August 27th, 2010

if I were me

My north is your left

I'm reading this article (recommended by my old linguistics prof on Facebook--man, the world is different than it once was), and there's a whole bit about Guugu Yimithirr--a language that, when it was discovered by linguists, turned all their assumptions about language on end. Particularly, Guugu Yimithirr doesn't have "behind" and "in front of" but "to the north" and "to the south."

This paragraph in particular caught my eye:

Psychological experiments have also shown that under certain circumstances, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr-style languages even remember “the same reality” differently from us. There has been heated debate about the interpretation of some of these experiments, but one conclusion that seems compelling is that while we are trained to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory, speakers of geographic languages are trained not to do so. One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.

"You" doesn't mean "me," friend. Geographic relations are everything to me. I definitely see two different rooms.

Maybe this is why I get lost so much, by other people's criteria, but not my own. I'm not LOST. I know I'm not in the right place, and I know where north is. How is that lost?

I mean, I definitely still do "behind" and "in front" like an English speaker does, but in the greater world, I think by direction. I'm always correcting people who point southwest and say, "You know that bread shop over there?" And then I repoint and say, "You mean the bread shop north of us?"

I attribute this to my grandfather, who defined not lost by the same criteria I do, and didn't often get lost... and to my 3rd grade teacher, who spent ten minutes at the start of every day making us face the different cardinal directions and then point blindly to the other directions when she called them out.