Left-handedness is certainly an everyday phenomenon. We all probably know somebody who writes with their left hand or possibly do so ourselves. But how often do we pause to think about what might be the cause of such a preference or how, something as natural as left-handedness, might be understood in societies other than our own?

In his book, The Puzzle of Left-handedness, Rik Smits addresses some of the enigmas, rumours and paradoxes surrounding the left-handed among us. Rik begins by telling us about his background and how he came to approach writing a book about left-handedness.

Rik Smits: Well I started out as a linguist, first in universities and then, when universities couldn’t afford me any more, I went in for writing because I always liked to tell people, who had no access to everything that we knew and were finding out, what was going on in the heads of these people and why that was interesting in a way that they would listen and could understand. That’s how it all began and I have been doing that ever since although not only on language but always on things that have vague connections to language.

JB: Were here to talk about left handedness. Are you you left-handed yourself?

RS: Yes I am.

JB: Have you always had an interest in this? When did you start thinking about what it meant?

RS: Well not at all at first. You are confronted with it when you are young, when you go to school and you learn to write, that is the first time it really becomes an issue. But I was lucky. I had an understanding teacher and she just said you put your paper like that and you sit on that side of your neighbour and that’s it. And then I forgot about it for a large part of my life until a publisher said will you read this manuscript from America, he said it’s about left-handedness and asked if it was suitable for translation. And it was horrible. So I told him and he said, well, maybe you should write a book about it and I said, well ,I don’t know if there’s anything to talk about. I went in to libraries and within three days time I had a pile of 300 books and articles to work with so I said, ‘yes, I’ll do the book’.

JB: Could you explain, in maybe two sentences, what left-handedness actually is?

RS: Usually it is not what you think. People normally think you write with your left hand and you do other things with your left, probably you are left-footed and it is about dexterity, about doing difficult things. But actually it is about doing very mundane things. You find very stong tendencies for left or right in things like striking a match. So, if you look at violinists they always play right-handedly. But look at what they do, the really difficult stuff they all do with their left arm. And most of them are right-handed. That is the arm that does the fingering and makes the notes and the right arm just bows away.

People always think you have right-handers and left-handers but actually it is a sort of sliding scale where you find a sort of line and at both ends you find clusters. Towards the right end and, a ten time smaller cluster but still a sizable cluster, towards the left hand. But it is not at the end it is a bit towards the centre. So you find relatively few people who do everything left-handedly or everything right-handedly.

I don’t know why you would, but is it a skill that you can learn and develop the preference for. You can become proficient with either hand. This is testified by hundreds of thousands of  people who have lost the use of their preferred arm for one reason or another. Take Nelson for instance, and there are many, many, many more. People have accidents and they just have to learn to cope with their other hand. Some have to change their writing hand and you will see that the handwriting comes back – the same letters, the same forms. It looks the same which is really crazy because the way you form the letters is definitely different. This doesn’t happen with everybody but it happens with some at least.

JB: What proportion of people are left-handed?

RS: Roughly 1 in 10 the world over. There are countries – Japan, for example – where they claim only 1 or two percent but I very much doubt whether that is really true. Japanese have a very strong cultural ban on left-handedness historically and it is still there. You see that you can very easily make your tests to show any percentage you like, it just depends on what you ask. If you go to a country where everybody has to write with their right hand and you test for writing hand you find no left-handers – it’s that easy.

JB: So the problem with statistics and measurement may make this quite difficult but if you go back though history do you still find around 1 in 10 left-handers?

RS: As far as we know, yes. It is very difficult to go back very far and then say anything about numbers because they were not counting back then. But there is interesting evidence and six months ago there was new evidence that takes you back 300,000 or 400,000 years. Now, these people probably did not count at all, but what they did do was gnaw on bones and there are researchers who can tell from the traces and damage on these bones how these people held those bones. It turns out that, if they were right, there were 10% left-handers back then too.

JB: So it has always been a part of what makes us human beings…

RS: Well even before we were human beings because these people, 300,000 years ago  weren’t people. They were something in between.

JB: From a cultural point of view, has it [left-handedness] always been recognised?

RS: You get these left-handed slingers in a biblical army. This is around the time of Solomon, lets say 1000 BC. There you see that there is no real negative connotation. These are just special people with a special ability, and it makes sense to put left-handed slingers apart as otherwise they might murder their neighbours. It’s just like putting a left-handed violinist in the middle of a symphony orchestra. Just picture that in your mind and you will see what I mean. Left-handedness, or at least left-handers, play a role in the Isis culture and that is positive too. Then later on you see these negative connotations coming into it but that has a lot to do with Christianity where you have this dichotomy between god and the devil. God is of course right and most people are right in the sense of being right-handed as well. They are the majority so they whoever is not right must be wrong and whoever is left-handed must be wrong. So here you see a whole set of symbolisms being associated with left-handedness. This includes all sorts of devilish things… anything good belongs to good so the rest belongs to the devil so left-handedness belongs to the devil. But not much was done with this, it was more a sort of an intellectual exercise, or bar talk maybe….

JB: Can you think of a time in history that, as a left-handed person, you would least like to survive?

RS: Survive?

JB: Or live.

RS: Well let’s say the twentieth century. Because before that most children didn’t go to school so they were never forced into writing right-handed. They were never punished for writing or doing things with the wrong hand and this became, maybe not coincidentally, when psychology was invented and people started  thinking that you could start making people, molding people and forming them to your desire. Then came lots of arguments that it was really bad to be left-handed. Before that it was mainly a nuisance.

JB: Is it a problem for left-handed people to live in a world designed by right-handed people?

RS: That is, strangely enough, a very right-handed question. You always see right-handers worrying about left-handers. Like this mother who had a thirteen year-old daughter and she was  very proud and told everybody, ‘oh she’s so good and so splendid and she can do all sorts of things except for one thing: When she starts slicing the bread in the kitchen I’m off! Because I just cant watch that!’ That is a right-handers problem not a left-handers problem. The right-handers problem after that is that the left-hander will maybe leave an impossible lump of bread. But left-handers are used to that, they always find these sort of wrong thing and they just turn them around. Left-handers are a nuisance for right-handed people because they leave their stuff the wrong way. When they use a knife they put it in their left and then they leave the kitchen and the right-handed owner of the kitchen comes back and .. there’s no knife… oh, no, it’s there. This type of thing is very small but it shows how right-handers experience left-handers as a nuisance. But left-handers don’t have this problem because they are used to it. Serious problems? That’s a school and writing thing, basically that is the only thing. You have small practical things, with, ladles and something that makes them pour better..

JB: A lip perhaps?

RS: They are always on the wrong side. There is the famous can-opener but I’ll let you in on a little secret: 99.9% of left-handers learn to use a can opener with their right hand, in a right-handed way, before they even realise there is a problem. Left-handed can openers don’t sell. That is why they are so hard to come by. England is just about the only country where there is more than one left-handed shop.

Rik Smits’ book, The Puzzle of Left-handedness, is out now and is published by Reaktion books.

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