Tlon, Uqbar, and Guugu Yimithirr

I’m surprised Tyler Cowen didn’t link to this NYT story:

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

.   .   .

In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

How does this work? The convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives, and to develop an accurate memory of their own changing orientations at any given moment. So everyday communication in a geographic language provides the most intense imaginable drilling in geographic orientation (it has been estimated that as much as 1 word in 10 in a normal Guugu Yimithirr conversation is “north,” “south,” “west” or “east,” often accompanied by precise hand gestures). This habit of constant awareness to the geographic direction is inculcated almost from infancy: studies have shown that children in such societies start using geographic directions as early as age 2 and fully master the system by 7 or 8. With such an early and intense drilling, the habit soon becomes second nature, effortless and unconscious. When Guugu Yimithirr speakers were asked how they knew where north is, they couldn’t explain it any more than you can explain how you know where “behind” is.

And this:

In coming years, researchers may also be able to shed light on the impact of language on more subtle areas of perception. For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation? When our experimental tools are less blunt, such questions will be amenable to empirical study.

All this reminds me of Borges:

Hume always noted that Berkeley’s arguments would not admit the least rebuttal, that they created no conviction. That opinion is entirely truthful in its application to the earth; entirely false in Tlön. The nations of that planet are – congenitally – idealists. Their language and the derivations of their languages – religion, letters, metaphysics – presuppose their idealism. The world for them is not a competition of objects in space; it is a heterogenerous series of independent actions. It is successive, temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in the conjectural Ursprache of Tlön, from which the ‘present’ languages and dialects come: there are impersonal verbs, qualified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with adverbial value. For example: there is no word which corresponds to the word ‘moon’, but there is a verb that would be in english ‘mooning’ or ‘to moon’. ‘The moon shone over the water’, one would say ‘hlör u fang axaxaxas mlo’, that is in its order ‘upward (hacia arriba), behind lasting-flowing it was mooning’. (Xul Solar translates with brevity ‘behind the onstreaming, it mooned’. ‘upa tras perfluye luno’.)

the previous refers to the language of the austral hemisphere. In the boreal hemisphere (whose Ursprache there are very few details about in the eleventh volume), the primordial cell is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective. nouns are formed of an accumulation of adjectives. One does not say ‘moon’, one says ‘aerial-bright over round-dark’ or ‘vaguely oranging skyful’ or some other aggregation. In the chosen example the mass of adjectives correspond to a real object; the fact is purely fortuitous. In the literature of this hemisphere (as in the subsistent world of Meinong) ideal objects abound, summoned and dissolved in a moment, according to poetic necessities. Mere simultaneity at times determines them. There are objects composed of two ends, one of a visual character and the other auditory: the colour of the east and the remote cry of a bird. There are many of them: the sun and the water upon the chest of a swimmer, the vague tremulous pink that you see with your eyes shut, the feelings of a person who lets the rivers and dreams carry them. Those objects of the second degree can combine themselves with others; the process, by means of certain abbreviations, is practicably infinite. There are famous poems composed of just one enormous word. This word constitutes a poetic object created by the author. The fact that no-one believes in the reality of nouns paradoxically makes it so they are unending in number. The languages of the boreal hemisphere of Tlön possess all the names of the indo-european languages and many more.

HT:  Lorne Smith