Tuesday, 7 September 2010


In an article in the New York Times, I recently heard about how there can be linguistic variance in how people experience space within different cultures. Western culture is egocentric with our perception of the environment around us viewed relative to our own bodily position in the world. Some cultures however utilise geography to explain their experiences. Put simply, we tend to describe space through left and right, forward and backwards, which is always dependent upon where we stand in relation to an object (turn around, and what was left will become right) whereas, in the Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, the people refer to directions via North, South, etc and not in relation to themselves.

Quite apart from the rather pleasant thought that non egocentric cultures even exist, the development of language that explicitly recognises space in wider terms results in some extremely interesting consequences. The people speaking Guugu Yimithirr, since their everyday experiences are founded upon a broader awareness of the relationships between places, and have learned from an early age to be continually aware of the cardinal directions of things, have a seemingly superhuman navigational ability. They continually and unconsciously know the relative position of a given thing/place etc and are able to navigate without compass or map in mist, on featureless terrain and appear to have an in-built compass. 

An analogy used in the article was that for you or I, if we were to enter a hotel where every room was decorated out in the same way, all the rooms would to all intents appear the same, regardless of the direction the room faced. For a Guugu Yimithirr speaker, a room on one side of a corridor would appear in marked contrast to the opposite door, where everything would be perceived in completely different orientation.

When recounting a story, the Guugu Yimithirr teller gesticulates towards actual directions; if he/she were to retell the story facing in a different direction, the gestures would still point to the same geographical direction regardless of their change in position.

Even more remarkable is that if you or I were to point towards our chest, we would be understood to be referring to ourselves. For the speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, they are simply pointing in the direction that runs through their own body.

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