Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on September 20th, 2010

Near northern Vilnius. (click to enlarge)

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.

  1. 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. []

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4 Responses to “Cardinal directions in Lithuanian culture”

  1. As a Lithuanian I’ve never noticed that we don’t use cardinal directions in our language. I think we only use them when we want to say where to find a place on a map, like ’10 kilometers south of Vilnius’ etc.

    But it’s hard for me to believe that Lithuanians don’t feel where south or north is. Maybe it’s just me, but I can always imagine where I am in town and which direction I am facing to. But I would definitely have difficulties talking to someone speaking Guugu Yimithirr indoors :)

  2. There was an article in the NYTimes recently that had a section about this (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08.....038;st=cse). I have noticed this myself in many European cities. I think that Chicagoans are particularly likely to orient themselves by cardinal direction – of the location of the water and also the extremely grid-like street planning make this very easy. Here in Europe I frequently frustrate people by saying “meet me on the north corner of x and z” (actually I frustrate myself, sometimes, because I’m often not sure which corner the north corner is, and I spend a certain amount of time trying to figure it out while my British friends shake their heads at me in incomprehension).

  3. I started thinking a bit more about this phenomenon this morning. The reason I said, “turn north on Kalvarijų” was because I knew my friend worked “near the intersection,” but I had no idea from where she’d be coming, so I chose an absolute, not relative direction.

    I was also involved in a conversation with someone who insisted that Kaunas is south of Vilnius (latitudinally) because the road (A1) leading out of Vilnius that takes you to Kaunas leaves Vilnius via the southwest corner. But then it bends northwest. Kaunas is mostly west, but it’s also a bit north…

    …this is in fact *another* discussion… I got into arguments over whether Gariūnai was latitudinally south of Senamiestis. I maintained that it was, and the person I was talking to insisted that if it’s (latitudinally) south of Senamiestis, it’s by such a small bit to count. It’s due west, my friend asserted. Again, you get on the A1, but you go quite a ways southwest before hitting Gariūnai. (This friend also argued that Savanorių pr. was for all intents and purposes an east-west street. In fact, it runs more or less exactly NE/SW. Whatever.

  4. Dear Moacir,

    You are right, all the conversations and iccidents that you or your friend had can be simply explained by cultural differences. By saying that we want to bear in mind that cultural differences or certain way of behaviour exist for the reason. And there is no reason to call Lithuanians lacking of cardinal directions. I completely disagree with you on that. First of all you want to consider the difference between Chicago with Vilnius (the largest Lithuanian city). Not even that, take US and compare it with any other European country. You may agree that the difference in size is more than obvious. One state is larger than a country in Europe. Cultural differences also exist for the reason. For me, as being Lithuanian, would sound funny and even ridiculous if somebody would tell me go north or south. Just as Taska said that she would often frustrate people by saying ‘meet me at the right corner’. Lithuanians are not used to be given directions that way, it is uncommon, at least I have never came across, as there is no necessity to. Even though Vilnius is a big city, it is not as big as to use cardinal directions. For me, there is an easier way to explain things. Different objects would come to help, would it be a church, a bus stop, a river, or a bank building. There are not so many of them, and all of them will be quite ditictive, most probably unlike to Chicago. I have never been to Chicago, I would love to go there though. But I really don’t see, how knowing cardinal directions would help me to find a place in Lithuania.
    However, this is a piece of valuable information to me. It is very interesting to hear such an insight from a foreign perspective. As a Lithuanian person, I would have never in my life discovered such a thing. Thank you for that.