Sunday, October 26, 2008

Absolute and Relative Direction

Did any of you out there have difficulty learning the difference between right and left? Have you ever gotten confused over "my left" and "your left"? What about north, south, east and west?

Both of these are senses of direction. Right and left are relative, and orient relative to the position of the speaker unless otherwise specified. North, south, etc. are absolute directions, and orient independently of the movement of the speaker. No surprise to anyone, because in English we have both of these types of orientation words.

Interestingly, though, at least one Australian aboriginal language doesn't use the relative positioning words - only the absolute ones. So that they would never say "my right foot"; they would say something like "my northward foot" or "my southward foot" etc. I think you can see that it's awfully critical to maintain an absolute sense of direction if you're going to be speaking of about parts of your own body differently depending on which direction you're facing.

I would love to see a group of aliens with only absolute direction words - or, to take the concept further, only a set of absolute words to refer to something we generally use relative expressions for, like pronouns. Imagine how confused an alien from this society would be to hear every human referring to him or herself with "I." They would probably construe it incorrectly as a proper name.

While I'm on this topic, I'd like to mention the Japanese words "kochira" "sochira" and "achira," which can be roughly translated as "this direction" "that direction" and "that direction over there." Like English "this" and "that," "left" and "right," "I" and "you" they are relative terms, which take their meaning from the identity and position of the speaker. You can probably guess from the translations, though, that they aren't defined quite the same way.

The ko- prefix indicates a direction or an object associated with the speaker (or more precisely, in the speaker's in-group). The so- prefix indicates something associated with the person that the speaker is talking to - the other guy in the conversation. The a- prefix indicates something that is associated neither with the speaker nor the other guy in the conversation, but is outside both of their circles.

I mention the Australian and Japanese examples because I think it's fascinating to consider other methods of organizing reality. Also, though, I want to bring attention to our own way of organizing reality: organizing it around ourselves. If you look around, the English language is full of expressions that are relative (I, he, this, that, here, there, today, yesterday, just to name a few).

Never forget that relative expressions are your allies in the construction of point of view. If you are trying to create a close point of view, try looking around for opportunities to use relative expressions instead of absolute ones. You may find more than you expect.