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What is Boustrophedon?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Boustrophedon is a writing technique in which lines of text run in alternate directions. This method of writing was used by many ancient cultures, and it continues to be used today in some regions of the world, albeit primarily as a curiosity in many cases. While it might seem like it would be hard to read boustrophedon text, it is in fact relatively easy to read once one becomes accustomed to it.

To use the English language as an example, the first line of a text written in boustrophedon would run from left to right, as it would normally. The next line, however, would start on the right and move to the left. The letters would also be flipped, essentially creating a mirror image. The next line would read from left to right again, and so forth, until the bottom of the text.

The word boustrophedon is Greek, and it means "to turn like an ox while plowing." As anyone who has mowed a lawn knows, it is more efficient to mow a lawn in back and forth turns, rather than mowing a strip, trudging back to the beginning, mowing another strip, and so forth. The argument with boustrophedon text is that text is more efficient to write and read when written out in the same way that a field is plowed, and this may have been true for the ancients, since they were used to it.

As if boustrophedon wasn't enough, ancient texts were also typically written with no spaces, to be as efficient with space as possible, and often the word order in sentences was highly unusual. People who are capable of reading ancient languages still often have trouble with texts on monuments and tablets because the system of writing is so unfamiliar, and this explains why some ancient languages took so long to untangle, since people had no idea where word breaks were.

To up the ante a bit, one can also use reverse boustrophedon. In reverse boustrophedon, the text is not only written backward on alternate lines, but it is also flipped 180 degrees. Some enterprising scribes also wrote text at a 90 degree angle which ran crosswise, creating two layers of text to be sifted through.

All of these techniques might seem slightly absurd to modern humans, but they were crucial developments in a time when paper was unheard of, and writing materials were expensive, cumbersome, and difficult to prepare. Even after the development of paper and vellum, these materials were still extremely costly, and our modern system of writing in expansive paragraphs with spaces would have been terribly wasteful.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By pixiedust — On May 25, 2010

You'd have to learn how to write backward, but it's actually not that hard once you learn it. In grade school, for fun, we used to write notes in mirror writing.

By 6pack — On May 25, 2010

I actually think this format makes the most sense....the eye doesn't have to make that extra step per line of going from the end of the previous line to the beginning of the next line.

By smartypants4 — On May 20, 2010

Ha! I wish we'd known about this in college - it would have made for a fun drinking game amongst the nerdy English majors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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