[Lingtyp] Testing a generalization about spatial reference frames

Bernhard Wälchli bernhard at ling.su.se
Fri Mar 5 09:18:27 UTC 2021

Dear Jürgen and Dmitry,
In some languages it is quite common to speak of “left-side” and “right-side” of rivers, which is an interesting in-between case between relative and absolute frames of reference. In fact, despite ‘left’ and ‘right’, the frame is rather absolute with rivers, whose orientation remains constant. For (Austrian) German, see for instance “Die Donau linksufrig zwischen Stromkilometer 1899,7 und 1901,9 und die „Orther Kehre“ mit Jahreskarte!” (https://www.bundesforste-fischerei.at/d/1017-donau-orth). So, as soon as you have an impressive dominant river, you can build your absolute reference system nicely with left and right.
In Livonian, the name for Courland (Latvian Kurzeme) is kura:-mo:; mo: is ‘land’ and kura: is 'left'. The etymology of the word for Couronians is a matter of debate (as is the etymology of the Livonian word for ‘left’, which perhaps is a Baltic loan), but at least in terms of Livonian folk-etymology it is the land on the left side of the river (unclear whether the river meant is Daugava or Lielupe, both of them are quite impressive).
In a similar sense, cardinal directions are often quite relative. In German, the Baltic Sea is Ostsee "Eastern Sea", but in Estonian it is Lääne-meri "West[GEN]-sea" (I have never managed to understand why it is Itämeri "East Sea" in Finnish).
Best wishes,

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Dmitry Nikolaev <dsnikolaev at gmail.com>
Sent: Friday, March 5, 2021 9:36:07 AM
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Testing a generalization about spatial reference frames

Dear Juergen,

I don't know what level of conventionalisation you are looking for, but speakers of Russian, at least those who grew up in large cities, tend in general to avoid using geocentric terms and feel uncomfortable using them, and if it is at all possible to say "The lake is to the right of the hill", I would personally do so. A quick googling showed that this phraseology is quite frequent in route descriptions, and this YouTube video literally advertises a plot of land "to the left of lake Veselovka".

My best,

On Fri, 5 Mar 2021 at 07:26, Bohnemeyer, Juergen <jb77 at buffalo.edu<mailto:jb77 at buffalo.edu>> wrote:
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

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