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

Jonathon Lum lum.jonathon at gmail.com
Fri Mar 1 04:54:27 UTC 2019

Dear Horia,

I find this is a very interesting question. I have a few thoughts:

   - The association of the left hand with bodily functions (as discussed
   by David and Juergen) is also strong in India and much of South Asia more
   broadly (e.g. the Maldives). Of course, as in Indonesia, there has been a
   lot of contact with Islam in these places, but it seems likely the taboo
   preceded Islam. And as David says, the phenomenon can certainly co-exist
   with widespread use of geocentric frames of reference, which has been
   documented in many South Asian languages (or at least, speech communities).
   - Re Juergen's point about Yucatec Maya - it seems that in a number of
   languages certain compass direction terms (usually 'north' and 'south') are
   polysemous with and/or derive from terms for 'left' and 'right'. For some
   further examples see: Brown, Cecil H. 1983. “Where Do Cardinal Direction
   Terms Come From?” *Anthropological Linguistics*, 25(2). 121–161.
   - Probably beyond the scope of your question, but geocentric spatial
   terms also frequently have various positive and negative connotations,
   often connected with religion but also sometimes with danger, dirtiness, or
   other associations. If you are interested in this I would recommend looking
   at some of Pierre Dasen and colleagues' work on Balinese and some other
   languages including Hindi. From memory, they also briefly discuss taboos
   surrounding the left hand:Dasen, Pierre R. & Ramesh Chandra Mishra.
   2010. *Development of geocentric spatial language and cognition an
   eco-cultural perspective.* Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University
   Wassmann, Jurg & Pierre R. Dasen. 1998. *Balinese Spatial Orientation:
   Some Empirical Evidence of Moderate Linguistic Relativity*. The Journal
   of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4(4). 689–711.


On Fri, 1 Mar 2019 at 15:43, Bohnemeyer, Juergen <jb77 at buffalo.edu> wrote:

> In Yucatec Maya, ‘south’ is derived from ‘right’, consonant with the
> mnemonic commonly used in this culture according to which one finds north
> and south by facing the direction of the rising sun and stretching out
> one’s arms. ‘East’ and ‘west’ etymologically refer to sunrise and sunset,
> while ‘north’ appears to be a loan from Nahuatl or some other central
> Mexican language. I’m not aware of any connotations associated with ‘left’
> and ‘right’. In terms of reference frames, Yucatec is anything goes:
> egocentric, geocentric, and intrinsic frames are used pervasively. — Juergen
> > On Feb 28, 2019, at 11:20 PM, David Gil <gil at shh.mpg.de> wrote:
> >
> >
> >
> > On 01/03/2019 11:04, Randy J. LaPolla wrote:
> >> This is certainly the case in Old China, where left is east (the
> primary orientation in Chinese thought is to the south),
> > Interestingly, you get a different association in the Middle East, where
> the primary orientation is to the east, and thus, the country-name Yemen
> (located on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula) is cognate with the
> word for "right".
> >
> > (Correspondingly, I have a vague recollection — but I could be wrong —
> that, somewhere in Afroasiatic languages, there is colexification of "left"
> and "cold", but I don't currently have library access or good enough
> internet to be able to follow up on this.)
> >
> > --
> > David Gil
> >
> > Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
> > Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
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> >
> > Email: gil at shh.mpg.de
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> >
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