Random AsidesScience

Shoulda Taken That West Turn at Albuquerque?

Contrary to what the title implies, this post isn’t going to be about Bugs Bunny. . . . Well, not entirely about Bugs Bunny.

You see, most of the old ideas that language, on its own, can limit how we think and how we perceive the world have been discarded in the 70 plus years since Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced them. For example, Whorf proffered the idea that Native American languages impose a picture of reality on speakers that is totally different from say, English speakers. He said that because of constraints of the language, speakers of Native American languages would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects, like “stone”, and actions, like “fall”. And we’ve since come to know that these notions are entirely baseless. (You can read a good article in the New York Times Magazine on that very subject here.)

But one area where there seems to be striking evidence for the influence of language on thought is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. And that area is going to be our primary playground for this post. However, as always, don’t be alarmed if I bring a lot of other toys with me to the playground.

Now, as you may recall, the line Bugs Bunny so routinely uttered in the classic Warner Brothers’ cartoons was, “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”

Bugs Bunny lost and looking at map.He specified the direction “left” each time he emerged from his rabbit hole lost to indicate the route that would have taken him to his desired destination (Pismo Beach, Coney Island, Coachella Valley, etc.). And the joke was not only entertaining, but actually made some directional sense, because generally we, the viewers, had no notion of Bugs’ supposed orientation to Albuquerque as he approached it. Was he coming in from Mexico? Was he approaching from Los Angeles? Was he en route from Canada? Was he on his way in from Brooklyn? We never knew, so missing the left turn at Albuquerque could theoretically have steered him right to the Black Forest, or to the South Pole, or to a Bull Ring in Spain, or to whatever exotic location he mistakenly ended up.

Now, when we use directions like left, right, and behind, we are using what are called egocentric coordinates. In other words, we are using directional terms derived with us (our bodies) as the focal point when describing the orientation of the world around us (e.g. the nose hair trimmer is to my left, the karaoke microphone is in front of me, my collection of erotic sand paintings is on my right, and my pretense of sophistication is in the trash can behind me). So when Bugs laments about missing that left turn at Albuquerque, it is entirely in relation to him.

But what if, by a constraint of our language, we didn’t have egocentric coordinates? What if by some quirk of English, only geographical directions were available to us?

Geographical directions are very useful, and we use them quite often, especially when orienting ourselves in wide open spaces, or on large geographical scales. We say, “The mountains are to the east of the river” or “My sister lives on the south side of town” or “Go northwest on Highway 290 out of Houston to get to Austin.”Compass

But what if geographical directions were all we had? How would we direct someone to the neighborhood gas station that’s two blocks down, and then left another two blocks, and then right for one block? How would we give someone directions to the bathroom at a dinner party? How would we explain on which side of the plate the salad fork goes? In which direction would we walk upon leaving the bank of elevators to get to the Vice President of Marketing’s office? How would we know on which side to pass the dutchie?

Communicating these ideas could be awkward. We’d have to instruct the motorist low on fuel to go west two blocks, south another two blocks, and then west again for another block to get to the gas station. The bathroom would be down the carpeted corridor, through the door most in need of a coat of paint. The salad fork would be that small-ish one on the side of the plate nearest Irene’s discarded gum. The VP of Marketing’s office would be east out of the bank of elevators, then south past the copy room, along the south-facing side of the building, three doors from the far southeast corner, across the hall from the utility closet. And I’m pretty sure someone would eventually wind up simply snatching the dutchie out of our hands while were thinking about all this.

Now, we probably could grow accustom to having only geographical directions, but the language constraints would still throw Bugs Bunny’s running joke into turmoil. Bugs would have to either keep missing the same direction at Albuquerque, say “west”, which would make his desired destination pretty much the same place every time. Or he would have to change the missed direction at Albuquerque every time, which would ruin the concept of a running joke. Either way, the gag would surely lose a little bit of its luster.

Of course, at this point, you’re probably thinking that I’ve just watched too many cartoons, and this entire post so far has been a sad by-product of the damage the brightly-colored fast-moving images have done to my cerebral cortex. And I’m really in no position to argue with you there. Except for the fact that there are indeed spoken languages in the world that have no egocentric coordinates. There are people that, in their speech, rely solely on geographical directions.

Guugu Yimidhirr PeopleThe Guugu Yimithirr, a remote Australian aboriginal people who speak the aptly named Guugu Yimithirrlanguage, are a good example. The Guugu Yimithirr language contains only geographical directions. It doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all.

Anthropologist John Haviland, and later linguist Stephen Levinson, showed the Guugu Yimithirr people have no words for “left”, “right”, “behind” or “in front of” to describe the positions of objects. In situations where an English speaker would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move your big English-speaking ass over on the couch, they’ll say “move a bit to the east”. To tell you where they left your sub-machine gun, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table”. Or they would warn you to “look out for that murderous bear just north of your face”.

Even when observing something in a two dimensional context, like on a photograph or on film, the Guugu Yimithirr use geographical directions to describe the setting based on the orientation of the picture or screen. So for example, if a grainy sasquatch on a television screen that was facing north was lumbering away from the camera after looking back over his shoulder, they would say the sasquatch was “moving southward”. Their language of orientation is different then ours, but it is no less effective.

Guugu Yimithirr is a fascinating case of a geographical language, but languages that rely on geographical coordinates are not rare. As it happens, they are scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali. And the speakers of those languages all seem to communicate quite efficiently.

And, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this system, the speakers seem to know instinctively where the cardinal directions are at every waking moment of their lives. They refer to the “west side” of something as easily as we refer to the “right side” of something. They don’t have to stop and think about it. In fact, the talent is reported to be so strong that one story relates how a speaker of Tzeltal in southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened room. Still blindfolded and presumably dizzy, he pointed out, without hesitation, the geographic directions.

Of course, there may be some embellishment to such accounts, but we can imagine taking the instantaneous referencing of the personal axis — the skill that we employ without thought when we use egocentric coordinates — and projecting that out on a broader, geographical scale. It may seem cumbersome for us, because we are conditioned to use egocentric coordinates, but were we conditioned from childhood to use geographical directions, the skill would likely come as easily and as seamlessly.

But there are indications that geographical language speakers do occasionally run into problems egocentric language speakers do not. For example, Canadian-American musicologist Colin McPheespent several years on Bali in the 1930s. McPhee often recounted the story of a young boy who demonstrated some talent for dancing. There were no dance instructors in the boy’s village, so McPhee sent him to a teacher in a different village. Both teacher and student spoke a geographical language, but after a few days, they were ready to quit. It turned out to be difficult to teach the boy any complex steps, because he simply did not understand any of the instructions. When told to take “three steps east” or “bend southwest,” he didn’t know what to do, because he had been removed from the reference points of his normal surroundings. The boy would not have had any trouble with the directions in his own village, but because the landscape in the new village was entirely unfamiliar, he became disoriented and confused.

A dancer using egocentric coordinates would never encounter such a problem.

It might be fun, however, to attempt a dance like the Hokey Pokey using geographical direction instead of egocentric. It certainly would add a whole new level of difficulty. “You put your east southeast foot in. You take your east southeast foot out. You put your east southeast foot in and you shake it all about.” Plus, since the Hokey Pokey is done in a circle, the caller would have to designate a different direction foot or hand for every person in the circle. The Hokey Pokey would take forever!

Oh, and it has been demonstrated in a series of experiments that how we perceive colors is influenced by our native tongue as well. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. So if we combine that with a geographical language, playing Twister also becomes an entirely new challenge. “East foot, low grade blue shade.” “West hand, yellow.” “West foot, middle grade blue shade.”

And we don’t even want to get into the languages that assign gender to everything.

But strange surroundings, novelty dances, party games, and Benny Hill skits aside, as we can see, where the differences may not be monumental, or extremely detrimental to cross-cultural communication, or even oppressive to one language as Whorf suggested for the Native American languages, the manner in which we describe how we are oriented in space does indeed affect how we think. The two systems of direction determine certain habits of thought. If one is obliged to convey direction in a particular way because of language constraints, he or she is going to develop habits of thought that help him or her operate more efficiently within the constraint.

And there doesn’t have to be a complete rejection of other systems, if one is aware of them, as would be the case with most English speakers. In fact, in many cases, we might find the habits of thought by a speaker due not to a constraint of language at all, but due simply to the system most predominant in a given vernacular. So for example, an English-speaking deep sea fishing guide certainly knows what “right” and “left” mean and she knows how to use the terms, but she may nonetheless demonstrate habits of thought that are more conducive to conveying geographical directions (or even nautical directions), because that is the prevailing system in her world. By contrast, an English-speaking shoe salesman certainly knows what “east” and “west” mean and he knows how to use the terms, but he may nonetheless demonstrate habits of thought that are more conducive to conveying egocentric coordinates, because that is the prevailing system in his world.

Now, it’s not clear if one system of direction is inherently better than the other. It is just not easy for us to fully conceive how geographical speakers experience the world, with cardinal directions imposed on any mental picture or memory. Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation. Do they influence the speaker’s sense of identity? Or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life? Plus, the drawbacks the geographical system encounters at close quarters, the egocentric system encounters in larger scale settings. So the concepts of better or worse may not be things we can consider, or even should consider.

But if we put the derogatory ideas of Whorf aside and examine the subject critically, we see that language does affect how we think.

And that only leaves us to ponder what Bugs Bunny’s running joke would be given a geographical language. Whatever it would be, I think Bugs would be proud that I was able to work a reference to him, the Hokey Pokey, Twister, and Benny Hill into a one post.

And as you all know, I’m nothing if not obsessed with seeking the approval of a sarcastic cartoon rabbit.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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23 Comments

  1. Excellent article! Quite thought provoking.

    One thing I wondered throughout, however, was how do you prove a language has no word for something?

    Q “Do you have a word for ‘left’?”

    A “No we have no word for ‘left’.”

    Q “Caught you!”

    A “Shazbat!”

    My Disney upbringing has taught me considerable skepticism about what I was exposed to as a child. Lemmings do not spontaneously run over cliffs and Eskimos (as we called them then) do not have umpteen words for snow. (They do have quite a number of words for ice, however, which apparently is more useful to them.)

    A language without some way to distinguish right from left would be so shockingly limited you’d think they would eventually be forced to embrace the concept. For instance how ever could they print a baseball program? Surgery would also be a nightmare.

  2. When I read that article I had to wonder if they would have come up with something for “left” and “right” had they developed shoes and gloves. Or if they wore shoes before colonists showed up, how they might ask “Honey, have you seen the shoe that goes on my currently southernmost foot?”

    Since the human body has left/right symetry, some items are just more suited to one side than the other (scissors, golf clubs, can openers). Did they have a concept of “handedness” or chirality or whatever before colonists came on the scene?

  3. As a regular swing dancer, I shudder at the thought of trying to teach/take a dance lesson (where the students typically encircle the instructors and are constantly moving around the dance floor) w/o egocentric coordinates! “Left-right-rock step” is just so much easier than: “Okay Bob, south foot than north foot; Alice, you step on your foot 5 degrees north of south first…no, no, no Steve you want to use the east-northeast foot first — wait don’t turn! Okay, now it’s your 12 degrees west of south foot. But only when standing exactly like that. Okay Mary now you…”

    But then again, maybe Lindy Hop isn’t really big in Guugu Yimithirr culture.

  4. This topic has taken up almost all of my spare cycles this afternoon. An example of the places this has pushed me: If you’re Muslim and on the exact opposite side of the earth from Mecca can you pray in any direction you like?

  5. Ignoring my need to comment on “And we don’t even want to get into the languages that assign gender to everything.” as a typical comment made by someone who doesn’t realise how grammatical gender works, or someone playing on an audience with such poor understanding… or perhaps claiming to ignore it, while displaying it in a passive-agressive manner… your post misses out on two, in my opinion, interesting observations.

    1. The vesselcentric coordinates of starboard and port as an example of a third set of coordinates, although it’s just right and left for the vessel.

    2. The concept of logical north, which I first read about in the hacker jargon files, but knew about as a concept in old Norwegian geography. The main valleys in south-east Norway run from north-south to north-west – south-east, but even in the valleys that are more west-east than north-south, up valley is considered north.

    One of the routes across the mountains runs pretty much east-west, but was called the north-man route, because that was the trading route of the people from western Norway, the north-men.

  6. With no word for left or right, a shocking number of people would die, unable to find their own ass with a flashlight and a map.

    NOTE TO HOUSTONIANS: Your city is laid out like a giant compass rose. If I say “go north”, this should not elicit confused looks, just a momentary reorientation on I-10 and 45.

  7. The stupid, it hurts. There is too much stupid in this article to waist my time pointing out each instance, but I will point out one particularly blatant effort at illogical thought:

    “But what if, by a constraint of our language, we didn’t have egocentric coordinates? What if by some quirk of English, only geographical directions were available to us?”

    What if by some quirk of English, we had no word for internet, I guess then the idea of the internet could never have existed, right?

    To even entertain this ridiculous idea, you would need to suppose that language is somehow the result of cavemen stumbling onto a box of words one day. And, now the cavemen who find these words (which they had absolutely no use for up until this time) decide to construct their entire environment, culture and lifestyle around the limitations of their box of words.

    If you find a tribe in the outback (without written language) that hunts, fishes far out at sea, and travels long distances in the desert and also happens to have a language that orients primarily in terms of cardinal direction, I can’t think of a more impossibly backwards explanation for that phenomena than to conclude that some structural limitation in language preempted and caused their cognitive notions of direction and not the their culture, lifestyle, environment, etc., that influenced the structure of their language.

  8. @lings:

    The stupid, it hurts. There is too much stupid in in any person who still uses that line to bother with, but I will point out one particularly blatant chunk of stupid:

    What if by some quirk of English, we had no word for internet, I guess then the idea of the internet could never have existed, right?

    Well, you might guess that, because apparently you are an idiot. But no one else would, because no one else has confused a lack of words for egocentric coordinates with a lack of understanding of the concepts. That’s a line of reasoning Whorf used 70 some years ago, and I’m pretty sure I said at the outset that those notions are entirely baseless.

    I said “by a constraint of language”, not by a “constraint of intellect”. Some languages have no words for left, right, behind, or in front of, but the speakers of those languages have no problem with the concepts of left, right, behind, or in front of.

    Here’s the deal, hot shot. The next time you feel like you want to criticize someone on the Internet, just walk away. Seriously, save yourself and everyone else around you some time and aggrevation. Walk away.

    But if you can’t walk away. If your little ego won’t let you play nice and have a civil discusison. Read caredfully first. Try to get the full flavor of what you’re reading. Learn the concepts of hyperbole, irony, humor, and hypothetical. You might end up enjoying yourself.

  9. Sam,

    I was going to discuss some of the difficulties that I encountered when acting as a flight instructor. A few cultures/languages do have linguistic constraints on the concepts of direction. As you can imagine, this presented some unique challenges when teaching someone to fly an airplane, particularly with regard to navigation and instrument flying.

    Instead, I find it more satisfying to comment on the manner in which you handle ill-mannered posters: It simply reminds me why we get along so well.

    Despite your incorrect orientation to the Red River, that is.

    -J

  10. I’ve been seeing this topic come up a lot lately in various places and it makes me happy :)

    There are other fun examples too, such as that young children who have not yet acquired the terms for “left” and “right” are about as good as rats (that is, not very good) at using visual cues to orient themselves in their environment. But once they do learn their “left” and “right” they quickly become as good as adults.

    Adults who know ASL are better at mental rotation and a host of other visual skills (like directional movement detection) than adults who do not. Children with specific language impairments are also slower at mental rotation than children without.

    Like it was said in the article, no one who studies language-cognition relations seriously argues for Whorf’s hypothesis that people whose language lack some construction have no concept of it. People build into their language what is needed in their language community– if you don’t use scissors, or perform surgery you might not need “left” and “right” but if you decide to develop a nifty communication and information sharing system using electronics and electricity, you might need to invent a name like “internet” for it.

    Exactly HOW language has its effect is still an open question. There are probably different ways that language affects how we think about things, depending on what aspect of language (lexical, grammatical) and what kind of cognition. One reason that people using absolute directional terms to talk about space are good at keeping themselves oriented in their own environment is that they have a lot of practice doing that, just to speak correctly. But language probably works in other ways as well what we’re just beginning to sort out.

    Fun reading! Keep up the interesting topics!

  11. @Amberjoy:

    Thanks!

    And good points.

    Exactly HOW language has its effect is still an open question.

    This exctly what interests me most; the mannaer in which language effects how we think.

    It seems the “habits of thought” I mentioned in the post are different for those speaking a language that uses primarily geographical direction than those who use primarily egocentric direction (or perhaps those who might use both equally). The habits to condition oneself for either suggest a difference in thought process, even if minor, and even if specific to spatial orientation.

  12. «You see, most of the old ideas that language, on its own, can limit how we think and how we perceive the world have been discarded in the 70 plus years since Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced them.»
    Sorry, but that’s not true. Willhelm von Humboldt introduced that idea and he died more than half a century before Whorf was born. It is often today called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis because Whorf did the most extensive early work on the theory, building on Sapir’s (his teacher’s) work, but claiming that the linguistic relativity limits how we can perceive the world is not in line with what Sapir or Whorf said, but the somewhat ridiculous claims that came within the next decades.
    The broadest claims made justified by Sapir-Whorf are complete BS, but there was somewhat of a revival in linguistics from the 1980s–present of so-called weak Sapir-Whorf, which is essentially, what you’re talking about here. (That language constraints affect the way people conceptualize the world, not that it places an absolute limit on how one can conceive or understand ideas.

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