There is a theory that the structure of a language affects to a greater or lesser amount the speaker’s “world view so that a people’s perceptions are relative to their spoken language”. It may be the case that language has evolved to reflect existing perceptions and practices.
I have recently come across some articles which may support these theories in as far as they concern the spatial and navigational skills among some indigenous peoples in the Cape York Peninsula of Northeast Queensland, Australia. (Pointy bit at the top right of Australia for less geographically aware English speakers). These are compared to skillsets and language in a modern urban setting,
Indigenous culture and language
The Guugu Ymithirr and Thaayore peoples use a less egocentric description of spatial relations then we as English speakers might – our left, right, front or back, ahead or behind are replaced by cardinal compass directions. For example, you may be told “there is a fly on your Northwest leg”.
Speakers of the two languages are reported to always be aware of their direction of facing. For these groups the “passage of time was intimately tied to the cardinal directions”. When asked to arrange a sequential series of cards into time order, for example a series showing a man ageing or a crocodile growing, they organise them east to west – aligned with the daily passage of the sun whereas an English speaker would probably organise them in the opposite direction, from left to right in the direction of reading.
These Aboriginal groups develop an internal compass with 16 cardinal points which is imprinted at a very young age and results in exceptional navigational skills. It could be argued that with such well-developed internal compass the need for left, right and similar words in their language would not be required.
In his book The Songlines, the author Bruce Chatwin describes the Australian Aboriginal traditional belief that invisible pathways, remembered, in song, criss-cross Australia as tracks that connect communities and mark ancient boundaries. Aboriginals pass down the songs which also revealed the creation of the land, the secrets of its past and enabled navigation along ancestral routes.
Western culture and language
In my own UK childhood, as a ‘townie’ less intimately connected to my natural environment and a product of the English language and UK education system, learning cardinal points came some years later than reading and writing, while in the boy scouts remembering the cardinal points was assisted by language or quasi rhyme. I learned that WEST was to the LEFT of north, it was sometimes necessary to put the thumb and forefinger of my right (writing) hand together as if holding a pen as a prompt to remembering which hand was right.
Estimating time by the passage and direction of travel of the sun across the sky I also often find the need to go back to basics and refer to a hymn which was occasionally sang in morning assembly in school:
“Ye that have spent the silent night in sleep and quiet REST, and joy to see the cheerful light that rises in the EAST.”
With this in mind it becomes a very simple matter to remember that the sun rises in the horizontal cardinal direction that doesn’t rhyme with rest.
Also in the boy scouts we learned to determine north and south using an analogue wristwatch and the sun if visible. Rotate the horizontal watch until the hour hand points to the sun, bisecting the angle between the 12 o’clock mark on the watch face and the hour hand on your watch marks north. An alternative suggested method was to observe the mossy side of trees.
In order to be prepared for every eventuality I recommend travelling with such a wristwatch, compass, map and GPS and/or smartphone.
At sea the cardinal points are a constant but the terms port and starboard are used instead of left and right, looking forward towards the bow, then port is left (both contain four letters – a useful aide memoire).
The modern world – GPS and Satnav
Global positioning Systems (GPS) use satellite signals to determine accurately one’s location in the world.
A recent social media post suggested that a GPS device for ‘seniors’ had been developed which provided a route to a destination and in addition a reminder of the trip’s purpose. I suspect and regret that the post was intended as a joke and that such a useful device is still some way off. Along with a computer or device that accepts the key I meant to press rather than the one I did I fear that artificial intelligence has not yet been able to provide such practical, useful, everyday applications. These are the sort of developments I could pitch with enthusiasm to a Dragons Den.
GK Chesterton (author of the navigationally challenged Rolling English Road) might usefully have used a ‘seniors GPS’. He was notoriously absent minded, so much so that he is reported to have once sent a telegram to his wife from a railway station, saying: “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?”
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