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When south is north and right is left

Last week I drove north from Oxford for two whole days and arrived at the beautiful south. This is not because I’d done a Francis Drake but because one of the very most northerly parts of the island where I live is called ‘south land’ or ‘Sutherland’. I’d have called it something less confusing but it wasn’t me who named it; the Vikings did that and for them it was indeed way off towards the midday sun.

Quite often, to understand a word it’s not enough simply to look it up in a dictionary. Sometimes you also have to know who’s saying it. Left and right, for example, are the source of a lot of confusion:

‘It’s on the left.’
‘Your left or my left?’
‘Yours. Well, no. Not now you’ve turned round.’

This is why on a boat you have port and starboard. If the skipper says ‘Pull on the right sheet,’ which one you grab depends on where you’re standing. But ‘Pull on the starboard sheet’ can mean only one thing. On a boat it doesn’t matter which way round you’re standing. On dry land we have to say things like ‘my left’ or ‘he’s behind you’.

Two paces north, one pace south

Some languages find this so ridiculous that they use a universal system all the time. For example the Guugu Yimidhirr language, spoken in Australia, has no words for left and right and also none for in front or behind. Guugu Yimidhirr speakers wouldn’t say, ‘it’s on the left’ but ‘it’s to the west’, not ‘go backwards a bit’, but ‘go a bit north’. Of course you need a good sense of direction. Without even having to stop to think, Guugu Yimidhirr speakers know which way north is, after a twisty journey on a cloudy day, in the middle of dense forests, even in the depths of a cave.

So if you went to a pantomime in Guugu Yimidhirr and the villain crept up sinisterly behind the heroine you wouldn’t shout ‘He’s behind you!’. You’d say something like ‘He’s to your west!’. And that funny thing where the heroine turns round and the villain manages to stay behind her, and everyone shouts ‘He’s behind you!’ again, that wouldn’t happen because by then you’d be shouting ‘He’s to your east!’ and everything would be a lot clearer. Wouldn’t it?

Perspective is the key

Speakers of the Mayan language, Tzeltal, live on a mountain slope, so rather than north or south, they talk about uphill and downhill, and then they have across which they can make more specific by saying ‘across towards such-and-such a village’.

Guy Deutscher in his wonderful book Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages has many more examples of languages from all around the world which have similar universal systems. I’ll bet none of them have marriages break up over getting a duvet inside its cover and where to put the left corner. Nevertheless they probably have the same problems over the way that what one person calls messy is what another person calls perfectly all right and not worth getting into a tizzy about.

Meaning is not just about which way you’re pointing. If people call you tall they might not if you wandered into a Harlem Globetrotter’s photo shoot.

When is wrong really wrong?

On these pages the most interesting way that meaning can change, depending on who’s speaking, is the word wrong when applied to language. We’re all happy with the idea that it’s silly to say the person on the other side of the table is ‘wrong’ if they say that the cup is on the left. But is it silly to call someone wrong if they say ‘I ain’t got no book’ when they don’t have one?

Here’s another sentence; would you say there’s anything wrong? ‘What set her off was his inferring one evening that he had forced himself on a German farm woman.’ (We talked about imply and infer here.) Arthur Miller wrote this in Homely Girl (in another example of bearing in mind that not everyone is in the same place I need to say that this book was published in the UK as Plain Girl: a Life).

One person’s right is another’s left, and, when it comes to language, one person’s right is another’s wrong. Standing on a cliff in Sutherland none of this seems to matter very much and I feel the Vikings can call the place whatever they like. Still the ocean remains.