[Lingtyp] Testing a generalization about spatial reference frames

Sebastian Nordhoff sebastian.nordhoff at glottotopia.de
Fri Mar 5 10:43:57 UTC 2021

On 3/5/21 10:18 AM, Bernhard Wälchli wrote:
> 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!”

I might add "rive gauche" and "rive droite" for Paris,
"linksrheinisch"/"rechtsrheinisch" for Cologne and, one of my all-time
favourites, the two train stations in the small town of Lauf an der
Pegnitz, which are called "links Pegnitz" and "rechts Pegnitz", rather
than Lauf-Süd and Lauf-Nord (Pegnitz is the river running through the

I am pretty sure that some Europeans I know never use the cardinal
directions for anything. Items on a map are left/right/above/below.

So, for your generalization

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

I would say that a community which never ever uses cardinal directions
would be a counterexample to your generalization.

Best wishes

> (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,
> Bernhard
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> *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,
> Dmitry
> 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
>     Office: 642 Baldy Hall, UB North Campus
>     Mailing address: 609 Baldy Hall, Buffalo, NY 14260
>     Phone: (716) 645 0127
>     Fax: (716) 645 3825
>     Email: jb77 at buffalo.edu <mailto:jb77 at buffalo.edu>
>     Web: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jb77/
>     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.
>     There’s A Crack In Everything - That’s How The Light Gets In
>     (Leonard Cohen) 
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