Your Language Shapes Your Concept of Space

I wanted to share something interesting I found out today in an essay called You Are What You Speak by linguist Guy Deutscher that I read for my anthropology class.  He has some very interesting things to say about language and how it shapes the way we think about gender, time, and our feelings about inanimate objects, but the thing that caught my attention was in the concept of spatial relationships.  It never really occurred to me that there could be a different orientation system than the one we use, but it turns out that there is.  When we think of small-scale directions, we orient ourselves in terms of right, left, forward, & backward.  This is called egocentric – our directional axis is based around our bodies and rotates with us; we are literally the center of everything.  Some cultures use a geographic orientation system – their languages refer to EVERYTHING in terms of cardinal directions, and actually contain no concept of left or right.  ‘Walk three blocks east, turn north, then it will be the first house to the west,’ isn’t really that crazy.  It gets crazy when someone says ‘I left my keys on the north end of the dresser on the west side of the room,’ or ‘Scooch a little to the south,’ or ‘There’s a bee to the east of your head.’  THAT’S WHAT THEY DO.  Not only do they talk this way, they REMEMBER things this way.  Deutscher writes about a native speaker of such a language telling a story about his boat being capsized in the midst of some sharks and swimming back to shore:

“Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on.”

People whose native languages are geographic-based have INSANE senses of direction.  Put them inside, outside, in a cave, spin them around, they can still tell which way is which.  They just KNOW, because their languages force them to know, at all times.  Just the way that we know left from right (most of us, I still struggle with this one….).

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