Wednesday, 10 November 2010

I Am But Mad North-North-West

Most of us, these days, at least pay lip service to the idea that culture is primarily a construct, something put together out of custom and practice and, above all, language. We accept that cultures can construct things differently, and that language both reflects and determines different world views. It's Humanities 101, these days.

If you have grappled with multiple languages you will be acutely aware that it is quite often impossible to translate directly and mechanically from one language to another. Consider the fact that some languages, for example Russian, have no definite article ("the man") or indefinite article ("a man"). Then consider how fundamental, practically and conceptually, that distinction is in English. Yet, somehow, the Russians seem to muddle through without much confusion. Why, they might even one day put the man on a moon!

But the radicality of this idea is such that we can accept it without living it, just as we accept that the relatively small earth goes round the relatively immense sun but persist in seeing the daily journey "across" the sky of a small bright object. Plus, certain concepts are so fundamental -- up/down, hot/cold, open for business/closed for lunch -- that we might assume that all languages and cultures must have them in common, and not need to express them in roundabout ways.

But then you come across something like this discussion of the subject, including these observations about the way certain Australian aborigines orient themselves, and your head is done in all over again:
Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like "Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

Lera Boroditsky, How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think? (Edge, 6/12/09)

As someone with a poor and much-mocked sense of direction, I confess this revelation induces a mild sense of panic.

Of course, there are constants which are the same across the entire known world, in all cultures and languages, and throughout history. One of them is the failure of writers to acknowledge or cite their sources. Read this reassuring article in the New York Times, for example, discussing those self-same aborigines. In an uncertain world, it's good to know that some things can be reliably unreliable.

1 comment:

Martyn Cornell said...

'If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."' Great quote. As someone who has to think very very hard to remember every time which one is east and which one west, I'd be stuffed …