Contrary to what the titleÂ implies, this post isn’t going to be about Bugs Bunny. . . . Well, not entirely about Bugs Bunny.
You see,Â most of the old ideas that language,Â on its own, can limitÂ how we think and how weÂ perceiveÂ the worldÂ have been discarded in the 70 plus years since Benjamin Lee Whorf introduced them.Â For example,Â WhorfÂ proffered the ideaÂ thatÂ 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 â€œstoneâ€, and actions, like â€œfallâ€. And we’ve since come toÂ know that theseÂ notions are entirely baseless.Â (You can readÂ a good article in the New York Times Magazine on that very subject here.)
But one area whereÂ there seems to beÂ striking evidence for the influence of language on thought is the language of space â€” how we describe the orientation of the world around us. And that area is going to be our primary playground for this post.Â However, as always,Â 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 shouldaÂ taken thatÂ left turn at Albuquerque.”
He specified the direction “left” each time heÂ emerged from his rabbit holeÂ 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,Â but actually made some directional sense, becauseÂ 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 couldÂ theoretically have steered him right to the Black Forest, or to theÂ South Pole, or to a Bull Ring in Spain, or to whateverÂ 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 theÂ focal pointÂ when describing the orientation of the world around us (e.g. the nose hair trimmer isÂ to my left,Â the karaoke microphoneÂ is in front of me, my collection of erotic sand paintings is on my right, andÂ my pretense of sophisticationÂ is in the trash can behind me). So when Bugs laments about missing that left turn at Albuquerque,Â 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 geographicalÂ 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 “MyÂ sister lives on theÂ south side of town” or “Go northwest on Highway 290Â out of Houston to get to Austin.”
But what if geographical directions were all we had? How would we direct someone to theÂ neighborhood gas stationÂ that’s two blocks down, and thenÂ left another two blocks,Â and then rightÂ forÂ one block?Â How would we give someone directions to the bathroom at a dinner party? How would we explain on which side of the plateÂ the salad fork goes? In which direction wouldÂ we walk upon leaving the bank of elevators to get to theÂ Vice President of Marketing’sÂ office? How would we know on which side to pass the dutchie?
Communicating these ideasÂ could be awkward. We’d have toÂ instruct the motorist low on fuelÂ to go west two blocks, south another two blocks, and then west again for another block to get to the gas station. The bathroomÂ would beÂ down theÂ 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,Â then south past the copy room, along the south-facingÂ side of the building, three doors from the far southeast corner, across the hall from the utility closet. And I’m pretty sureÂ someone would eventually wind up simplyÂ snatching the dutchie out of our hands while were thinking about all this.
Now, we probably couldÂ grow accustom toÂ having onlyÂ 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 areÂ people that, in their speech,Â rely solely on geographical directions.
The Guugu Yimithirr, a remote Australian aboriginalÂ people who speakÂ the aptly namedÂ Guugu Yimithirrlanguage, are a goodÂ example. The Guugu Yimithirr language contains only geographical directions.Â It doesnâ€™t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all.
Anthropologist John Haviland, and later linguist Stephen Levinson, showed the Guugu Yimithirr peopleÂ have no words for “left”, “right”, “behind” or “in front of” to describe the positions of objects.Â In situations where anÂ 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, theyâ€™ll say “move a bit to the east”. To tell you where they left your sub-machine gun, theyâ€™ll say, “I leftÂ it on the southern edge of the western table”. Or they would warn you to “look out for thatÂ 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 YimithirrÂ use geographicalÂ directions to describe the setting based on the orientation of the picture or screen. So for example, ifÂ aÂ grainy sasquatchÂ on a television screen that was facing north wasÂ lumbering away fromÂ the camera after looking back over his shoulder, theyÂ would sayÂ theÂ sasquatchÂ was “moving southward”. Their language of orientation is different then ours, but it is no less effective.
Guugu YimithirrÂ is aÂ fascinating case of a geographical language, but languages that rely onÂ geographical coordinatesÂ are not rare. As it happens,Â 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,Â the speakers seem to know instinctively where the cardinal directions are at every waking momentÂ of theirÂ 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 andÂ think about it. In fact, the talent is reported to be so strong that oneÂ story relates how a speaker of TzeltalÂ 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, butÂ we canÂ imagine taking the instantaneous referencing of the personal axis — the skillÂ that we employÂ without thought when we use egocentric coordinates —Â 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.
ButÂ 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 whoÂ demonstratedÂ some talent for dancing. There were no dance instructors in the boyâ€™s village, so McPheeÂ 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.Â It turned out to beÂ difficultÂ to teach the boy any complex steps, because he simply did not understand any of the instructions. When told to take â€œthree steps eastâ€ or â€œbend southwest,â€ he didnâ€™t know what to do, because he had been removed from the reference points of his normal surroundings. The boy would not have hadÂ 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, andÂ it has been demonstrated in a series of experiments that how we perceive colorsÂ is influenced byÂ ourÂ 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.”Â “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 skitsÂ 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 asÂ WhorfÂ 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 aÂ 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 beÂ a completeÂ rejection of other systems, if one is aware of them, as would be the case with most English speakers. In fact,Â in many cases, we might find the habits of thought byÂ a speakerÂ due not to a constraint of language at all, but dueÂ simplyÂ to the system most predominant inÂ a givenÂ 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 geographicalÂ directions (or even nautical directions), because that is the prevailing system in her world. By contrast, an English-speakingÂ shoe salesmanÂ 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 thanÂ the other. It is just not easy for us to fully conceive howÂ geographical speakers experience the world, with cardinal directions imposed on any mental pictureÂ or memory. Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation. DoÂ they influence the speakerâ€™s sense of identity? Or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life? Plus, the drawbacks theÂ geographical systemÂ encounters at close quarters, the egocentric systemÂ 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.