- Referring to space: Studies in Austronesian and Papuan languages
A funny thing happened to us on our way to the Chen Foong Trading Co., in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, sometime last year. Uri Tadmor and I were in the back seat of a taxi, headed to the shop to order the bags for the 2nd Malay/Indonesian Linguistics Symposium and the 8th Meeting of the South East Asian Linguistic Society. As we drove, Uri and I were chatting intermittently to each other in Hebrew, and to the driver, who was an ethnic Malay, in Malay. Eventually, we arrived in what seemed to be the right neighborhood, but after going round in circles for ten minutes or so, it became obvious that the address of the shop, and the street signs, were of little use, and that we were lost. So we decided to ask somebody for directions. Moments later, we saw a man walking down the street. "Ask him," Uri said to the driver. Simultaneously, and in two different languages, Malay and Hebrew respectively, the driver and I turned to Uri with the identical response: "No, not him, he's Chinese."
This little anecdote reflects the fact that different cultures have different ways of giving directions, as also its corollary, namely that people living in multicultural communities often develop very specific opinions concerning these differences. In the case at hand, the driver and I shared the assumption that the directions that we were likely to be given by a Chinese person would be less helpful to us than those that might be given by a Malay. Whereas for the driver these beliefs may have been part of a larger array of attitudes exhibited by Malays towards their fellow Chinese citizens in Malaysia, for me they were the product of several years of expatriate experience, which had led me to expect that indeed, the directions offered by a Malay would be more intelligible to my own particular western way of thinking than those offered by a Chinese.
Of course, expectations such as these involve a host of folk conceptualizations and nonscientific inferences that may or may not be based on actual facts. Nevertheless, it is quite obviously true that people of different cultures do give directions in different ways. More generally, there is some reason to believe that people from different places, and speaking different languages, may have different conceptions of spatial relationships.
Gunter Senft has assembled a wide range of evidence in support of this view in an edited collection of papers titled "Referring to space: Studies in Austronesian and Papuan languages." The general question that the book is concerned with is stated in the introduction by Senft as follows (3): "By what means does a given language enable its speakers to anchor utterances that refer to space (and time) in a [End Page 421] given context? What do the expressions that refer to space mean? And how can they be used to form and construct a coherent grammatical utterance?" And a little further on (33): "Languages offer their speakers many means by which to refer to space. The aim of this anthology is to illustrate what kind of means speakers of Austronesian and Papuan languages employ for this task."
Some feel for how this question is addressed can be obtained by a look at the book's table of contents: 1. Introduction, Gunter Senft; 2. Semantic change and the conceptualization of spatial relationships in Austronesian languages, Robert Blust; 3. An exploration of directional systems in West Indonesia and Madagascar, K. Alexander Adelaar; 4. Spatial reference in New Caledonian languages, Françoise Ozanne-Rivierre; 5. Finding your way in Longgu: Geographical reference in a Solomon Islands language, Deborah Hill; 6. Constructing space in Kwaio (Solomon Islands), Roger M. Keesing; 7. Finding the right path: The route knowledge of the Yupno of Papua New Guinea, Jürg Wassmann; 8. Relativities: Use and nonuse of spatial reference among the Yale speakers in...