A natural language based in cardinal directions

–The linguist Nicholas Evans has described how Kayardild, a language spoken in northern Australia, requires a speaker to continually orient themselves according to the cardinal directions. Where an English speaker would orient things according to their own perception – my left, my right, my front, my back – a speaker of Kayardild thinks in terms of north, south, east and west. As a consequence, speakers of Kayardild (and those of several other languages that share this feature) possess “absolute reckoning”, or a kind of “perfect pitch” for direction. It also means removing one’s self as the main reference point for thinking about space. As Evans writes of his own experiences learning the language, “one aspect of speaking Kayardild, then, is learning that the landscape is more important and objective than you are. Kayardild grammar literally puts everyone in their place.–

source: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jul/27/english-language-global-dominance


One of the things that I find charmingly quirky in the US is the use of cardinal directions on traffic signs, as in “no parking east of sign”. In Europe we use arrows instead (down = before the sign, up = after the sign).

This is probably a consequence of the medium. There’s no common official language in Europe, so we use a shared set of symbols and icons on our traffic signs. US signs tend to rely on English text. In a graphical context, arrows make intuitive sense, but when the medium is text, absolute cardinal directions are terser and less ambiguous than relative directions. But the reader has to maintain a mental model of the geography.

Edit to add: That turned out to be a Seattle thing. I’ll leave the original post intact, but in light of that, it’s clearly over-generalizing.

I found this explanation of the Seattle thing:

Just look around for the nearest large body of water–if it’s Lake Washington, you’re looking east; if it’s Puget Sound, you’re looking west. If it’s Green Lake, you’re looking at sunbathers, joggers, rowers and rollerbladers–no help there, but a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

So, good luck, I guess. This seems like it could be turned into a room description without much change.

There’s another Australian language, Kuuk Thaayorre, which apparently also uses absolute rather than relative directions. (When I referred to it before I called the people Kuuk Thaayorre, but that article says that the people are Thaayorre and “Kuuk” means “language.” Check actual scholarly sources if you need to know!)

1 Like

Sometimes we’ll get “no parking between signs” and that involves finding the other sign…

A good rule of thumb is that the legal parking spaces are all already occupied by cars.


I always wonder if you have two of your tires on the correct side of the sign if that works, or if it’s calculated by a percentage of your car parked legally, or…

Having a vehicle be partially in one location and partially in another seems like a headache. I always make sure that every object I interact with exists in one and only one location at any time—it simplifies things a lot! (I also avoid ropes and bodies of water at all costs.)


While it’s true that many Australia languages favour absolute cardinal directions, I’d be a little skeptical about all the implications Nick Evans draws from these languages.

Some languages in the world, for example Balinese, have absolutish non-cardinal directions, based on heading up or down a mountain, or towards or away from the coast.

Also the Australian language Jingulu requires every verb to specify whether it has a going, coming, or saying put associated motion.

1 Like

When I studied for a driver’s license in Germany, I had to study (and learn in detail) over 400 different signs.

I’ll take cardinal directions in the US anytime. :wink:



(casts skeptical glance at the bridge in Cragne Manor)

1 Like

…now that I think of it, I’m not actually sure if I ever implemented a “water” object in that room. I should check on that. (Whether the player is underwater or not is tracked by a global variable, not by a containment relationship.)

In Derek Haslam’s Risc expanded version of Mirror of Khoronz the directions are left, right, forward and back inside rooms and the usual 8 compass directions outside. Back implies turning around and going back the way you came inside.

He feels that this is more realistic although I suppose that this makes interior movement less granular i.e. no scope for the equivalent of NE.