Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | December 28, 2009

Telling Left from Right

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1992). ‘Left’ and ‘right’ in Tenejapa: Investigating a linguistic and conceptual gap. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung, 45(6), 590-611.

From the perspective of a Kantian belief in the fundamental human tendency to cleave space along the three planes of the human body, Tenejapan Tzeltal exhibits a linguistic gap: there are no linguistic expressions that designate regions (as in English to my left) or describe the visual field (as in to the left of the tree) on the basis of a plane bisecting the body into a left and right side. Tenejapans have expressions for left and right hands (xin k’ab and wa’el k’ab), but these are basically body-part terms, they are not generalized to form a division of space. This paper describes the results of various elicited producton tasks in which concepts of left and right would provide a simple solution, showing that Tenejapan consultants use other notions even when the relevant linguistic distinctions could be made in Tzeltal (e.g. describing the position of one’s limbs, or describing rotation of one’s body). Instead of using the left-hand/right-hand distinction to construct a division of space, Tenejapans utilize a number of other systems: (i) an absolute, ‘cardinal direction’ system, supplemented by reference to other geographic or landmark directions, (ii) a generative segmentation of objects and places into analogic body-parts or other kinds of parts, and (iii) a rich system of positional adjectives to describe the exact disposition of things. These systems work conjointly to specify locations with precision and elegance. The overall system is not primarily egocentric, and it makes no essential reference to planes through the human body.



  1. This was fascinating. I posted a link to it on Facebook, where some of my 531 “friends” have backgrounds in Math, som in Linguistics, some in Philosophy, and I hope to get their comments. Thank you, Alexandre Borovik.

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