Guugu Yimithirr

No, I have not let my 3-year-old loose on the keyboard.

‘Guugu Yimithirr’ is an Australian aboriginal language of the Guugu Yimithirr people of Far North Queensland. The highlight of my week may well be coming across an article about it in the New York Times. (Thank you, Tom Vanderbilt, for the great tip off.)

Why the joy?

Guugu Yimithirr is an extremely space conscious language and its speakers do not refer to the position of things relative to themselves, but relative to the cardinal points. It is always turn east or west, not left or right. Always ‘pass the salt, its just to the north of you’, not ‘it is under your nose’. This constant ‘cardinal awareness’ means that speakers of Guugu Yimithirr must remain aware of directional clues at all times, even if this is just the layout of their village, but it also means that they experience the world in a different way too.

When everything from dance moves (move your east foot to the south…) to television pictures (the characters on TV move north, south, east and west too) is governed by directional understanding and awareness the human experience becomes alien, puzzling and perhaps richer from a western perspective. One of the few things that we can probably all agree appears is that our perspective is western.

It is likely a beautiful coincidence that it was a Guugu Yimithirr tribe that watched one of the best known navigators of history, Captain James Cook, approaching the shore of Queensland at what became known as Cooktown. Although, of course, he was not so much ‘approaching the shore’ as moving northwest.

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