Thursday, July 1, 2010

Where on Earth Would You Rather Be?

We human beings usually don’t like to lose our orientation. We want to know where we are; and we want to know where things that are important to us are located too.

The two primary reference points used in the English language are ‘here’ and ‘there’, or, by analogy, the demonstratives ‘this/these’ and ‘that/those’. This differentiation depends solely on whether what's being mentioned is near or away from the speaker.

However, other languages have more reference points used in dealing with space. For example, Sinhala has four of them: ‘මෙතන (here – near the speaker)’, ඔතන (there – near the listener)’, අතන (there – a place the speaker and the listener can see)’ and එතන (there – a place the speaker and the listener can’t see)’. The corresponding demonstratives ‘මේ’, ඔය’, අර’ and ’ also being in use, here you find a system that’s far more descriptive than the English one. The Northwest American language Tlingit, on the other hand, is said to have demonstratives that mean ‘right here’, ‘nearby’, ‘over there’ and ‘over there, far away’.

Then there’s the possibility in English of indicating the location of something in relation to that of something else which is already known: ‘They’re in front of the house’, ‘It’s on the left of the railway station’ etc. This sort of reference also is speaker-specific since all this is relative to the speaker’s position. Only the directions involving compass points, such as ‘ten kilometres north of’ and ‘to the southwest of’, can be taken as absolute values, but they're rather found in formal descriptions.

On the contrary, the Aboriginal tribe Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia allegedly uses only compass directions even when talking about everyday affairs. Though spatial references like ‘My wife was standing to the north of our home’ may sound a bit funny to us, it’s claimed that their life-long practice with absolute positions gives the Kuuk Thaayorre quite an edge over English speakers in complex navigational tasks. 

(Image credit: tanetahi

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