Taiwan law requires writing to go left-to-right instead of top-to-bottom

The BBC reports that official documents in Taiwan must now be written left-to-right (Western style) instead of the traditional top-to-bottom.

I grew up with Chinese-language newspapers that ran their stories vertically and numbered their pages from right to left, in the traditional manner. Books and newspapers which run left-to-right look "wrong" to me. But I guess I'll have to start getting used to it.

Comments (29)
  1. Anonymous says:

    As I know nothing of top-to-bottom writing styles, how would, say, a Taiwanese government official who writes documents using Microsoft software be affected by this?

    Does MS software even support top-to-bottom writing? What does it take for someone to switch from vertical to horizontal writing?

    Just curious… this is way outside my sphere of experience.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Vertical writing support in Windows is quite peculiar.

    Microsoft Word supports vertical writing. You choose text direction, and it runs top to bottom, right to left.

    Notepad does not support vertical text at all.

    Wordpad half-supports vertical text. Every font containing Far East characters (e.g. MS Gothic) is aliased with a “@” (e.g. @MS Gothic). Text marked with such a font is still rendered horizontally (left to right, top to bottom), but every individual Far East character is rotated 90° anti-clockwise. So, if you print it out and rotate the paper 90° clockwise, you have a sheet of vertical text with top-to-bottom lines, and lines stack right to left.

    The @ aliasing is provided by the system and other applications can use it — sometimes. Maybe it’s controlled by the CF_NOVERTFONTS bit in the flags for the ChooseFont function.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Growing up, I had always heard that Chinese and Japanese were written vertically, so it suprised me when I saw some books and papers my Chinese (mainland) friend was reading – they were all written left-to-right. He said vertically was old-fashioned and out of style. Is this at all related to simplified vs traditional chinese?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Mainland China has been using left-to-right writing and simplified character sets for decades now.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Simplified vs. traditional is another matter entirely. China uses simplified, Taiwan and Hong Kong use traditional.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Sorry for going way off topic here, but there are a lot more than five vowels and 20 consonants in the world’s languages. English alone has more vowels than that, but only has five (six?) vowel characters to represent them with. E.g., bit bat beet boat bait bite butte but bet bot bout. (Consonants are even more complicated.)

    Overview of phonetics: http://www.ancientscripts.com/phonetics.html

    Anyway, with the multilingual support in modern operating systems, why would we ever need to abandon our "national character sets"? Long live Unicode. ;)

  7. Anonymous says:

    Writing is just a way of representing a language. This is often done very inefficiently, eg English and French, which have difficult spelling systems. Check out an IPA (International Phonetics Assn.) chart to see the full list of documented sounds used in the world’s languages, there are many more than 26.

  8. Anonymous says:

    (BTW I am not advocating anyone dropping their own character sets or language. In fact I see that as a rather sad thing – diversity is almost always beneficial.)

    On the IPA charts I count enough that you can fit them on a keyboard, especially if you exclude the stresses and voice modulations. Also although IPA lists a full range of possibilities, not all will be used. For example in the African country I grew up in, the local language did not include ‘R’ (and some other character I have forgotten). They also used the Roman alphabet, and no accents. There was no written form of the language until the 1800s when the country was invaded by Europeans.

    The issue with abandoning the national character sets is not one of display, although some are harder such as Arabic. It is an issue of input. Mashing keys would seem to be the best way (taking into account accuracy, cost, speed) we have come up with so far.

    Any character set that has too many characters to be entered in a keyboard of just over 100 keys is going to cause some difficulties. They may be in the form of a mode. ie keys do different things depending on what mode the keyboard is in. We already see that for the Roman alphabet with the shift/caps lock. For accented languages you also have the issue of when exactly the various forms of punctuation combine with the previous character and when they don’t. Obviously these forms of state/mode can increase the number of available characters to the hundreds, but not into the thousands.

    But I already see people getting frustrated at that and just dropping accents from their own names.

    Just pulling out another random data sample, Esperanto only has 28 letters, and they each correspond to exactly one sound, each sound corresponds to one letter.


  9. Anonymous says:

    Funnily enough I was reading The Guardian today (11 June) and came across an article that mentioned "George Bernard Shaw" and his quest for a more "rational" spelling system for English. I thought this looked interesting and so did a bit of Googling on it…

    I came across some of the (to me) most abysmal spellings I’ve seen. After looking at a site about Shaw and what has come of his endeavour (I started at http://www.uni-potsdam.de/u/anglistik/stud_pro/engl_spell/shavian/ and went on) I found myself at sites that just want to change the spellings of words to make them "easier to read."

    Apparently it’s unfair to insist that people have good spelling, so to make it easier for them, we drop ‘unnecessary’ letters. In fact there’s a good example, the word "unnecessary" would most probably be turned to "unnesesery" or something equally vulgar. To be honest I’m rather a stickler for (reasonably) correct grammar and spelling, so it would have this kind of effect on me.

    I just found it amazing how shocked I am that people would do this to the language, I suppose. That is to say I’m shocked at myself for being so shocked at the change. I have no problem with Shaw’s idea of creating a new alphabet that will better encompass the natural sounds of what we say, but changing the word "spelling" to "speling" just seems like a very wrong thing to do, to me.

    I ended up at http://www.freespeling.com/ which wasn’t quite as bad as some of the tripe I had to get through to get there. I can see their point, but I like the language how it is.

    (As a side note I also get annoyed at American spellings of ‘nice’ English words, for instance "colour" –> "color", it just seems wrong. Sorry!)

    Anyway I’ll leave that with you. I suppose my point was that it’s not just non-English languages that a lot of people want to change, although admittedly I doubt much will ever get done regarding the matter. There’ll probably be an all-encompassing language (like Esperanto) by then!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Finally the right way round.. The KMT government which used to rule Taiwan had made people writing horizontally alright, but from right to left. Since most of us are right handed, we smudge our own writings! Wonderful! :P

    The idea was that since the commies are Left Wing and we were opposite of them, we write from the Right; go figure.

    That’s probably the main reason why Taiwan adopted vertical style, it also looks more elegant(which maybe the Taiwanese bone inside me of me speaking heh). Finally, it’s going back to horizontal, frankly I’m quite used to it, thanks to the internet :P Everything’s horizontal anyway, just please don’t change the newspapers…

  11. Anonymous says:

    Even the IPA isn’t complete… don’t forget the 20 or so different click sounds found in some African languages.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I wonder how much longer it will be before national character sets are abandoned. I already see this in many of my friends from other cultures where they have their proper name, but typically call themselves "John" or "Cindy",

    and their kids only have western style names.

    Heck I even see it from people whose native character set is the Roman alphabet with accents (eg French) where their name has the accents, but they start dropping the accents.

    Going into territory where I am very ignorant, I do believe that there are 5 vowels and 20 odd consonants (ie the different sounds the human voice box can make). Those are fairly easy to represent on a keyboard or a screen.

    Many spoken languages then also include changing pitch, speed and even facial expression. Those are obviously more difficult to represent on screen or on a keyboard, and so far have been done by accents, or more complicated writing systems such as the oriental ones.

    Until we have a better input mechanism than mashing plastic keys in small area, I can only see the ergonomics and practicalities of computers leading to simpler characters and methods of combining them.

    (Does anyone know if there is any pressure in the Arab world for changing how characters are drawn based on the prior ones and removing that link?)

    The reality is that languages and writing do change over time. If someone spoke like Shakespeare today you would think they are on drugs. It is also fairly difficult to read the characters used then. Here are two examples:



    Note that I am not making any comment on this being good, bad or imperialistic. The reality is that changes in language and writing come from the people using them, not from official institutions. (Someone *please* tell the Academie Francaise :-) Officialdom can help speed up or slow down change such as this Taiwanese regulation. Worst case you could end up with an official government language and then what everyone else uses. (Latin was the former throughout much of Europe for a long time).

  13. Anonymous says:

    The African language I spoke (very badly) only had two forms of click, one being a hard click and one being a soft click. (Those are relative – they are both hard if you have never made them before.) I got fairly good at them, but only I suspect because I learned it as a kid. I can’t do them properly anymore as a mid-30’s adult. The clicks just translated into ordinary letters. For example the first letter of ‘cela’ is a hard click. A common surname of Nxumalo is a softer click.

    But I think my point is being missed. All these languages have a wide variety of sounds and alphabets. Your keyboard has 100 keys plus some "modes". I think people will take shortcuts and it will ultimately diminish the variety out there. Until a new input method arrives that can deal with thousands of sounds or some other way of input, languages will inexorably simplify.

    English spelling changes over the years as well. (Getting back to the topic of software, I was annoyed as a Brit to have to write everything in American spelling for our products :-)

    I reckon that in 50 years time normal spellings will be "lite", "thru" etc. It already annoys me that Americans don’t distinguish between "insure" and "ensure" (they only use the former for both meanings).

    Ah well, I guess you are officially old when you complain about the "youth of today".

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’m only nineteen and I’m complaining about the changes! I dread to think what I’ll be like in only ten years’ time!

  15. Anonymous says:

    I have a feeling "lite" and "thru" were made up by some fast food, flashlight, or beer companies trying to trademark a phrase by spelling it that way. And I don’t really believe that we don’t know the difference between "insure" and "ensure" (they’re pronounced the way they’re spelled). It is news to me that ensure’s definition is a subset of insure’s in the dictionary.

  16. Anonymous says:

    "lite" and "thru" are significantly harder to misspell than the correct spellings and we see them all over the place.

    As for ensure/insure, their meanings are completely different. "ensure" is the process of trying to make sure something happens, whereas "insure" is about dealing with the consequences of a relatively rare event.

    However I find that Americans tend to spell and say "insure" for either meaning. As a random example I went to FoxNews and searched for "insure". Second article:


    And the sentence: But we would have a robust vetting process to insure that the former senior-level Baathists, those involved in the atrocities, with blood on their hands, would not have a role in the new security forces.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Don’t even get me started on effect vs. affect or its vs. it’s.

    I think both English spelling and Chinese characters are examples of cultural fixtures that are inefficient, but ingrained so deeply that abandoning them would be unthinkable.

  18. Anonymous says:

    (The one that baffles me is "lose" vs. "loose". These words are unrelated in meaning and are not pronounced the same, yet people confuse them…? Yet people don’t confuse "moos" and "moose" or "dues" and "deuce".)

  19. Anonymous says:

    Well, several different people have already abandoned Chinese characters. My friend John Lin is actually something like Lin Kei-Wei, but has completely given up on the Chinese spelling or words.

    I would also be keen to know what the full correct "native" name is for our host. I am guessing it isn’t Raymond Chen but I could be wrong.

    Actually given his posts, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him change his name to something Scandanavian.

    And for the record, the Norwegians are mad. One Norwegian friend was named Odd-Even. Yes really. Then there were Banthatha and his brother. But they were actually African refugees :-)

  20. Anonymous says:

    Just try asking a typical educated Chinese person to write in Pinyin (romanization) from now on instead of characters… :)

  21. Anonymous says:

    Finally the right way round.. The KMT >government which used to rule Taiwan had made >people writing horizontally alright, but from >right to left. Since most of us are right >handed, we smudge our own writings! >Wonderful! :P

    Aww, tough luck right-hander. Welcome to the world of left-handed people.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous Coward sez: "It is also fairly difficult to read the characters used then."

    Could you clarify that? That _Taming of the Shrew_ cover page uses the same 15th-century Italian letterforms we’re using now, except for the "long s". The slight irregularities in the letter outlines are just a product of the technology they had available.

    What’s remarkable is that for five and a half centures now, roman and italic type have remained constant (and Roman *capitals* were invented by… ummm… the Romans, as I recall. After 1900 years, the type on Trajan’s Column doesn’t look the slightest bit strange — and if I’m informed correctly, China can beat that record with one millenium tied behind its back.)

    Old German printing in black-letter type may look "archaic" and nearly indecipherable to most of us, but in Germany that was the standard until the 1940s, and it hadn’t changed significantly since Gutenberg.

    It seems that writing systems often tend to be reasonably stable. Or it might be better to say that they *can* be stable, and it’s the stable ones that remain useful and so survive (which is to say that the kids who communicate in print by whimpering "im im dont wont ur im ur dont wont" are either a temporary aberration, or else the death rattle of literacy in English. OMGWTFBBQ, imminent demise of written language predicted!).

  23. Anonymous says:

    In Japan, where they use Chinese characters along with their own and roman, novels and newspapers tend to be written top to bottom right to left. Whereas technical books tend to be written left to right.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Re: English pronunciation, we have something like 300,000 phonemes, mainly due to our habit of appropriating language left and right, so the rules differ based on who we stole a given word from.

    Re: Shakespeare, I would imagine that if you walked up to someone in 1580 England and started speaking in blank verse, you’d get some really funny looks. The actual vocabulary + pronunciation doesn’t seem any weirder than some of the stuff I’ve seen in Trainspotting.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone know if there is any pressure in

    >the Arab world for changing how characters

    >are drawn based on the prior ones and

    >removing that link?

    None. The 4 different kadishas (shapes) for each letter (whether it is the first, middle, last or all by itself) are simplifications that you would do when handwriting. The closest we used to have in English was the different shaped S used at the beginning or middle of a word (it looked like an "f" with the crossbar missing). German has one, looks like a B, but its really 2 "s" stuck together.

    >I have a feeling "lite" and "thru" were made up by some fast food…

    Mr Dewey, you know, of the Dewey Decimal System, was a proponent of simplified English in the 19th Century. Thru was merely one of the many words they wanted to change so that they can be spelled easier.

    As for vertical writing in Chinese and Japanese, the Chinese writing started that way, more than 2000 years ago. Vertical writing (tategaki) is considered proper, or old fashioned there. Horizontal writing (yomigaki) is becoming more common though.

    >As I know nothing of top-to-bottom writing

    >styles, how would, say, a Taiwanese

    >government official who writes documents

    >using Microsoft software be affected by this?

    WordXP (maybe earlier US versions, but thats the version on this desk, I also have Word97J – japanese on Win98J which has this button by default on the toolbar) has a button with an A and 4 horizontal arrows (customize menus, formatting, slide the thumb about halfway down). The button will be greyed out unless you are using a font with vertical metrics. Press the button, and bingo, your writing is vertical, press it again, and bongo, its horizontal.

    My knowledge of Chinese is limited to the portion "borrowed" by the Japanese, and used in nihongo. Japanese uses 4 scripts: Kanji (thousands of Chinese characters), Hiragana (used for some words and for "glue grammar" made from simplifying some kanji), Katakana (used for foreign words even if borrowed 400+ years ago) and Romanji (roman letters). Part of the fun in learning Japanese is the shifting around, since a sentence can use all 4 scripts (usually only use 2: kanji and hiragana). Most japanese keyboards use the similar keyboards to what you use: roman letters (with a few extra keys). Since each character is a syllable, you get to type in 2 roman letters to get a hiragana character. Tap the spacebar to turn it into a kanji char, not the right one, tap a few more times to cycle thru the most common ones, then you see a listbox of pretty much all of the ones the IME (input method editor) thinks can fit the context.

    For further information on this and other sticky issues on international software, I would recommend the MS Press book, Developing International Software. I personally have the older edition, by N. Kano.

  26. Anonymous says:

    People nowadays still use vertical writing in Chinese. It is not out-dated. Walk into any bookstores, and you can find many books, novels, magazines printed from top to bottom, lines from right to left. One thing good is that Chinese characters are so-called square-shaped, and each can represent means of its own. So you can stack them, or put them side by side and reading is no problem. :)

    Printed matters do have larger percentage in horizontal writing, mainly because of computer. Needless to say computer came from ‘Western’, and it spoke English then. The easy way to take advantage of this powerful tool along with Chinese is to use its left-to-right writing style. Of course even top-down or right-to-left writing is trivial to computers today, but imagine these days people only had 64K memory and magnetic tapes to use. That was not so easy from the beginning.

    Talking of Unicode, you might be surprised that it mixes all Chinese simplified/traditional characters and Japanese Kanji all together with no special distinguish. Although some of them look alike, and some even exactly the same, it is still strange to mix them all. Not to mention each government has its own "Official writing of characters", and many of them thought came from the same origin (China), they could have slight differences. If you cannot imaging, imagine this kind of character encoding sequence when all latin based characters line up: 0x0001: "A", 0x0002: "A" with ‘slash’ on top, 0x0003, "A" with ‘circle’ on top, 0x0004: "B", 0x0005: "C", and so forth.

    Well, not many people actually care about the sequences when they can see what they want was actually shown on screen as wish. So is writing direction. I perfer to treat it as culture shock when some fundamental matters change. Technology is alive, and so are Languages too.

    Ok back to the subject, I think the requirement of writing from left to right actually means "printing from left to right", or printing horizontally. After all it is easier for computer to handle. People just need a rule to follow when it comes to ‘serious’ or official. Nobody really cares if you print and read newspapers vertically or not. Actually there have been both newspapers in horizontal and vertical printing for decades.

  27. Anonymous says:

    pfft igona write howevr iwana. And welcome the Universal Translator..

  28. Anonymous says:

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