LINGUIST List 14.2441

Mon Sep 15 2003

Qs: Eng Polar Opposites; Direction Word Order

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <>

We'd like to remind readers that the responses to queries are usually best posted to the individual asking the question. That individual is then strongly encouraged to post a summary to the list. This policy was instituted to help control the huge volume of mail on LINGUIST; so we would appreciate your cooperating with it whenever it seems appropriate. In addition to posting a summary, we'd like to remind people that it is usually a good idea to personally thank those individuals who have taken the trouble to respond to the query. To post to LINGUIST, use our convenient web form at


  1. michele bishop, presenting polar opposites?
  2. Ron Andrews, Order of compass directions in different languages

Message 1: presenting polar opposites?

Date: Sun, 14 Sep 2003 16:53:50 -0400
From: michele bishop <>
Subject: presenting polar opposites?

I am looking at the phenomenon of posing two alleged polar opposites in 
English that begin with comparing 'black and white', for example:

"It doesn't matter if you are black or white, ______________ or 

Does anyone have any insight into the function of such a construction? 
Is the intended focus on the first half (looking at issues of race), or 
on the second half (which would be filled in according to one's goal I 

"It doesn't matter if you are black or white, young or old".
In this case the emphasis seems to be on how different each member of 
the set is from the other as compared to:

"It doesn't matter if you are black or white, purple or green." This 
could be seen as as a request to look beyond race.

In sign language, the members of each pair are set up to the right and 
left of the speaker indicating two separate groups though not 
necessarily opposites. Does this function the same way in both ASL and 

Thanks for joining me in my musings! Would appreciate any thoughts on 
this topic!

Thank you,

Michele Bishop
Gallaudet University
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Order of compass directions in different languages

Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2003 10:32:35 +0900
From: Ron Andrews <>
Subject: Order of compass directions in different languages

Hello everyone,

Does anyone know the etymology or history behind the traditional
orders of compass directions stated in different languages?

In English, German, possibly French, Italian, Spanish and others, the
order is stated as "north, south, east, west". In Japanese, however,
the order is "east, west, south, north" (tou, zai, nan, boku). In
Chinese, I believe it's different again, as "east, south, west, north"
(dong, nan, xi, bei). Other than guessing at the importance of east
(rising sun) and north (direction of the head at death in Japan), I
haven't come up with what seem like plausible reasons for these
different orders. The orders used surely reflect other characteristics
of the cultures involved, but what are they? One Japanese fellow I
asked said he thought it was because in Japanese it's just easier to
say it that way. I'm thinking it's got to be a lot deeper than that.

I'm still scouring the Net and have looked through a few language
books I have at home but haven't found much yet. Also, I've posted
this question to a number of Japanese language-related newsgroups as
well as to the SWET (Society of Writers, Editors and Translators,
based in Japan) and Nihongo mailing lists. If anyone can suggest other
newsgroups, mailing lists, etc., that would be very helpful.

UPDATE: Since sending this query to the above resources, from the Net
( I've found a
case where at least one study suggests that "There is evidence to
suggest that cultures differ in the use of directional words."

Though this research no doubt covers much more depth than merely the
order of directional words when spoken or written together, it does
lend some credence to the possibility that the spoken/written order
does indeed have cultural roots. For now, this is what I'm interested
in learning about. 

So, why are there different ways of saying/writing the order of these
directions in different languages?

Many thanks for any help with this.

Ron Andrews
Nara, Japan
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue