When "North" Isn't Actually North: Geocentric Direction Systems

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Aug. 26 2014 9:53 AM

When "North" Isn't Actually North: Geocentric Direction Systems

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If you were traveling around Bali with a compass, you would find yourself confronted with a linguistic puzzle. The word kaja in Balinese is sometimes translated as meaning "north." And in South Bali, where most of the population lives, you would find that kaja does seem to mean exactly that. But as you traveled into the countryside, you would find villages where kaja seemed to mean "south," "east" or "west" instead.

The solution? Balinese direction terms have a different logic than English ones do. Balinese has what is called a geocentric directional system, based on geographic landmarks rather than points on a compass. Really, what the word kaja means is "uphill"—that is, "towards the biggest mountain in the area." Most often that’s Gunung Agung, the big volcano in the center of the island. But in villages where Gunung Agung isn’t visible, kaja is aligned with a different mountain instead. Sometimes, two neighboring villages on opposite sides of a divide will align kaja with two different mountains. And the rest of the direction system in Bali is just as geographically specific. Kelod is the opposite of kaja: It points away from the high ground. The system is rounded out with kauh and kangin, which in coastal villages point clockwise and counterclockwise along the shore.

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It might seem hard to believe, at first, that people can navigate using such a seemingly complicated and arbitrary system. What do you do when you travel from one village to another? How do you keep track of which way kaja is? But it turns out that Balinese people manage just fine. The system is no more arbitrary than our familiar sun-based north-south-east-west, and it has one major advantage: It works on cloudy days and nights when you can't see the sun and stars. If you can see the horizon, you will always know which way is kaja.

Bali isn’t the only place where spatial language works this way. In Klamath, spoken in the Pacific Northwest, the cardinal directions are "uphill," "downhill," "upstream," and "downstream." In Tseltal- and Tsotsil-speaking Mayan villages of Chiapas, Mexico, there are only three direction terms, "uphill," "downhill," and "across." Speakers of these languages use the same word for "across to the left" and "across to the right"—which, again, you might expect to cause confusion, but which in practice turns out to work just fine. Three-direction systems are also found elsewhere in Mesoamerica, and throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania.

And then there’s New York City

The island of Manhattan turns out to be a perfect place for geocentric language. It is long, thin and straight, lined up with the current of the Hudson river and with a tidy grid of streets that run parallel to its shores. The longest roads on the island—and the shape of the island itself and of the river it sits next to—are like built-in compass arrows pointing northeast and southwest. So it is no surprise that New Yorkers have used that geographic compass to coin their own set of geocentric spatial terms: downtown is towards the downriver end of the island, where the oldest buildings are; uptown is towards the upriver end, approaching the Bronx; and crosstown is perpendicular to the other two. Like the Tseltal, New Yorkers do not have separate terms for "across to the left" and "across to the right," using the same word, crosstown, for both.

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As the word downtown spread to other cities, its meaning began to shift. In many places now, downtown isn’t a point on the local compass but rather the name of a neighborhood, usually one that’s old, busy and built-up like the downtown end of Manhattan. But a few other places have a tradition of using "up" and "down" the way New York does. Historically in New Orleans, uptown was upstream along the Mississippi river and downtown was downstream. In Montreal, "up" is towards Mount Royal and "down" is towards the Saint Lawrence. In most of the city, that makes "up" northwest or due west, but in a few neighborhoods on the far side of the mountain, the direction of "up" is reversed—just as it would be in Bali!

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To add to the confusion, Montrealers use the words north, south, east, and west in a geocentric way as well. "Montreal east" is really downstream along the Saint Lawrence River—which in compass terms is almost due north. The neighborhood called Le Sud-Ouest ("the southwest") is further east than much of the city on a compass, though in Montreal terms it is indeed "southwest" of downtown. And the "south end" of the Victoria Bridge, which crosses the Saint Lawrence at a slight angle, is really further north than the "north end." Although it confuses tourists sometimes, it works well once you know the system since all the streets are parallel or perpendicular to the river.

Despite all these different systems, North Americans manage just as easily as Balinese people do. Geocentric language might make mapmakers and pedants throw up their hands in despair, but it's convenient and easy to learn—so long as every town, village, or neighborhood can agree on which end is up.

In fact, I've probably barely scratched the surface: Have you ever lived somewhere that has a local geocentric direction system? Let us know how it worked in the comments or on Twitter.

All maps by Google Maps, annotated by Leah Velleman.

*Correction, Aug. 27, 2014: The word "kaja" was originally misspelled on the two maps of Bali.

Leah Velleman is a linguistics PhD candidate at UT Austin. She studies Mesoamerican languages, word meanings, and how conversations work.