Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Do speakers of Tzeltal never get lost in the woods?

I remember reading about a language that features the cardinal directions in its grammar. The author did not include a description of the method this language’s speakers use to determine whether one is facing east, west, north, or south with such dependable accuracy that they can take it for granted, which is something you have to do if you’re going to be incorporating that information into everyday speech. I remember wondering if speakers were rarely indoors, thus hip to directional cues from the sky, the sun during the day, the stars at night. But I didn’t take it any farther than an idle puzzling.

In a discussion of hidden senses in his book Deep James Nestor says this:

The Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal tribe, had a remarkable sense of direction that they incorporated into their language. Instead of using words meaning ‘right,’ ‘left,’ ‘front,’ and ‘back,’ Guugu Yimithirr used the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west. If a Guugu Yimithirr tribesman wanted you to make room for him on a bed, he’d ask you to move a few feet west. Guugu Yimithirr didn’t bend backward, they bent northward, or southward, or eastward.

The only way Guugu Yimithirr could communicate was by knowing their exact coordinates at all times … But it was second nature to them, as well as for a host of cultures throughout Indonesia, Mexico, Polynesia, and elsewhere, whose languages were also based on cardinal directions.

In the 1990s, researchers from the … Max Planck Institute … placed a speaker of Tzeltal — a Mayan directional language spoken by about 370,000 people in southern Mexico — in a dark house and spun him around blindfolded. … [A]sked … to point north, south, east, and then west [the Tzeltal speaker] did this successfully, and without hesitation, twenty times in a row.

You’ve heard that birds and sharks use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate, right? Well, maybe that’s how east and south got into grammar. Maybe we can take advantage of magnets in our heads.

“Human magnetoreception [is] distinct from other senses, like vision and smell [in that magnetoreception] is an unconscious, latent sense,” says Nestor. “We don’t know it exists unless we put ourselves in a situation in which we have to use it.”

Like when we’re lost in the woods? Or at sea?

Were the Polynesians relying on their magnetoreceptive sense when they colonized islands thousands of miles apart in the Pacific?

source: Deep: freediving, renegade science, and what the ocean tells us about ourselves by James Nestor
2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York

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