Saturday, June 27, 2009

There's an ant on your southeast leg

[...] Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the
western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because
of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead
of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as
commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the
Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use
cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define
space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things
like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the
north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking
such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or
else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre
is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like "
Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way
you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello." [...]

From HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK?, by Lera
Boroditsky, professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic
systems at Stanford University:

<http://edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html>