NY Times: Geographic Languages

September 1, 2010askory No Comments »

Three separate people in the course of several days sent me a link to a NY Times article about how language may shape one’s experiences. In particular, the article discusses geographic languages: languages which do not use the egocentric terms left, right, forward and back to describe relative position. Instead, they use the cardinal directions at all times. This has some interesting ramifications on speakers’ spacial perception:

In order to speak a [geographic] language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

For me, this raises two interesting questions about how we sense direction:

  • By carefully controlling environmental stimuli, would it be possible to determine exactly which stimuli are being used by these geographic language speakers?
  • Can someone who did not grow up with a geographic language from birth use the North Paw to learn to use those same stimuli, thus eventually obviating the need to wear the North Paw at all?

Those of us who have worn a North Paw for extended periods of time find it difficult even just to explain what it means to “feel North”, but we would likely have no trouble explaining it to a speaker of a geographic language. As the article says, “they simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals.” This article gives me very strong reason to to believe that learning to feel North by wearing a North Paw may come about much faster if done in the company of others. Externalizing, and explicitly referring to, your new sense of absolute direction would very likely reinforce the neural connections that you are developing. I suspect it would be very powerful to use cardinal instead of egocentric directions in everyday language with someone else who would understand you, and this would let you develop your new sense much faster.

Link: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?


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