[Lingtyp] Languages with connotations for 'left' and 'right'

Mark Post mark.post at sydney.edu.au
Wed Apr 3 00:56:45 UTC 2019

The devil's always in the details when positing putatively biologically- and/or cognitively-conditioned universals, especially in the use of terms like "many" and "most". If we admit the existence of *any* lgs that don't participate in the universal - and there certainly appear to be at least some traditional/small-scale languages that show no sign whatsoever of left<>negative / right<>positive associations - then it's hard if not impossible to exclude cultural transmission in cases where we find it (even when such transmission might be so early that it's hard to reconstruct). For example, the left hand > dirty connotation spreads rapidly into cultures that show no linguistic sign of a pre-existing association, and once that happens, presumably the language can eventually evolve to reflect it. Sure, there might be a potential for bias implied by the biological facts, but if so it doesn't appear to have operated directly on the forms of languages (as opposed to via secondary cultural transmission) in a uniform way.

------ Original Message ------
From: "Claude Hagège" <claude-hagege at wanadoo.fr<mailto:claude-hagege at wanadoo.fr>>
To: "\"': Lingtyp '\"@listserv.linguistlist.org" <': Lingtyp '@listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:':%20Lingtyp%20'@listserv.linguistlist.org>>
Cc: "lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org" <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>>
Sent: 3/04/2019 3:15:09 AM
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Languages with connotations for 'left' and 'right'

Dear Horia, Danny and all,

         Coming back to the « left/right » issue (positive vs negative connotations) of early March, it may be useful to stress that standard Chinese  (普通话 pǔtōnghuà) uses 左右 zuǒ-yòu («left-right » : in this order, not the reverse) as an « adverb », mostly with the meaning « approximately », « about », and also with the meaning « anywhere », in expressions like 左右逢源 (zuǒ-yòu féngyuán) « to meet good opportunities everywhere (as by serendipity) ».
         Thus, the terms for « right » and « left » may be associated in expressions that transcend their positive/negative connotations by subsuming them in general spatial, or metaphorically spatial, expressions. I think there are comparable expressions in other South-East Asian languages, such as Thai or Vietnamese.



De : Lingtyp [mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org>] De la part de LIU Danqing
Envoyé : vendredi 1 mars 2019 03:12
À : lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>; Horia Calugareanu
Objet : Re: [Lingtyp] Languages with connotations for 'left' and 'right'

Dear Horia and all:

  In varieties of Chinese, there is obviously an asymmetry between 'left' and 'right'. The word for 'left ' often has negative connotations while the word for 'right' doesn't have any positive connotations.

 According to the Grand Dictionary of Contemporary Chinese Dialects, which is based on 40 dialects, the word for left (zuo, Tone 3, Chinese characters 左) has negative meanings in 6 dialects, and compound words with this word have negative meanings in other several dialects, but none of the dialects has the word for right (you, Tone 4, Chinese characters 右)and its compounds with positive meanings.

The word for left denotes:

(Yangzhou in Jiangsu) extreme, radical (not in political sense);
(Wuhan in Hubei) incorrect, wrong;
(Chengdu in Sichuan) out of tune
(Guiyang in Guizhou) incorrect, wrong
(Changsha in Hunan) mistaking, wrong
(Fuzhou in FUjian) improper, dishonest

In addition, in some Wu dialects near Shanghai and Suzhou, the word for left, 'tsi', is of the meaning 'against the main trend or inclination'.

  Danny Liu

On Friday, March 1, 2019, 2:11:38 AM GMT+8, Horia Calugareanu <horia.calugareanu at gmail.com<mailto:horia.calugareanu at gmail.com>> wrote:

Dear all,

Thanks so much for all your responses.
I am sorry for not explaining more of the context of the research topic. I am looking precisely at which means of explanation is more suitable for the left-right connotation phenomenon.

The effect seems to be indeed statistically more present at the linguistic level in areas of influence of the Abrahamic religions, as Jürgen Bohnemeyer suggested. However, superstitions and traditional religions in most cultures also have some sort of bias against the left hand, with right-handers forming an overwhelming majority in all recorded cultures, and amounting to 90% around the world, as Alec Coupe pointed out. As suggested by most of our colleagues, the distinction is present in many places with no historical links to Christianity or Islam (Northern Australia, the Amazon, Africa, South-East Asia), so I tend to believe the historical/regional explanation must be ruled out in favour of the cognitive and anthropological ones.

In studies on handedness across cultures, Hertz (1909) and McManus (2002) have suggested that the right-left binary has also often correlated to other binaries such as life-death, sacred-profane, male-female, healthy-ill, heavens-earth etc.

Hertz, Robert, La preeminence de la main droite. 1909; English translation: Needham, Rodney and Claudia. Death and the Right Hand. 1960.
McManus, Chris, Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures. 2002

Best wishes,
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