.[7]

Notice in Avoiuli script written using boustrophedon
The Avoiuli script used on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu can be written boustrophedonically.

In constructed languages

The constructed language Ithkuil uses a boustrophedon script.

The Atlantean language created by Marc Okrand for Disney’s 2001 film Atlantis: The Lost Empire is written in boustrophedon to recreate the feeling of flowing water.

The code language used in The Montmaray Journals, Kernetin, is written boustrophedonically. It is a combination of Cornish and English and is used for secret communication.[8]

The written language of the Minbari in the television series Babylon 5 is written in boustrophedon. This is evidenced by the episode in which Ambassador Delenn is dictating a formal letter, and the computer dictation writes the alien script starting top-to-bottom and changing from right-to-left or left-to-right for each new line.

See also


  1. ^ Sampson, Geoffrey (1985). Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Stanford University Press. p. 103.  
  2. ^ Threatte, Leslie (1980). The grammar of Attic inscriptions. W. de Gruyter. pp. 54–55.  
  3. ^ Boustrophedon in the Jargon File of hacker slang
  4. ^ Campbell, George Frederick (2000). Compendium of the World's Languages. Routledge. p. 78.  
  5. ^ Stilgoe, John R. (1982). Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 104.  
  6. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. (2002). CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics, Second Edition. Chapman & Hall/CRC. p. 273.  
  7. ^ Possehl, Gregory. "The Indus Civilization: An Introduction to Environment, Subsistence, and Cultural History (2003)
  8. ^ Cooper, Michelle (2008). A Brief History of Montmaray. Australia: Random House Australia.  

External links

  • A Web-based Boustrophedon text reader
  • A Boustrophedon text reader
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