[Lingtyp] Testing a generalization about spatial reference frames

Bill Palmer bill.palmer at newcastle.edu.au
Fri Mar 5 08:50:38 UTC 2021

Hi all

This a really interesting question, and I’m looking forward to seeing more replies. Nick Evans I was only reading today Myers 1986 saying the Pintupi dream in cardinal orientations.

Juergen, I haven’t seen any language where relative terminology for landscape features is conventionalised. However, I do encounter this in English based on a canonical perspective (e.g. ‘it’s in the dining hall no the righthand table’ – i.e. the one on your right as you enter the room).

However, I have seen the occasional reference like this:

“Beidahu [a ski resort in China] operates on two mountains and the valley in between. Although the maximum vertical is 900+m, generally only about 800m are open due to limited snow making on top. The front mountain features generally intermediate terrain and is served by a multi chair lift system that gives you the choice of the lower half wide open terrain or the steeper trail terrain on top. The right hand mountain features steeper terrain and is served by a single gondola that has a mid mountain station accessing the intermediate portions of the mountain.” (emphasis added). <http://www.chinaskitours.com/beidahu.html>

Presumably this invokes a canonical perspective from the resort buildings. This text is presumably translated from Mandarin, so perhaps is transference from the original. Perhaps Sinitic languages would be a useful place to look.


Associate Professor Bill Palmer
University of Newcastle
Lead Investigator, OzSpace project
Landscape, language and culture in Indigenous Australia.
Vice-President, Australian Linguistics Society

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> On Behalf Of Felicity Meakins
Sent: Friday, 5 March 2021 5:39 PM
To: nicholas.evans at anu.edu.au; Bohnemeyer, Juergen <jb77 at buffalo.edu>; LINGTYP <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Testing a generalization about spatial reference frames

In defence of using cardinal terms for parts of the body, this is definitely the norm in Gurindji which is related to Warlpiri. The terms for ‘right hand’ and ‘left hand’ are not abstractly projected either away from the body or beyond the hand

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org>> on behalf of Nick Evans <nicholas.evans at anu.edu.au<mailto:nicholas.evans at anu.edu.au>>
Date: Friday, 5 March 2021 at 4:28 pm
To: "Bohnemeyer, Juergen" <jb77 at buffalo.edu<mailto:jb77 at buffalo.edu>>, LINGTYP <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Testing a generalization about spatial reference frames

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<mailto: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<mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org>> on behalf of Bohnemeyer, Juergen <jb77 at buffalo.edu<mailto:jb77 at buffalo.edu>>
Sent: Friday, March 5, 2021 4:26 PM
To: LINGTYP <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto: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
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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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