Spaciality and Language

Aboriginal rock painting, Kakadu, Aust. Credit: Thomas Schoch

As a follow on to my earlier post on human spaciality, Stanford assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems Lera Boroditsky has written a piece on Edge that explores how individual languages shape the way speakers think about space, time, colors and objects. She demonstrates that language has a fundamental impact on thought, “unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”

One of her examples was particularly provocative to me given my interest in aboriginal art and what it represents to its makers. (To read my postings on aboriginal art and culture, do a search here for “aboriginal art”.)

Boroditsky’s example:

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.

To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they’ll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role.3 So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don’t use words like “left” and “right”? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

Thank you to Steve Durbin at Art & Perception for sending me the link to this article.

3 Replies to “Spaciality and Language”

  1. This is fascinating, Deborah, and also makes sense. To people who live in vastness and need to always orient themselves outside, the movement of the sun must determine their sense of both spatiality and time. i understand directing people using north east south and west as words for direction, as i do this myself, and am attuned always to the movement of the sun during the day and operate without a watch quite well due to the direction and length of shadows. Have been like this since childhood.
    Thanks for this post. it really made me think. G

  2. That was most interesting!
    Greatly appreciate your kindness to share this with us.

  3. People in the US mid-west orient themselves by direction, probably because many of the roads and towns were laid out in grids and the land itself is parceled out on directional grids. But they don’t have a spatially based language, mostly just English. So there isn’t much carry-over in language and conception to other areas of existence, such as aging. This “lack” perhaps validates the researcher’s findings with the cards.

    I think language ties itself into learning, so, generally speaking, we are all born with similar capacities, but the language forces us to see the world in ways specific to the words we use. Much like the speakers of tonal languages, who have perfect pitch something like 75% of the time. English speakers will exhibit perfect pitch about 15% of the time.

    The deep structures of language are basic but extremely flexible. However, they quickly get turned to directions by the language and cultures they are habituated to.

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