Similarities between alphabets

4 Dec

From an article in Science:

What do Cyrillic, Arabic, Sanskrit, and 113 other writing systems have in common? Different as they appear at first glance, they share basic structural features, according to a new study: characters with vertical symmetry (like the Roman letters A and T) and a preference for vertical and horizontal lines over oblique lines (like those in the letters X and W). The explanation appears to be rooted in the wiring of our brain.

“People appear to have an aesthetic preference for certain kinds of shapes and designs, and that preference seems to explain the writing systems we see,” says Julie Fiez, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. Fiez, who studies the neuroscience of reading, says those features may tap into how our eyes and brains process images: Neurons fire faster at the site of objects that display vertical symmetry—like human faces—and horizontal and vertical lines, which are common in natural landscapes.

You can read the original paper here. Here is the abstract:

Cultural forms are constrained by cognitive biases, and writing is thought to have evolved to fit basic visual preferences, but little is known about the history and mechanisms of that evolution. Cognitive constraints have been documented for the topology of script features, but not for their orientation. Orientation anisotropy in human vision, as revealed by the oblique effect, suggests that cardinal (vertical and horizontal) orientations, being easier to process, should be overrepresented in letters. As this study of 116 scripts shows, the orientation of strokes inside written characters massively favors cardinal directions, and it is organized in such a way as to make letter recognition easier: Cardinal and oblique strokes tend not to mix, and mirror symmetry is anisotropic, favoring vertical over horizontal symmetry. Phylogenetic analyses and recently invented scripts show that cultural evolution over the last three millennia cannot be the sole cause of these effects.


One Response to “Similarities between alphabets”

  1. Enrique Guerra-Pujol December 5, 2017 at 9:33 am #

    Further conjectures: Maybe there is some optimal mixture of vertical, horizontal, and oblique lines, and maybe the proportion of such lines in this mixture is influenced, in turn, by some mixture of historical accident, culture, and imitation (contact with other alphabets)? In any case, I’ve always wondered where the “first alphabet” was invented.

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