Spacial Relations

One of the textbooks for my Endangered Language class, Dying Words, is simply blowing my mind. I thought I’d share here some interesting facts I’ve come across, just to prove that reading for class can sometimes be worth it :)

There are some (actually many!) languages in the world that don’t use relative terms such as right or left  to describe spatial relations, but instead use an absolutist system. This refers to cardinal directions: north, south, east, west. So instead of saying, “My car is the one on the right,” you would say “Mine is the eastern-most car,” or what have you.

This means that speakers of these languages are always intrinsically spatially oriented. Linguists did a study to test whether speakers of these languages had a better internal sense of direction than those that spoke a language that uses relative terms, such as English or Spanish. They went out into the middle of the Australian bush and asked speakers of the language Guugu Yimithirr to point to the direction of various well-known locations, and then checked these responses with a compass. The subjects pointed in the right direction 96 percent of the time. Automatically. They did this in multiple studies, including in closed examination rooms with no windows. I hope your jaw just dropped.

Think how hard it would be to learn this type of language, coming from an English background (or any other language that uses a relative system). The author explains the difficult process of learning Kayardild (a language indigenous to Australia, with only 23 speakers left!). He had to be acutely aware of his surroundings at every moment, because even the greeting in this language touched upon spacial relations: there is no word for hello, and instead a typical first encounter might be something like, “Where are you going?” “I’m going northward.”

And here I am, thinking it’s nearly impossible to memorize all the genders and cases in German. Now I see I have it easy–just imagine if I had to whip out a compass any time I wanted to say hello to someone!