I’m Walking South Easterly for Christmas

I know it’s hard to tell from my ramblings here, but I’m very fond of language, by which I mean the English language of course. I studied Latin in my first years at school, but haven’t managed to retain much beyond hic est puer and haec est puella. I fared a little better at French, although I was never what you might call fluent.

Later I opted for German and found it not unlike Latin, ie impenetrable. In the words of Jerome K Jerome, “I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since.”

This inability or unwillingness to learn a foreign tongue seems to be a peculiar national trait, all the more odd because of the number of words and phrases that English has borrowed from other languages, some of them obscure, and embraced as its own.

I don’t think we’re like this because we’re lazy, but because we have been spoiled by a language that is not overcomplicated by grammar and yet makes available a wide and colourful vocabulary we can use to describe the world around us.

Through the Language Glass explores the way we see the world through the language we speak. The Sunday Times review calls it “a remarkably rich, provocative and intelligent work of pop science” and so right up my street. Here is another quote:

Bizarre and fascinating, too, is the question of how directions are described. In English, we can navigate by “egocentric co-ordinates”, based on the speaker’s position (left, right, forwards and backwards), and also by “geographical co-ordinates” such as north, south, east and west.

The Australian aboriginal language of Guugu Yimithirr is one of a handful of languages that do not use “egocentric co-ordinates” at all, and navigates simply by north, south, east and west. A Guugu Yimithirr speaker, for instance, might report that Long John Silver was missing his northwesterly leg. Depending, that is, on the orientation of the television on which he watched Treasure Island.

How often do we give directions that don’t focus on the individual? As in ‘turn right at the lights‘ or ‘I’m walking backwards for Christmas‘. Compass points seldom come into it unless we’re buying a house and want to work out if the garden gets sun, or we’re planning on trying to find the North Pole.

In fact, that second paragraph sounds so alien, it might have come from h2g2. Looks like another title to add to the pile of books yet to be read.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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