Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How many cardinal compass points are there?

I wonder why we have four points on the compass. I suppose it comes from the idea of 'in front', ''behind', ''left' and 'right', and is mandated by the shape of our bodies.

I wrote yesterday about the book You Call It Desert - We Used to Live There, written byPat Lowe with Jimmy Pike. It's about what is now known as The Great Sandy Desert, in inland Australia.

The people who lived in this place needed to know where they were going, because a mistake in heading for a waterhole could have fatal consequences. The authors say:
...the six directional names: East, West, North, South, Up and Down are in constant use, not only in reference to travel but also in discussions of the relative positions of people and objects over even the smallest spaces and distances... A language reflects the preoccupations of its speakers, and Walmajarri has not one but a dozen or more words to refer to each of the cardinal compass points. Such a variety of terms enables a speaker to convey with great economy the precise locations of an event, place or object. So, by using different terms derived from the root word kurlirla (south) a user of Walmajarri can tell a listener whether the subject being discussed is to the far or near south, in or out of sight, approaching from the south, due south, or simply to the south of the speaker and perhaps lying or travelling, like a river or a bird, from east to west.

This last meaning reminds me of the way Europeans name winds. I always feel a bit confused about whether a west wind, for instance, comes from the west, or is heading to the west - until a burning north wind blows into Melbourne and I remember it's coming from the hotter north.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

How many seasons in Australia?

Recently I've been reading an interesting book about the seasons in Australia -  Sprinter and Sprummer. It made me realise that Australian conditions don't fit the seasonal template developed for Britain, the USA and Europe.

The author,  Timothy Entwisle, says indigenous cultures in this continent divided the year in different ways, many having six seasons, some five, and at least one only four seasons.

I've just finished reading another book also - You Call It Desert, We Used to Live There. It's about the  people who lived in what's now known as The Great Sandy Desert. Many still visit or live there, but not in the same numbers as before contact with Europeans.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the use of verb tense. The Introduction says:
In the following chapters I describe some of the features of life in the desert as told or shown to me by people who once lived here. Where there has been no real change I use the present tense, and when I describe life as it was lived by nomadic bands before they settled I use the past. The language in the text is Jimmy Pike's language, Walmajarri.
In the chapter on telling the time, the authors - Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike - say:
Seasons were marked in several ways. First, there were the changes in weather each with its own term: wantapuru (cold time), larlilari(mild-weather time), parranga (hot time), yitilal (rainy time), and jutalkarra (after rain or green-grass time). Then there was the night sky: the appearance of certain constellations heralds or coincides with particular terrestrial events and is in some cases believed to be responsible for them. The arrival of the seven women or jakulyukulyuwarnti - the Pleiades - in the sky before dawn signals the onset of the coldest nights. 

These are two books to show modern Australians we have a lot to learn from the original inhabitants about how best to live here - and we can't slavishly follow habits developed in the opposite hemisphere.