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Kuuk Thaayorre: An Endangered Language with the Right Direction

A close-up of Australia on a map with pins stuck in various spots.

Imagine the ease of traveling with a GPS embedded in your mind. You might be surprised to hear that this idea is not that innovative and new. In fact, it’s rather ancient—at least as old as Kuuk Thaayorre, a language from the area of Pormpuraaw in Northern Australia.

I first learned of the Thaayorre language while studying linguistics. There are debates in the linguistic world on whether the language you speak changes how you think, but Kuuk Thaayorre is proof that language changes where you think—or at least, in which direction. The reason that Kuuk Thaayorre speakers always know where they’re going is that their language has no self-oriented sense of left or right, only the points of the compass. For example, if you spoke Kuuk Thaayorre, you might say, “There is an ant on your east leg.”

Sound absolutely foreign? Kuuk Thaayorre’s connection to direction has developed even more unfamiliar features. A conversation in Kuuk Thaayorre typically begins with the speaker asking, “Where are you going?” The other person might then reply, “Oh, south-southeast in the middle distance.” Direction is so key to communicating in Kuuk Thaayorre that even new speakers of the language report a kind of mental compass that follows them where they travel and resides in the back of their minds.

As a result, this unique aspect of Kuuk Thaayorre affects the Thaayorre people’s whole culture. They don’t view the past as stretching out behind them, or even in front of them. To the Thaayorre people, time always moves from east to west, just like the sun. It feels counterintuitive to non-native speakers, but Kuuk Thaayorre is actually not the only direction-based Australian Aboriginal language! This language family provides a fascinating example of one small linguistic change that has influenced an entire people’s thought patterns and way of life.

Unfortunately, Kuuk Thaayorre is endangered. Only about 150 of the approximately 350 remaining members of the Thaayorre ethnic group are native speakers of the language. But, unlike other endangered languages, Kuuk Thaayorre is still being taught to Thaayorre children. So, at least for this generation, linguists and other language lovers can continue to observe the fascinating and impressive effects of the Thaayorre language. Things are perhaps looking up—or should I say north?—for speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre.