These People Have a Mind-Bending Way to Navigate

The door of Sivek’s house looks out on a rising slope. But when he walks away from the door toward the rear of the building, he is walking “uphill”—even though the floor is flat. That’s because in Sivek’s tongue, indoor space is defined by imaginary slopes that are totally distinct from the world outside.

This is one of the most striking features of the Yupno language, spoken by around 8,000 people in the Finisterre mountain range of Papua New Guinea. While many languages around the world make use of body-based contrasts such as left and right or cardinal contrasts such as east and west, Yupno builds off the local topography to describe spatial relationships.

Such environmentally based systems for orientation are not uncommon. They can be found in indigenous languages in the Arctic, the Amazon, and the Himalaya, and various cultures embrace contrasts such as upriver/downriver or landward/seaward.

Now researchers from Chicago and California are finding that these systems can be extraordinarily flexible, to the point where Yupno speakers not only navigate using the slopes that surround their village, they project a “microworld” of slopes onto flat interior spaces.

“As soon as they enter the houses, the real topography is dropped and a new topography is created metaphorically inside the houses,” says Rafael Núñez of the University of California, San Diego, whose work was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration. “They would talk about ‘upvalley’ and ‘downvalley’ and ‘upslope’ and ‘downslope,’ but now on a completely flat surface and in a systematic way.”

Read more: National Geographic