Kuuk Thaayorre: Where Everything is Absolutely Relative

“Where are you going?” he asked.

” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” (Boroditsky 2009)

Sometimes, things are a matter of perspectives, at large. How I see this would most likely be different from how my seatmate would perceive it. Nonetheless, it is the processing – driven by the background, external factors – that constitute the perception. Even if the half empty cup turns out to be half full at times, the understanding of the existence of the cup is emphasized. Likewise, different approaches of views on things do not necessarily negate each other but rather comprise and weave a rather stronger claim for existence. Such, is language.

Alice Gaby (2012) explained in her article, “The Thaayorre Think of Time Like They Talk of Space,” spatial reference, which has identified different frames of references. In which, speakers of the English language predominantly employ the “relative” and “intrinsic” frames of reference. The reference of terms used within a relative frame must be considered based on a viewer’s perspective. Meanwhile, intrinsic terms are unaffected by the viewer’s perspective, instead being considered based on inherent features of the reference object.The third frame of reference is the absolute where the terms are anchored to a fixed set of coordinates independent of any observer’s viewpoint and unaffected by the features of any reference object (Gaby 2012).

As for English speakers, even if absolute cardinal directions such as north, south, east, and west are present in their language, the use of these are confined on large spatial scales only; and, they apply relative spatial terms such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ to describe non-geographical, small-scale arrays. However, unlike English, the Kuuk Thaayorre, a Paman language spoken in a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia by more than 200 people, has dozens of absolute terms, a handful of intrinsic terms, and no terms invoking a relative frame of reference. Thus, the speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre use absolute cardinal terms such as east, and west at all scales, including the spatial relationships between objects (Boroditsky 2011).

On the other hand, Chi-yue Chiu (2011) described in his paper, “Language and Culture,” several ways in which language use can affect non-linguistic thought processes. This includes the processing of language’s characteristic form, calling out to a language’s associated shared experiences, drawing attention to particular aspects of social relationships, facilitation of shared thought process, and affecting how the speakers experience the world.

Kuuk Thaayorre language’s usage of absolute cardinal terms at all scales affected, to some extent, its speakers’ non-linguistic thought processes. For instance, to probe on how they conceptualize time, Lisa Boroditsky and Alice Gaby conducted two experiments to elicit spatial representations of time. Kuuk Thaayorre speakers were asked to arrange sets of pictures to depict a temporal sequence. The sets of pictures illustrated events such as a man aging, and a crocodile growing. Undoubtedly, English speakers would arrange these cards from left-to-right (relative frame of reference), as that was what they’re accustomed to. However, the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers arranged the pictures from east to west. Hence, if they were faced north, the sequence would start from right to left. If they were faced east, the sequence would come towards the body, and so on. This was true even though the subjects were never told which directions they were faced. The speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre did not only know what direction they were faced but also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. (Boroditsky 2011). This, therefore, shows how the language use affected the thought processing of its speakers. Yet, it is still important to point out that these conceptions are influenced by a variety of external factors, both linguistic and non-linguistic. Moreover, they also claimed that Kuuk Thaayorre speakers are well-oriented and aware always of where they are, and that, they are much better than English speakers at navigation even at unfamiliar places or landscapes.

To explain this further, Gaby (2012) wrote in the same article that it may be that the habits of thought built through the frequent use of absolute spatial language lead the participant to apply the absolute frame to time in solving experimental tasks such as the task given. But an equally credible hypothesis is that these people live in a cultural and physical environment that encourages – or even forces them – them to attend to geographical cues and to store them in terms of the cardinal directions. This attention to cardinal directions would then be the source of: their complex linguistic encoding; their prominence in discourse; and their employment in improvised representations of time such as in the experimental tasks.

Furthermore, these findings together with the others not included on this paper, as how I see them relative to Chiu’s list of how language use can affect non-linguistic thought processes, may not only be confined on my understanding of how they scan and understand things or materials. But, rather, I believe that it may also pose a claim that this is a manifestation of their shared experiences and their facilitation of shared thought processes.

Following the logic of Nature-Nurture in language acquisition, young Kuuk Thaayorre who are learning the language, together with the thinking entailed, would have to be immersed not only in the behaviour he/she would see on his/her fellow but also in the utterances that go with them. Therefore, the relative environment for the language initiates or creates a reality then forms an experience among the individuals. As the language is acquired and the particular way of thinking is honed, the facilitation of the thought process, therefore, is influenced. Since the use of the absolute cardinal terms is necessary for their survival, for to not go with it would alienate you from the community, the speakers have been accustomed to it that they apply this shared thought and experience to several areas, as what we’ve seen at the onset.

As is typical of Australian Aboriginal societies, kinship is of central importance to the Thaayorre, with the system of Kuuk Thaayorre kin terms both highly elaborated and, impressionistically, of high frequency in natural language use. Indeed, this high frequency of usage not only reflects the importance of kinship, but also supports the retention and transmission of such a complex system (Gaby 2015). According to “Kinship And Skin Names: Central Land Council, Australia” (2017), it determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land. The kinship system determines who marries who, ceremonial relationships, funeral roles and behaviour patterns with other kin. Therefore, with this very rich lexicon of kinship, we see the tight social relationship among the Kuuk Thaayorre people.

Furthermore, languages may also affect how individuals experience the world (Chiu 2011). Following the claim of Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, the effect of language on color perceptions in Kuuk Thaayorre language cannot be applied. On a study by Claire Wallace (2012), “Color Terms In Pama-Nyungan Languages,” Kuuk Thaayorre has a single term for white-color category: [mu:l]. In the predicted order of color term acquisition white category immediately follows black category, so it makes sense for a language with only one color term that is not black category to have a term for white category. However, given that it is so unusual for a language not to have a word for black category, it is much more likely that these languages have at least two color terms, one for white category and one for black category, the latter of which was not recorded. This language has dictionaries with relatively few total words, which could explain the missing terms for black category.

Nonetheless, from the experiments conducted by Alice Gaby and Lera Boroditsky, the usage of absolute spatial terms alone is a manifestation not only of Kuuk Thaayorre’s unique characteristic form but also of its people’s shared experience and facilitation of shared thought.

Indeed, sometimes, to alienate you metaphorically from the center of the universe creates an absolutely whole new approach to life. Sometimes, it’s better to take the backseat and rationalize on ‘a long way far from west’ – where everything is relative.



Boroditsky, Lera. 2009. “How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think?”. Edge.Orghttps://www.edge.org/conversation/lera_boroditsky-how-does-our-language-shape-the-way-we-think.

Boroditsky, Lera. 2011. “How Language Shapes Thought”. Scientific American 304 (2): 62-65. Accessed February 20, 2017. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1481762.files/Boroditsky-2011.pdf

Chiu, Chi-Yue. 2011. “Language and Culture”. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 4(2).http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1098

Gaby, Alice. 2012. “The Thaayorre Think Of Time Like They Talk Of Space”. National Center For Biotechnology Information Database. Accessed February 20, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3428806/.

Gaby, Alice. 2015. Hyponymy And The Structure Of Kuuk Thaayorre Kinship. Ebook. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283297492_Hyponymy_and_the_structure_of_Kuuk_Thaayorre_kinship_2016.

“Kinship And Skin Names: Central Land Council, Australia”. 2017. Clc.Org.Auhttp://www.clc.org.au/articles/info/aboriginal-kinship.

Wallace, Claire. 2012. Color Terms In Pama-Nyungan Languages. Accessed February 20, 2017.http://ling.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/alumni%20senior%20essays/WallaceSeniorEssay.pdf.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s