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Old 09-20-2019, 08:00 AM
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Origins of Left and Right


How long have humans been differentiating between left and right? I guess there's always been the idea of one's dominant hand, the "sword hand." But that's not exactly the same as "the tree on the right" or "take a left turn." What's the earliest reference to right and left directions, as opposed to east, west, and such? Also, are there any cultures that do not have the concept of right and left directions?
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Old 09-20-2019, 08:08 AM
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Originally Posted by Hypno-Toad View Post
Also, are there any cultures that do not have the concept of right and left directions?
In this video (cued to item #3), Tom Scott describes an Australian aboriginal culture/language that does not differentiate between left and right. Directions are expressed within an absolute frame of reference. north/east/south/west. If you lose track of what direction you're facing, you've got a problem.

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guugu_...nguage#Grammar .
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Old 09-20-2019, 03:19 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Machine Elf View Post
In this video (cued to item #3), Tom Scott describes an Australian aboriginal culture/language that does not differentiate between left and right. Directions are expressed within an absolute frame of reference. north/east/south/west. If you lose track of what direction you're facing, you've got a problem.

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guugu_...nguage#Grammar .
There's also the Yupno language which is used in parts of New Guinea. In Yupno, directions are based on things being downhill and uphill. It's not just the obvious use of referring to things which are literally further up or down a hill than the speaker. If a Yupno speaker in inside a house, the door become the metaphorical valley and directions within the house are based on whether they are downhill or uphill from the door - even if the house is positioned so that the door is literally uphill from the rest of the house. And the middle of the house is metaphorically considered to be a valley that "rises" to the walls - again independent of the actual slope of the house.
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Old 09-20-2019, 08:07 PM
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Among the Pirahã in the Amazon, there are no words for right and left. The approximately 400 people in this group all live around one river. They have words for upstream/downstream/towards the river/away from the river:

https://mountainwashere.com/2016/09/...-over-culture/
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Old 09-21-2019, 02:22 PM
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Pirahã is rather a special case, though: There's lots of things they don't have words for, that most folks would consider essential concepts. IIRC, the speculation was that at some point in the fairly recent past, there was some sort of cataclysm that killed all of the adults of the tribe, leaving continuity carried on only by relatively uneducated children.
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Old 09-21-2019, 04:38 PM
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I found this on the origin of 'left' and 'right' but it doesn't really address the OP's question.

Quote:
The root sense of “right” (from the Indo-European root “reg”) is “to move in a straight line” or, figuratively, “to rule or guide.” In Latin, the derivative “rectus” meant “straight” (and gave us such words as “rectify” and “rectitude”), and “rex,” drawn from the same source, meant “leader or king.”

~~

The word “left” itself comes from Old English roots meaning “weak” or “foolish,” and it didn’t assume its place as the opposite of “right” until the 13th century. Interestingly, “left” replaced the Old English “winestra” as the common term for the side of the body opposite to “right.”

http://www.word-detective.com/2012/01/right-left/
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Old 09-22-2019, 09:41 AM
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Martin Gardner has written extensively on left and right as concepts, and on the surpsiring difficulty of definining them in a stric scientific sense, in his book The Ambidextrous Universe. He doesn't cover the historical genesis, though.
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Old 09-22-2019, 10:40 AM
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Also not addressing the OP's concern, but the idea of handedness has very old roots

https://uwaterloo.ca/wat-on-earth/ne...gin-handedness

There's plausible evidence that trilobites, simple creatures that lived 500 million years ago, had a handedness preference -- fossils with scars on one side are heavily biased towards the scars being on the right of the animal, so either they or their predators were probably handed, and more likely to attack or evade in one direction rather than the other.
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Old 09-22-2019, 10:49 AM
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Life itself started out with handedness, using only left handed amino acids and right handed sugars. It's remained that way without exception.
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Old 09-22-2019, 10:59 AM
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This is in the same area as "who were the first people to talk"? On QI it would warrant a "NOBODY KNOWS".

Last edited by bob++; 09-22-2019 at 10:59 AM.
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Old 09-22-2019, 11:05 AM
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Originally Posted by bob++ View Post
This is in the same area as "who were the first people to talk"? On QI it would warrant a "NOBODY KNOWS".
Their loss. I had no idea that there were languages that did not reference "left" and "right". This is unexpectedly fascinating.

Last edited by Sunny Daze; 09-22-2019 at 11:07 AM.
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Old 09-22-2019, 12:45 PM
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I suppose that somewhere is the earliest recorded reference to right and or left. Any clues on that?
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Old 09-22-2019, 03:39 PM
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I can't find a list of all the languages without words for right and left, but it includes Guugu Yimithirr, Kayardild, and Pormpuraaw in Australia, Sambali in the Philippines, Yupno in New Guinea, and Pirahã in Brazil. Tseltal in Mexico has words for right and left in the body, but they don't use those words for anything outside the body. I found a claim that there are languages with no words for right or left in Polynesia, Namibia, and Bali.
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Old 10-04-2019, 01:42 AM
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In this YouTube video, not having words for right and left is referred to as absolute direction, and it's mentioned as a feature that some languages have but English doesn't have:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYlVJlmjLEc
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