Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Symbolization and Conceptualization of Cardinal Directions in Central Eurasia1

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Symbolization and Conceptualization of Cardinal Directions in Central Eurasia1

Article excerpt

This paper is a comparative analysis of the cognitive correlation between the direction words and the direction symbols, involving Altaic, Sino-Tibetan, and Indo-European in its etymological explanations. In ancient mythology the scaly and shell-covered animals such as turtle, toad, and snake served to be a symbol for the north. This symbolization helped early people in the region to conceptualize the northern direction with the words for these animals. For example, Uigur paka 'toad' corresponds to Chinese pak 'north', and Chinese kui 'turtle' - Mongolian koina 'north'. It is only when our understanding of the nature of the direction symbols deepens, that their correlation with the direction words will become known.

Key Words: Cardinal Directions; Central Eurasia; Altaic; Sino-Tibetan; Indo-European; Mythology; Cosmogony; Zoographic symbolism.

1. Introduction

Direction words constitute a set of interdependent references contrasting to each other. In many languages the number of cardinal points differentiated by distinct lexemes runs to four: east and west, south and north. In order to launch a more global treatment of direction words, a broad definition of direction awareness is used as the criterion for inclusion in this study. I regard direction awareness as ranging from the cardinal points to such secondary directions as left and right, front and back, and to upper and lower (or zenith and nadir). A careful examination of the names of these directions and sides will have implications on generalizations about how directions arc perceived and determined in human cognition. The number of the direction words tends to be of closed feature, and they belong to the category of basic vocabulary in a language. However, these words have condensed cognitive achievements of human intelligence, and by these words the human beings are able to express and locate directions in their everyday life.

The cardinal directions may be represented symbolically by celestial bodies and their manifested patterns, animals, and natural phenomena such as winds blowing from certain directions. What has been done so far in the area of symbolization of cardinal points in different cultures did not develop the idea toward a theory of synthesizing the direction symbols and direction words from the cognitive and linguistic perspectives. This paper is a comparative and relativistic analysis of the cognitive correlation between the direction words and the direction symbols in Central Eurasia, involving Altaic, Sino-Tibetan, and Indo-European languages in its etymological explanations. The paper is organized in the following manners. In section 2 I discuss the direction symbolism and its cognitive significance in etymologizing direction words. Section 3 is concerned with the problem in direction words studies by drawing on Altaic data. In section 4 I put forward my etymological solutions to a number of direction words in terms of their cognitive correlation with direction symbols. And section 5 is a conclusion.

2. Direction Symbolism and its Cognitive Significance

In order to carry out a systematic examination of the cross-linguistic interaction of direction symbols and direction words, we need to elaborate in some detail how cardinal points could be symbolically delineated. In history the determination of cardinal points was replete with instances of correlation between direction symbols and direction words. Thus, there were numerous precedents in different cultures for the methods employed and the patterns achieved. The location and possible movement of the celestial bodies in the sky serve to be constant sources and reminders for the human beings to coindex them with directions. This stellar symbolization of directions and time flows probably had been present in the world since unmemorable remote antiquity and should be regarded as the most important pattern the human beings had habituated. In his study of the Roman customs in measuring time flow, Mommsen (1908:267) writes:

In the division of time the returns of sunrise and sunset, and of the new and full moon, most directly arrest the attention of man. …

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