It’s well-known in the literature that languages can have various methods for the categorisation of space. The system that uses left, right and so on is the Egocentric system and the one that uses North, South, East and West is the Absolute system. Some cultures use only the absolute system (like a lot of Papua New Guinea cultures) and some use a mixture of the two. English, for instance, uses the egocentric system for close or medial spatial relations, and the absolute system for larger scale relations.

There’s also a third sort of system and it’s more or less a middle ground between these two. I forget the name of it, but the idea is you pick a geographically-salient landmark, a mountain or a river or something usually suffices, and make it the spatial centre. In this system, someone may be ‘more riverward’ with respect to you, but cross the river in the same order and you will then be ‘more riverward’ with respect to them.

Until recently I thought English only used the first two; the egocentric and the absolute systems. Then one day I heard¹ this announcement (emphasis added):

The ferry on the B side of the wharf, the Opera House side, goes to Manly only.

The ferry on the A side of the wharf, the Harbour Bridge side, goes to Taronga Zoo.

Is that not a landmark-centric spatial system?

While I’m on the topic, I tried (mostly in vain) to implement an absolute system for smaller-scale relations when I worked as a deliboy during my undergraduate years. The counter in this store ran almost due East to West, and people would ask for, say, ‘that leg ham, the one on the left’. Now, I could have done what most would in that situation and ask ‘My left or yours?’ but it isn’t as fun as asking ‘the one on the East or the West?’. It never did catch on. Customers just gave me looks of bewilderment as if they had no idea which was which, and the boss thought I was being a twat.


¹To be fair, I hear it about every second day as I am lucky enough to be able to catch a ferry to work, but until the other day I’d never paid any attention to it for its spatial relations.