What in the World Is North? Translating Cardinal Directions across Languages, Cultures and Environments

Alice Gaby, Jonathon Lum, Thomas Poulton, Jonathan Schlossberg



For many, north is an abstract point on a compass, an arrow that tells you which way to hold up a map. Though scientifically defined according to the magnetic north pole, and/or the earth’s axis of rotation, these facts are not necessarily discernible to the average person. Perhaps for this reason, the Oxford English Dictionary begins with reference to the far more mundane and accessible sun and features of the human body, in defining north as; “in the direction of the part of the horizon on the left-hand side of a person facing the rising sun” (OED Online). Indeed, many of the words for ‘north’ around the world are etymologically linked to the left hand side (for example Cornish clēth ‘north, left’). We shall see later that even in English, many speakers conceptualise ‘north’ in an egocentric way. Other languages define ‘north’ in opposition to an orthogonal east-west axis defined by the sun’s rising and setting points (see, e.g., the extensive survey of Brown).

Etymology aside, however, studies such as Brown’s presume a set of four cardinal directions which are available as primordial ontological categories which may (or may not) be labelled by the languages of the world. If we accept this premise, the fact that a word is translated as ‘north’ is sufficient to understand the direction it describes. There is good reason to reject this premise, however. We present data from three languages among which there is considerable variance in how the words translated as ‘north’ are typically used and understood. These languages are Kuuk Thaayorre (an Australian Aboriginal language spoken on Cape York Peninsula), Marshallese (an Oceanic language spoken in the Republic of the Marshall Islands), and Dhivehi (an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the Maldives). Lastly, we consider the results of an experiment that show Australian English speakers tend to interpret the word north according to the orientation of their own bodies and the objects they manipulate, rather than as a cardinal direction as such.

‘North’ in Kuuk Thaayorre

Kuuk Thaayorre is a Pama-Nyungan language spoken on the west coast of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula in the community of Pormpuraaw. The Kuuk Thaayorre words equivalent to north, south, east and west (hereafter, ‘directionals’) are both complex and frequently used. They are complex in the sense that they combine with prefixes and suffixes to form dozens of words which indicate not only the direction involved, but also the degree of distance, whether there is motion from, towards, to a fixed point, or within a bounded area in that location, proximity to the local river, and more. The ubiquity of these words is illustrated by the fact that the most common greeting formula involves one person asking nhunt wanthan pal yan? ‘where are you going’ and the other responding, for example, ngay yuurriparrop yan ‘I’m going a long way southwards towards the river’, or ngay iilungkarruw yan ‘I’m coming from the northwest’. Directional terms are strewn liberally throughout Kuuk Thaayorre speech. They are employed in the description of both large-scale and small-scale spaces, whether giving directions to a far-off town, asking another person to ‘move a little to the north’, or identifying the person ‘to the east’ of another in a photograph. Likewise, directional gestures are highly frequent, sometimes augmenting the information given in the speech stream, sometimes used in the absence of spoken directions, and other times redundantly duplicating the information given by a directional word.

The forms and meanings of directional words are described in detail in Gaby (Gaby 344–52). At the core of this system are six directional roots referring to the north and south banks of the nearby Edward River as well as two intersecting axes. One of these axes is equivalent to the eastwest axis familiar to English speakers, and is defined by the apparent diurnal trajectory of the sun. (At a latitude of 14 degrees 54 minutes south, the Kuuk Thaayorre homeland sees little variation in the location of sunrise and sunset through the year.) While the poles of the second axis are translated by the English terms north and south, from a Western perspective this axis is skewed such that Kuuk Thaayorre -ungkarr ‘~north’ lies approximately 35 degrees west of magnetic north. Rather than being defined by magnetic or polar north, this axis aligns with the local coastline. This is true even when the terms are used at inland locations where there is no visual access to the water or parallel sand ridges. How Kuuk Thaayorre speakers apply this system to environments further removed from this particular stretch of coast—especially in the presence of a differently-oriented coast—remains a topic for future research.

‘North’ in Marshallese

Marshallese is the language of the people of the Marshall Islands, an expansive archipelago consisting of 22 inhabited atolls and three inhabited non-atoll islands located in the Northern Pacific. The Marshallese have a long history as master navigators, a skill necessary to keep strong links between far-flung and disparate islands (Lewis; Genz).

Figure 1: The location of the Marshall Islands

As with other Pacific languages (e.g. Palmer; Ross; François), Marshallese deploys a complex system of geocentric references. Cardinal directions are historically derived from the Pacific trade winds, reflecting the importance of these winds for navigation and wayfinding. The etymologies of the Marshallese directions are shown in Table 1 below. The terms given in this table are in the Ralik dialect, spoken in the western Marshall Islands.  The terms used in the Ratak (eastern) dialect are related, but slightly different in form. See Schlossberg for more detailed discussion. Etymologies originally sourced from Bender et al. and Ross.

Table 1: Marshallese cardinal direction words with etymological source semantics

Noun formrearrilik iōn̄ rōk
Etymology‘calm shore (of islet)’‘rough shore (of islet)’‘windy season’; ‘season of northerly winds’‘dry season’; ‘season of southerly winds’
Verb modifier formtatonin̄a rōn̄a
Etymology‘up(wind)’‘down(wind)’‘windy season’; ‘season of northerly winds’‘dry season’; ‘season of southerly winds’

As with many other Oceanic languages, Marshallese has three domains of spatial language use: the local domain, the inshore-maritime domain and the navigational domain. Cardinal directions are the sole strategy employed in the navigational domain, which occurs when sailing on the open ocean. In the inshore-maritime domain, which applies when sailing on the ocean or lagoon in sight of land, a land-sea axis is used (The question of whether, in fact, these directions form axes as such is considered further below). Similarly, when walking around an island, a calm side-rough side (of island) axis is employed. In both situations, either the cardinal north-south axis or east-west axis is used to form a secondary cross-axis to the topography-based axis. The cardinal axis parallel to the calm-rough or land-sea axis is rarely used. When the island is not oriented perfectly perpendicular to one of the cardinal axes, the cardinal axes rotate such that they are perpendicular to the primary axis. This can result in the orientation of iōn̄ ‘north’ being quite skewed away from ‘true’ north. An example of how the cardinal and topographic axes prototypically work is exemplified in Figure 2, which shows Jabor, an islet in Jaluit Atoll in the south-west Marshalls.

Figure 2: The geocentric directional system of Jabor, Jaluit Atoll

While cartographic cardinal directions comprise two perpendicular axes, this is not the case for many Marshallese. The clearest evidence for this is the directional system of Kili Island, a small non-atoll island approximately 50km west of Jaluit Atoll. The directional system of Kili is similar to that of Jabor, with one notable exception; the iōn̄-rōk ‘north-south’ and rear-rilik ‘east-west’ axes are not perpendicular but rather parallel (Figure 3) The rear-rilik axis takes precedence and the iōn̄-rōk axis is rarely used, showing the primacy of the east-west axis on Kili. This is a clear indication that the Western abstraction of crossed cardinal axes is not in play in the Marshall Islands; the iōn̄-rōk and rear-rilik axes can function completely independently of one another.

Figure 3: Geocentric system of spatial reference on Kili

Springdale is a small city in north-west of the landlocked state of Arkansas. It hosts the largest number of expatriate Marshallese in the United States. Of 26 participants in an object placement task, four respondents were able to correctly identify the four cardinal points (Schlossberg). Aside from some who said they simply did not know others gave a variety of answers, including that iōn̄, rōk, rilik and rear only exist in the Marshall Islands. Others imagined a canonical orientation derived from their home atoll and transposed this onto their current environment; one person who was facing the front door in their house in Springdale reported that they imagined they were in their house in the Marshall Islands, where when oriented towards the door, they were facing iōn̄ ‘north’, thus deriving an orientation with respect to a Marshallese cardinal direction. Aside from the four participants who identified the directions correctly, a further six participants responded in a consistent—if incorrect—way, i.e. although the directions were not correctly identified, the responses were consistent with the conceptualisation of crossed cardinal axes, merely that the locations identified were rotated from their true referents. This leaves 16 of the 26 participants (62%) who did not display evidence of having a conceptual system of two crossed cardinal axes.

If one were to point in a direction and say ‘this is north’, most Westerners would easily be able to identify ‘south’ by pointing in the opposite direction. This is not the case with Marshallese speakers, many of whom are unable to do the same if given a Marshallese cardinal direction and asked to name its opposite (cf. Schlossberg). This demonstrates that for many Marshallese, each of these cardinal terms do not form axes at all, but rather are four unique locally-anchored points.

‘North’ in Dhivehi

Dhivehi is spoken in the Maldives, an archipelago to the southwest of India and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean (see Figure 4). Maldivians have a long history of sailing on the open waters, in order to fish and to trade. Traditionally, much of the adult male population would spend long periods of time on such voyages, riding the trade winds and navigating by the stars. For Maldivians, uturu ‘north’ is a direction of safety—the long axis of the Maldivian archipelago runs north to south, and so by sailing north, one has the best possible chance of reaching another island or (eventually) the mainlands of India or Sri Lanka.

Figure 4: Location of the Maldives

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many Maldivians are well attuned to the direction denoted by uturu ‘north’, as well as to the other cardinal directions. In an object placement task performed by 41 participants in Laamu Atoll, 32 participants (78%) correctly placed a plastic block ‘to the north’ (uturaṣ̊) of another block when instructed to do so (Lum). The prompts dekonaṣ̊ ‘to the south’ and huḷangaṣ̊ ‘to the west’ yielded similarly high rates of correct responses, though as many as 37 participants (90%) responded correctly to the prompt iraṣ̊ ‘to the east’—this is perhaps because the term for ‘east’ also means ‘sun’ and is strongly associated with the sunrise, whereas the terms for the other cardinal directions are comparatively opaque. However, the path of the sun is not the only environmental cue that shapes the use of Dhivehi cardinal directions. As in Kuuk Thaayorre and Marshallese, cardinal directions in Dhivehi are often ‘calibrated’ according to the orientation of local coastlines. In Fonadhoo, for example, which is oriented northeast to southwest, the system of cardinal directions is rotated about 45 degrees clockwise: uturu ‘north’ points to what is actually northeast and dekona/dekunu ‘south’ to what is actually southwest (i.e., along the length of the island), while iru/iramati ‘east’ and huḷangu ‘west’ are perpendicular to shore (see Figure 5). However, despite this rotated system being in use, residents of Fonadhoo often comment that these are not the ‘real’ cardinal directions, which are determined by the path of the sun.

Figure 5: Directions in Fonadhoo, Laamu Atoll, Maldives

In addition to the four cardinal directions, Dhivehi possesses four intercardinal directions, which are compound terms: iru-uturu ‘northeast’, iru-dekunu ‘southeast’, huḷangu-uturu ‘northwest’, and huḷangu-dekunu ‘southwest’. Yet even a system of eight compass points is not sufficient for describing directions over long distances, especially on the open sea where there are no landmarks to refer to. A system of 32 ‘sidereal’ compass directions (see Figure 6), based on the rising and setting points of stars in the night sky, is available for such purposes—for example, simāgu īran̊ ‘Arcturus rising’ points ENE or 67.5°, while simāgu astamān̊ ‘Arcturus setting’ points WNW or 292.5°. (These Dhivehi names for the sidereal directions are borrowings from Arabic, and were probably introduced by Arab seafarers in the medieval period, see Lum 174-79).  Eight sidereal directions coincide with the basic (inter)cardinal directions of the solar compass described earlier. For example, gahā ‘Polaris’ in the sidereal compass corresponds exactly with uturu ‘north’ in the solar compass. Thus Dhivehi has both a sidereal ‘north’ and a solar ‘north’, though the latter is sometimes rotated according to local topography. However, the system of sidereal compass directions has largely fallen out of use, and is known only to older and some middle-aged men. This appears to be due to the diversification of the Maldivian economy in recent decades along with the modernisation of Maldivian fishing vessels, including the introduction of GPS technology. Nonetheless, fishermen and fishing communities use solar compass directions much more frequently than other groups in the Maldives (Lum; Palmer et al.), and some of the oldest men still use sidereal compass directions occasionally.

Figure 6: Dhivehi sidereal compass with directions in Thaana script (used with kind permission of Abdulla Rasheed and Abdulla Zuhury)

‘North’ in English

The traditional definition of north in terms of Magnetic North or Geographic North is well known to native English speakers and may appear relatively straightforward. In practice, however, the use and interpretation of north is more variable. English speakers generally draw on cardinal directions only in restricted circumstances, i.e. in large-scale geographical or navigational contexts rather than, for example, small-scale configurations of manipulable objects (Majid et al. 108). Consequently, most English speakers do not need to maintain a mental compass to keep track of North at all times. So, if English speakers are generally unaware of where North is, how do they perform when required to use it?

A group of 36 Australian English speakers participated in an experimental task where they were presented with a stimulus object (in this case, a 10cm wide cube) while facing S72ºE (Poulton).  They were then handed another cube and asked to place it next to the stimulus cube in a particular direction (e.g. ‘put this cube to the north of that cube’). Participants completed a total of 48 trials, including each of the four cardinal directions as target, as well as expressions such as behind, in front of and to the left of. As shown in Figure 7, participants’ responses were categorised in one of three ways: correct, near-correct, or incorrect.

Figure 7: Possible responses to prompt of north: A = correct, B = near-correct (aligned with the side of stimulus object closest to north), C = incorrect.

Every participant placed their cube in alignment with the axes of the stimulus object (i.e. responses B and C in Figure 7). Orientation to Magnetic/Geographic North was thus insufficient to override the local cues of the task at hand. The 9% of participants showed some awareness of the location of Magnetic/Geographic North, however, by making the near-correct response type B. No participants who behaved in such a way expressed certainty in their responses, however. Most commonly, they calculated the rough direction concerned by triangulating with local landmarks such as nearby roads, or the location of Melbourne’s CBD (as verbally expressed both during the task and during an informal interview afterwards).

The remaining 91% of participants’ responses were entirely incorrect. Of these, 13.2% involved similar thought processes as the near-correct responses, but did not result in the identification of the closest side of the stimulus to the instructed direction. However, 77.8% of the total participants interpreted north as the far side of the stimulus. While such responses were classified incorrect on the basis of Magnetic or Geographic North, they were consistent with one another and correct with respect to an alternative definition of English north in terms of the participant’s own body. One of the participants alludes to this alternative definition, asking “Do you mean my North or physical North?”. We refer to this alternative definition as Relative North. Relative North is not bound to any given point on the Earth or a derivation of the sun’s position; instead, it is entirely bound to the perceiver’s own orientation. This equates the north direction with forward and the other cardinals’ points are derived from this reference point (see Figure 8). Map-reading practices likely support the development of the secondary, Relative sense of North.

Figure 8: Relative North and the Relative directions derived from it


We have compared the words closest in meaning to the English word north in four entirely unrelated languages. In the Australian Aboriginal language Kuuk Thaayorre, the ‘north’ direction aligns with the local coast, pointing in a direction 35 degrees west of Magnetic North. In Marshallese, the compass direction corresponding to ‘north’ is different for each island, being defined in opposition to an axis running between the ocean and lagoon sides of that island. The Dhivehi ‘north’ direction may be defined either in opposition to the (sun-based) east-west axis, calibrated to the configuration of the local island, as in Marshallese, or defined in terms of Polaris, the Pole star. In all these cases, though, the system of directions is anchored by properties of the external environment. English speakers, by contrast, are shown to—at least some of the time—define north with reference to their own embodied perspective, as the direction extending outwards from the front of their bodies. These findings demonstrate that, far from being universal, ‘north’ is a culture-specific category. As such, great care must be taken when translating or drawing equivalencies between these concepts across languages.


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spatial language; directions; navigation; Marshallese; Dhivehi; English; Aboriginal languages; Kuuk Thaayorre; compass

Copyright (c) 2018 Alice Gaby, Jonathon Lum, Thomas Poulton, Jonathan Schlossberg

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