This is me playing anthropologist, and it’s light, anecdotal, and the rest, but I still found it rather interesting. I was at dinner with a friend while I was in Vilnius, and somehow, for some reason, cardinal directions came up. The friend refused to dare to guess where north was, relative to our positions on the patio of the restaurant. My friend, who has lived in Vilnius for probably at least five years, protested that she wasn’t a scout, and so didn’t have to know cardinal directions. I couldn’t believe this; it just struck me as so bizarre. Mind, I could only hit north within about 40 degrees, but I at least had a general sense of what direction it was in. Maybe it was a fluke, then, I thought, and I pushed it aside.
Then another friend was asking me directions to the apartment I was staying at, in a neighborhood called “Šiaurės miestelis” (“Northtown,” I guess). I told her to go “north” on Kalvarijų g. from the intersection with Žalgirio g.—as visible on the map here. She asked me if “north” meant “toward Oldtown” or “away from Oldtown.” I was dumbfounded. How could someone not know that Oldtown was south of the intersection? It’s south of even a major landmark like, say, the river! This person, too, is a many year resident of Vilnius and even knew the neighborhood she was driving to. She just didn’t know it by any sort of reference to cardinal directions.
I mentioned this all to a friend from the US who had been living for many years in Lithuania, and he couldn’t believe it, either. So he started asking Vilnius natives when we were outside where, precisely, was north. No one was correct within 90 degrees despite a random success rate of 25%!
Finally, I called for a taxi and told the driver I was at the cathedral’s bus stop. The taxi driver didn’t ask if I was “northbound” or “southbound,” but, rather, if I was going “toward the river” or “away from the river.”1 This is a smaller thing, of course, but anyone familiar with the location of the cathedral in Vilnius (also on this reproduced map) can clearly see that if I’m standing near it and going toward the river, I’m also northbound.
Obviously, when I usually give directions, I don’t give them based on cardinal directions. I’ve had to give several directions to friends visiting me in Paris that would be completely useless with cardinal directions (they are tourists, and they are often underground). But wherever I live, I tend to have a constant sense of where north is. I may have to consider it for a few moments, but I wouldn’t just throw up my hands and say “iono.” And in Chicago, we’d frequently give directions of the “I’m on the northeast corner” variety. Knowing your bearings in Chicago is, of course, very easy, but I’d argue knowing which way north is at the intersection of Žalgirio and Kalvarijų is the same way.
So what accounts for this? Is it, as I surmised, a widespread cultural difference? I’ve been told that in Toronto, one says things like, “go toward the CN Tower” (or “go away from the CN Tower”), and I certainly am not particularly confident about my bearings there, but I have also never lived in Toronto. Are there other kinds of directional terminology used in other places or cultures? If I dropped you in the middle of Senamiestis in Vilnius, how long would it take you to be confident you know which way is north?
This is a bit germane because of the discussion of Guugu Yimithirr in Guy Deutscher’s super popular article from the New York Times Magazine last month. Apparently the speakers of this language are the exact opposite of my Lithuanian consultants: they can only give directions or describe things in space using cardinal directions.
- The cousins of these “-bound” directions, “inbound” and “outbound,” confuse the hell out of me in Boston on the T. If I’m at South Station, and I want to go to Park Street, am I considered “inbound” or “outbound”? Is there a point where each line switches, and all Boston inhabitants know this? Maybe intuitively? Ah, the MBTA to the rescue: “In the subway system, Inbound is toward four stations: Park Street, State, Downtown Crossing and Government Center. (Within those four stations, Inbound and Outbound are not used.)” That makes sense, but I just always keep the terminus in mind and go based on that. [↩]