Monday, October 4, 2010

are north and south 'embodied' concepts?

Lameen Souag, of Jabal al-Lughat, made a thoughtful comment on part 2 of my review of Guy Deutscher's  book Through The Language Glass. and I wanted to post my response because I think it brings up an interesting question about concepts that are embodied and how.

Lameen's comment:
"North" and "south" have nothing to do with a human body's orientation; the only aspect of human-ness relevant to the cardinal directions is that of being located on a small enough part of a rotating sphere, which applies equally to, yes, amoebas, and every other organism on Earth. (Obviously, from the observer's perspective it's the sky that's rotating.) The difference in question is between a coordinate system based on the observer's body's orientation and one based on the orientation of his/her environment (his planet for cardinal directions, the slope of the ground for "uphill/downhill", etc.) The term "ego-centric" may or may not be the most apt way to describe this difference, but the difference is clear.

My response:
Lameen, I respectfully disagree that "north" and "south" are not fundamentally human concepts. They are concepts, hence they are filtered by our cognitive system, vulnerable to all the strange and wonderful biases and alterations that systems bears on all concepts.

So what is so human about north? Well, what is north? It's a direction away from me, right? One can never be at north. There is always a north of north (except in the rare case of standing atop the exact north pole, but that doesn't seem relevant).

But that alone doesn't make it human. Imagine a GY speaker were as big as the sun (this is a thought experiment, so reality means nothing, haha). Would saying that a tree is north of a river mean anything? The scale would be too small. Imagine a GY speaker said that an electron was north of a nucleus or that a tree was to the Pacific Ocean of a river. Would any of those uses of cardinal directions make sense?

No, because the scale would make them incoherent. The direction concepts north and south are determined, at least in part, by our human scale, hence embodied. We conceptualize them as a point, somewhere far off in the distance, and we can point to them. But this is an embodied conceptualization which only makes sense for things in the human scale.

I believe there's more than just human scale at work too, but I don't have enough time to get into it right now, but I think this is a worthwhile topic.

6 comments:

KasparsM said...

Whatever a perfect pitch for direction means Americans seem to have it more that Europeans.
Maybe GY speakers are just an extreme case of Americans? :)

When I was in the US I had a difficult time to get used to cardinal descriptors in street names and directions. Such instructions as "turn north at the next intersection" would make me panic. For God's sake, I don't carry a compass, so how can I know which direction is north? Only later I get used to reading the clues (ie.,the street signs).

Coming from a European country where most cities have crooked streets and cloudy weather had certain influence on my orientation habits. But how much it is due to language differences really? Do bilingual US citizens have harder time to navigate when speaking Spanish instead ofEnglish.

YeshuaAaron said...

Regardless of scale, I think any observer with sufficiently developed physics would have a concept of north and south, in terms of poles and rotations. (I'd compare this with the Right hand grip rule.)

CoffeeTeaLinguistics said...

I've found in the US that street directions people give depend often on the size of the city. Smaller places seem to use left/right while larger ones use cardinal directions. Don't cite me, this is anecdotal. So growing up in a smaller place, hearing north-south drives me nuts because I don't use those terms regularly and they're not particularly meaningful to my interaction.

Chris said...

These are good points. I'm out of the country and lack the time to respond thoughtfully, but I look forward to doing that soon. Cheers.

Panglott said...

That's an interesting observation, Kaspars.

I wonder if it varies in the US, depending on how regularly the cities are laid out on a grid aligned to cardinal direction.

After living in Manhattan, I can't get out of my head the idea that uptown is north and downtown is south, even while here in Louisville, the "downtown" is on the north side of the city.

Paul said...

I may be missing the point here, but we're talking about "north" as dictated by a compass (magnetic north), right?

If so, I have to say they are not embodied. Geomagnetic reversals suck like that.

If not, I'm still doubtful. The E/W (Solar) axis seems like it would be embodied, not the N/S one.