The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone was found on this day in 1799. A quarter century was needed to decipher the parallel, three-language script, bringing us a decree by King Ptolemy V and, by about 1900, a worldwide metaphor. There are now “Rosetta Stone” claims for discoveries in physics, biology, immunology, cosmology, and more. Returning the metaphor to the study of communication systems, the modern-day Rosetta Project aims to create a permanent digital record of as many of the world’s languages as possible, before it is too late. It is estimated that there are currently some 7,000 languages, the majority of them disappearing quickly, taking whatever unique attributes they may have with them.

One of those disappearing (or perhaps disappeared) languages is the Guugu Yimithirr spoken by some Australian Aboriginals. Guugu Yimithirr gets a central chapter in Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, on many “Best Books of 2010” lists. Deutscher’s investigation of how culture and language interweave comes at the topic from many sides, and makes its argument–that different language can create different cultural perceptions–in colorful fashion, literally. Much of the discussion has to do with how words for color can change over regions and time: how the ancient Greeks saw “violet sheep” and “green honey,” why the green traffic lights of modern Japan are bluer than in the rest of the world.

But one pervasive aspect of Guugu Yimithirr provides us with “a glaring example–righter even than the language of color–of cultural conventions that masquerade as nature.” It seems that Guugu Yimithirr is a “geographic language” that gives its speakers “perfect-pitch for directions,” though they have no words for “left” and “right”–the “egocentric coordinates” most of the rest of the world relies upon to locate themselves:

Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions. 

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at