My Southwest Leg: How We Perceive Time and Space #1

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Image credit: Delhovlyn et Mitrane

Think of your right hand. Think of your left hand. Think of your left leg. Pretty easy, right? What if I asked you to think of your Southwest leg? Could you do it? The Thaayorre can.

The Thaayorre are aboriginal people from Australia that do not think of space with words like left, right, forwards, etc.  In their native language (called Kuuk Thaayorre),the definition of space is based on cardinal points (North, South, East, etc.). While we use a reference frame relative to ourselves, they use an absolute reference frame.

At all times they know exactly which direction they are facing relative to these points. In their language they would refer to a leg as their Southwest leg, and if the direction of their leg changes, so does the adjective they use.

Obligatory obvious Australia picture – Photo Credit: Corey Leopold

This peculiarity makes them much better navigators than most  people. The equivalent of “hello” in Kuuk Thaayorre is “where are you going?”, and the expected answer is something like “northwest, to the middle distance”. If you are not able to instantly know how to describe where you’re going with cardinal directions, you will not even be able to greet people.

Now think of time, if I gave you a set of pictures that you had to order by time (like a series of pictures showing someone peeling a banana), how would you do it? If your first language is a European one you will very likely order the pictures from left to right. If your first language is Arabic or Japanese, or another that is written from right to left, you will probably order them right to left. How do the Thayoore do it?

They order them from East to West, indipendently of the direction they were facing when they were given their task. That is, if facing south, they order them from right to left, if they were facing north, they would order them from left to right.

It seems that language does, in fact, shape the way we think of time as well as space.

If I asked you to think of the future, where does the future lie? If I asked you to point ‘towards’ the future, where would you point? You will probably point forwards. To us, the past is behind us and the future is ahead.  But it’s not true of all people.

Find out in part 2, here.

-Francesco

Further reading:

- Space in Language and Cognition – Stephen C. Levinson