Language and thought: Talking about directions

(Prefer a video version of this post? Head on over to YouTube.)

I’m a huge fan of the movie Arrival, in which a linguist saves the world by cracking an alien language and in so doing gains the ability to perceive the future. What I love about the movie is how accurately it portrays the process of linguistic fieldwork. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates one of the biggest myths in linguistics: the idea that language influences how we think about time.

This is an example of linguistic determinism (often called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), which claims that language shapes thought. Here’s an example from TikTok of what I mean:


Reply to @panchetbihon #language really hits home in Arrival

♬ original sound – Stradovare

This creator gives the example of an Australian Aboriginal group which talks about direction using absolute directions (north, south, east, west) rather than relative directions (left, right, front, back), implying that their language gives them a constant and intuitive knowledge of cardinal directions.

But language is shaped by how speakers use it. In language, form follows function. Languages with absolute directional reckoning evolve because the people in that community were consistently attentive to—and therefore often needed to talk about—absolute directions.

When I lived in Kenya, I spent a few weeks in a rural village called Bodo on the coast, which had no running water or electricity. I remember sitting on the stoop of our compound with my homestay mother, and realized I had forgotten my watch inside the house. Without thinking I asked, “What time is it?” The moment the words left my mouth I knew it was a dumb question, because nobody really uses watches or clocks there. Instead they paid attention to how many hours of daylight into the day they were. So imagine my surprise when my homestay mother jumps to her feet, walks into the middle of the street, looks up at the sun, then down at her shadow, then at the sun and her shadow again, and then turns to me and says, “It’s three o’clock.” I ran inside and checked my watch, and sure enough it was 2:54.

Now, Swahili is like English when it comes to talking about directions. We talk about directions in relation to ourselves, using terms like left and right. This is called relative directional reckoning. But there are many languages in the world—including the Australian Aboriginal language mentioned in the TikTok video above—that talk about directions in absolute terms, using words like east and west. This is called absolute directional reckoning. And yet, even though Swahili uses relative directional reckoning like English, speakers of Swahili in certain rural areas know exactly what direction anything is at any given point in time, because they’re so intimately familiar with their local surroundings.

This isn’t a case of language influencing the way we think. It’s the other way around. It’s a case where a language has evolved to reflect the social norm of constantly being attentive to the local environment. Languages become extremely efficient at conveying information that speakers need to talk about regularly. If you live in a community where you’re regularly talking absolute directions, then you might expect that over time the language will develop refined ways of talking about absolute directions. An excellent book that describes the different ways that languages talk about time or direction is When languages die: The extinction of the world’s languages and the erosion of human knowledge. It talks about all the intimate local ethnographic wisdom that is lost when a languages dies, like local directional systems and ways of telling time. It also happens to be one of my all time favorite popular linguistics books! Definitely give it a look.

Published by Daniel W. Hieber, Ph.D.

I'm a research linguist working to document and revitalize endangered languages. I study the crosslinguistic patterns we see in the world's languages. I work primarily with the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana.

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