[Lingtyp] Testing a generalization about spatial reference frames

Nicholas Evans nicholas.evans at anu.edu.au
Fri Mar 5 06:27:03 UTC 2021

I'm wondering if this is a bit of an urban myth about people saying 'my western arm hurts'. Kayardild, the absolute-reference language I've worked with most, uses cardinals all over the place, but not when talking about one's own body. I would say that in Kayardild the egocentric system hands over to the cardinal-based one at the point of considering other objects and locations. So I wonder if there's been a bit of a ramp-up in how these systems are talked about. (Of course others may have worked on languages which are more radically geocentric than Kayardild, but I'm concerned that there might be some ramping up of claims as the literature passes to secondary sources)
Best Nick

Little passage about this (from my 2010 book 'Dying Words) pasted in below

The obsession with compass orientation continues through conversations, through little instructions to move a smoldering stick a little southward on the fire (perhaps an inch!), and the way you call out to an approaching unidentified person in the dark: riinmali! (“hey you approaching from the east!”). It frames people’s recollections, their dreams, even their visualizations of hypothetical scenarios. The late Dugal Goongarra, another of my Kayardild teachers, was once boasting to me about a spear he had just made, which sported a fearsome row of barbs. It would penetrate a big queenfish, he said, as far as the second barb; a turtle’s fin, as far as the fourth. And speared into a dugong, burrija bathinyinda thawurri, (“the western end (of the spear) would come out of its throat”). The spear was newly made and had not seen any action yet, so he must have been describing an imaginary scenario. But,

Table 8.1 Some Kayardild compass-point derivatives, based on the root ri- (“east”)

in his mind, the dugong’s throat was still clearly oriented to the compass. On the basis of this and similar interactions with Kayardild people I believe they virtu- ally never think, imagine, or even dream without orienting their mental scenes to the compass.

Words for “right hand” (junku) and “left hand” (thaku) do exist. They are mainly used to locate things like a pain in the left side of your body where compass- based coding would keep shifting around. But they are never employed to locate objects or places, as we do in English with expressions like “the righthand book,” or “the path to your left.” One aspect of speaking Kayardild, then, is learning that the landscape is more important and objective than you are. Kayardild gram- mar quite literally puts everyone in their place. Some Kayardild compass expres- sions are shown in table 8.1, which gives a set of derivatives based on ri- (“east”). Equivalent sets exist for the other three compass points.

Nicholas (Nick) Evans

Director, CoEDL (ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language)
Distinguished Professor of Linguistics
Coombs Building, Fellows Road
CHL, CAP, Australian National University

nicholas.evans at anu.edu.au

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as custodians of the land on which I work, and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. Their custodianship that has never been ceded.

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Bohnemeyer, Juergen <jb77 at buffalo.edu>
Sent: Friday, March 5, 2021 4:26 PM
To: LINGTYP <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: [Lingtyp] Testing a generalization about spatial reference frames

Dear all — I’d like to solicit your help with a generalization. I’m wondering whether anybody is aware of a counterexample:

It is well known that there are communities whose members regularly use geocentric terms in reference to the speaker’s own body, as in

(1) ‘My western/downhill arm hurts’.

E.g., Laughren (1978) mentions this phenomenon in reference to Warlpiri. Levinson (2003: 4) notes that the practice exists among speakers of Guugu Yimithirr (Pama-Nyungan, Queensland). Haun & Rapold (2011) present an experimental study of the practice with speakers of ≠Akhoe Hai||om (Khoekhoe, Namibia).

Now, I’m interested in what you might consider something of an inverse of this kind of use: the use of relative frames at the geographic scale, as in

(2) ‘The lake is to the right of the hill’

My generalization is that there doesn’t seem to be any community in which the type of use exemplified by (2) is conventional.

That is to say, of course we can easily imagine situations in which English speakers might exchange something like (2):

* A speaker looking at the lake and hill might use (2) to describe what she sees to an interlocutor who doesn’t have visual access to the scene. The speaker might use relative language in this case in order to produce a vivid image of the scene as it presents itself to her.

* A speaker looking at representations of the hill and lake on a map might use (2) metonymically.

However, I’m unaware of a community in which something like (2) would be a conventional way of locating landscape entities with respect to one another in the absence of visual access to (representations of) them.

(One could argue that (2) is pragmatically semi-infelicitous in such a context since the truth of (2) depends on the location of the observer, which is usually more variable than that of the hill and lake. However, even though the truth of (1) similarly changes with the speaker’s orientation, it is presumed to be an entrenched strategy for this context in several cultures. My interest is partly in this asymmetry.)

I’m curious whether people are aware of counterexamples.

Thanks! — Juergen

Haun, D. M. B. & C. J. Rapold. (2011). Variation in memory for body movements across cultures. Current Biology 19(23): R1068-1069.

Laughren,M. (1978). Directional terminology in Warlpiri. in Th. Le and M. McCausland (eds.), Working papers in language and linguistics, 8: 1–16. Launceston: Tasmanian College of Advanced Education.

Levinson, S. C. (2003). Space in language and cognition. Cambridge: CUP.

Juergen Bohnemeyer (He/Him)
Professor, Department of Linguistics
University at Buffalo

Office: 642 Baldy Hall, UB North Campus
Mailing address: 609 Baldy Hall, Buffalo, NY 14260
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Email: jb77 at buffalo.edu
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Office hours will be held by Zoom. Email me to schedule a call at any time. I will in addition hold Tu/Th 4-5pm open specifically for remote office hours.

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