Pointing accuracy has little to do with spatial frames of reference

Locational pointing in Murrinhpatha, Gija and English conversations.

An open access publication by Caroline de Dear, Joe Blythe, Francesco Possemato, Rod Gardner, Lesley Stirling, Ilana Mushin & Frances Kofod (2022), published in the journal Gesture (available here http://doi.org/10.1075/gest.20035.dea)

Australian Aboriginal people are well known for their ability to point accurately to locations that are very distant. This ability can seem uncanny to city dwellers who frequently struggle to decide which direction is north, south, or west, etc. For many years it was assumed that these opposing tendencies were outcomes of the relative frame of reference being dominant for English speakers and geocentric/absolute spatial frames being dominant for speakers of Australian Aboriginal languages, especially cardinal directions (north, south, east & west). This idea, originally articulated by Stephen Levinson, states that speakers of languages like Guugu Yimidhirr (in which absolute/geocentric spatial frames dominate) are continuously mindful of how they are oriented in space, which ultimately enhances their ability to communicate directions through linguistic expressions and/or gesture. In relation to pointing gestures specifically, the low degree of directional accuracy reported for urban English-speaking pointers has been attributed to the claimed dominance of the relative frame of reference (The ball is to the left/in front of the chair, as based on the speaker's perspective).

Explanations of this type, that linguistic and cultural factors influence cognitive behaviours beyond the linguistic domain, appeal to the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, aka the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Since these ideas were articulated in the late 1990s and early 2000s there has been an explosion of research on spatial systems, multimodality and the use of gesture in face-to-face conversation, including research that is explicitly comparative. We have since learned that:

  1. The diversity of spatial systems within Australia is much greater than had previously been estimated.

  2. Variation exists within speech communities, whereby preferred spatial frames of reference tend to correlate with environmental and demographic factors, and not with languages, per se.

The comparative design of the CIARA project makes for a naturalistic experiment in which the linguistic relativity explanation for the accuracy of pointing gestures can be tested in three small Australian outback communities (Wadeye, Warmun and Halls Creek). The conversations were conducted in Murrinhpatha, Gija and English, respectively, all of which have different frame of reference options:

  • Gija speakers have two types of geocentric/absolute frames of reference (cardinals, river drainage) as well as the intrinsic frame within the vertical axis, but they do not have the relative frame (left, right).

  • Murrinhpatha speakers do not have the relative frame of reference, nor do they have geocentric/absolute frames. Instead, speakers refer to landmarks and occasionally use the intrinsic frame (in front/behind).

  • English speakers make use of all three frames of reference: relative (left and right, in front and behind), absolute (e.g., cardinal directions) and intrinsic. However, it is regarded as a 'relative-dominant' language.

In the conversations we analysed all three groups showed a preference for referring to landmarks and using deictic expressions like ‘this way’ and ‘that way’. They also pointed to locations – a lot! Like a whole lot! The Murrinhpatha mob pointed the most, but all of the groups pointed very frequently overall.

You can read more about place reference and pointing among these particular English speakers from Halls Creek here, among Gija speakers here, and among Murrinhpatha speakers here.

In this paper we adopt a mixed methods approach. The methodology that we used to determine where people are referring to is described in greater detail in this journal article, and also in a forthcoming chapter that we prepared for conversation analysts and ethnomethodologists (watch this space). The qualitative analyses show that all three groups show the ability to point accurately to nearby locations, but also to locations that are hundreds or thousands of kilometres away.

We also performed quantitative analyses to determine what proportions of the locational points occurred with frames of reference terminology, and with deictic expressions like ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘this way’ and ‘that way’, etc. We found that the low numbers of relative terms in the English dataset do not support English being considered a ‘relative-dominant' language. The English conversational data actually patterns very similarly to the Murrinhpatha data in that both groups make negligible use of relative and absolute terminologies. All three groups refer to locations using landmarks and by pointing, but as far as parts-of-speech are concerned, points are most likely to coincide with deictics – not with frame of reference terminologies. This presents little evidence of a close relationship between pointing accuracy and linguistic frames of reference. In short, a linguistic relativity explanation isn’t supported by these data.

These findings accord with a sociotopographic account of gesture and language use. The connection to country experienced by the Australian Aboriginal speakers emerges through the ways in which they use language, gesture, and other practices to communicate the details of their environment, not only frames of reference terminologies. Parallel to this, the non-Aboriginal English speakers in these conversations are far from disengaged when it comes to knowledge of actual directions having lived and worked under the big blue skies of northern Australia for many decades. Perhaps other groups of English speakers living in settings other than outback northern Western Australia would behave differently. We suggest that it is the sociocultural connections that people have with the environment in which they live, not language alone, that ultimately determines their capacity to point accurately to the places around them.