Geocentric Direction Systems

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Have you ever been to a place and you seem not to be able to find directions and plain simple can’t understand why people describe places using strange terms? Or have tried to study some map when you travelled to another country and it seems the markers not just as easy to understand as you were expecting? Welcome to the world of Geocentric Direction Systems.

Cardinal Directions

The conventional way of describing a place or a location to another person is through the use of the Cardinal Points systems i.e. ‘North’, ‘East’, ‘South’ & ‘West’. For example, People say things like “I am going north of the Statue of Liberty” etc. This is the system that the compass is based on.

However, Geocentric Direction Systems are quite different in their mode of description.

What is a Geocentric Direction System?

A geocentric direction system is a topography-dependent orientation system. This means that people use land features or landmarks as reference when trying to describe a location or in giving direction.

This orientation is often found on maps of the different countries or cities in which it is been used.  You hear things like ‘uphill’, ‘downhill’, ‘downtown’, ‘across’, ‘upstream’, ‘downstream’, etc.

A map of California with major cities label and a red arrow with the label "down" pointing from San Jose to Los Angeles and a red arrow point from San Francisco to Eureka with the label "up".
In California, people frequently use geocentric directions. For example, when someone travels from Northern California, they may say they are heading “down” to Los Angeles or hearing “up” to Eureka. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

It might seem hard to believe, and often rather confusing at first, that people can navigate using such a seemingly complicated and arbitrary system. However, when you take a closer look at the way they use this code it is quite simple and not in any way more complex that the popular compass system.

It must however be stated at this point that this mode of description is not a universal rule meaning it varies from country to country. It is rather based on the language orientation of the people using it, hence it differs from village to village in the same country. This is the sole reason why it is referred to as Geocentric Direction Systems (not just System). It is more common in island regions.

Most research on Geocentric Direction Systems have been focused on Bali due to the uniqueness of their own system. However, they are not the only ones using this system of something similar. The others include Nepal, India, New York (particularly in Manhattan), Montreal, etc.

So the next time you visit a place and it seems the “North” is not really so called always remember that rather than the popular cardinal system your host culture use the Geocentric Direction System(s).

References

Dasen, P. R., & Mishra, R. C. (2010). Development of geocentric spatial language and cognition: An eco-cultural perspective (Vol. 12). Cambridge University Press.

François, A. (2015). The ins and outs of up and down: Disentangling the nine geocentric space systems of Torres and Banks languages. In The languages of Vanuatu: Unity and diversity. Asia-Pacific Linguistics, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

Velleman, L. (2014, August 26). When “North” Isn’t actually north: Geocentric direction systems. Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/08/geocentric-direction-systems-use-uphill-uptown-instead-of-north-south-found-in-bali-nyc-etc.html (Reddit commentary)

Wassmann, J., & Dasen, P. R. (1998). Balinese spatial orientation: some empirical evidence of moderate linguistic relativity. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 689-711. https://doi.org/10.2307/3034828

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Joe Akintola
Joe Akintola is a Geographer, researcher and writer whose passion to share information is the real driving force of his career.