How Absolute Space and Sense of Direction Affect Different Languages

Speakers of spatially absolute languages know north from south at nearly every waking moment. This reality suggests the human mind is more malleable, and can be less ego-centric, than we once thought.

By Cody Cottier
Jul 25, 2023 1:00 PM
A public compass in Kaluga, Russia
(Credit: PhotoChur/Shutterstock)

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English, like the vast majority of languages, is spatially egocentric. We speak of bending over backward, walking forward, turning left and right — whenever we describe space, we do so with relation to ourselves.

Grammatically, we take for granted our own centrality. But not all languages operate this way.

If you were to ask the way to the supermarket in Hopevale, Australia, the Aboriginal residents wouldn’t dream of offering a confusing series of “lefts” and “rights.” In their native tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, you can expect something more like, “Go south until you pass a big eucalyptus, then 100 meters southeast.” Woe to those without a compass.

People in such cultures (Guugu Yimithirr is one of a select few) view the world and describe it not as something that extends outward from them, but as a realm of fixed geographical coordinates beyond the mobile self. In other words, rather than thinking of body-relative space, they embrace an absolute space based on cardinal directions.


Read More: How Language Shapes Our Understanding of Reality


Absolute Space in Application

To clarify the difference, imagine playing Hamlet on a revolving stage. If you’re a native English speaker, you’ll notice no change in the relative positions of the other actors and props. Throughout the platform’s rotation, the clown remains in front and left of you, poor Yorick’s skull in your right hand.

But a Guugu Yimithirr speaker might be constantly adjusting — the clown northwest, now west, the skull in their eastern, now northeastern, hand. (Most English speakers need a diagram just to set the scene.)

Oriented Everywhere

These speakers accomplish this orientation by means of a deep spatial sense that, for anyone raised with an egocentric language, borders on superhuman.

According to one anecdote, a man from southern Mexico’s Tzeltal culture (descended from the Maya) was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a dark room. Afterward, dazed and still unable to see, he effortlessly pointed out the agreed-upon direction.

Such feats astonish outsiders, but for the speakers themselves, it’s second nature.

Environmental Awareness from Birth

Conditioned from infancy to be continuously alert to environmental clues (the position of sun and stars, wind direction, notable features of the landscape) and their own movement, they develop the unconscious ability to perform what cognitive linguist Stephen Levinson calls a “background computation of orientation and direction.”

All their lives they’ve had to know precisely where they are to express even the simplest ideas. Naturally, the skill grows strong enough to meet all manner of settings and circumstances — indoor, outdoor, in a field or forest, standing still or dancing, their grasp on space remains intact.

Universal Sense of Direction

Levinson recalls how a group of Guugu Yimithirr men gestured casually in the direction of territorial boundaries while driving a winding road at night. “This orientational surety,” he writes, “is considered trivial.”

Their legendary talents don't depend solely on local terrain. It’s not as if they’ve simply learned the direction of a few mountains and rivers near their village and use that knowledge to calculate all other directions.

They may take advantage of landmarks, but, like flesh-and-bone lodestones, they truly seem to have a bead on true north (plus east, south and west). Unlike the rest of the world, however, they place no special importance on magnetic phenomena regarding their compass.


Read More: Your Navigation Skills Depend on Where You Grew Up


Space in Memory

It’s not enough to know which way is which in the present moment; speakers of a spatially absolute language also have to be able to talk about the past.

Because memories are often laden with directions, they must store that information mentally.

While an English speaker (or, better yet: thinker) might simply visualize a scene and say, “the table was on my left,” recalling only its position in the room relative to the self, a spatially absolute speaker would remember it was at the western edge of the house.

By coincidence, one Guugu Yimithirr man was filmed twice, years apart, telling the same story of the time his boat overturned in shark-infested waters. Though he’s facing different directions in each video, his descriptions remain precisely the same, his gestures properly oriented: He jumped off to the west, his companion to the east, they swam to the beach and turned around to look north, where they saw a massive fin beelining for the boat.

The Direction of Time

In some cases, spatial absoluteness seems to structure not only memories of the past, but also the conception of time in general.

Though time is invisible, we invent ways to visualize it.

In English, when we draw a timeline, we represent it as moving left to right. There’s no intrinsic reason for this; it appears to be merely a byproduct of the fact that we write from left to right. Other cultures view time as moving right to left, front to back, or back to front.

The common theme is that in all these cases, time (like space) is described in relation to ourselves, to our bodies. But, defying expectations once again, another Aboriginal culture represents time in an absolute sense.

When Time Follows the Sun

The Pormpuraawans of northern Queensland speak Kuuk Thaayorre, a language that values cardinal directions as much as Guugu Yimithirr. Their idiomatic greeting is, “Where are you going?” An appropriate response might be, “Northwest.” Thus, as cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky writes, “if you do not know which way is which, you literally cannot get past hello.”

To test their understanding of time, Boroditsky gave Pormpuraawans a set of shuffled cards, each depicting one stage in a temporal progression (the same man at different ages, for example). She found that, when asked to order the cards, they would do so differently depending on which direction they were facing. Given the same task, English speakers invariably arranged earlier events to the left and later ones to the right.

Pormpuraawans laid them out in all directions. But, haphazard as their reasoning seems, the results show a dominant trend from east to west, following the trajectory of the sun. When facing south, they’re likely to lay the cards left to right; when facing north, they typically reverse the order, accounting for the change in orientation.


Read More: How Your Internal Compass Works


Challenging a Norm in Human Science

Based on the languages with which they were most familiar, linguists and psychologists assumed for decades that the human brain was predisposed to perceive space relative to the body in which it sits.

Since the early 1990s, however, research into spatially absolute languages has shown the mind to be far more malleable, even with regard to such a fundamental aspect of experience.

The Benefits of Absolute Space

For many purposes, absolute space offers a beneficial and more sophisticated solution to directional challenges. For starters: Imagine an alternate reality where you never have to clarify whose “left” is being referred to.

More aptly, if someone loses track of how many turns they’ve made in an unfamiliar place, an English thinker would be dead lost in an instant, sent crawling back to Google maps or trying to retrace each turn. That’s not an issue with absolute space orientation.

This difference illustrates one of many ways the natural environment is paramount for some Indigenous groups. As Levinson put it, languages like Guugu Yimithirr, Kuuk Thaayorre and Tzeltal connect speakers to an “enduring traditional preoccupation” — the landscape in which they live, and its hidden meanings.


Read More: Your Native Language May Wire the Brain in Unique Ways


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