When up is down, Perceptions in Linguistics

In Uncategorized on January 18, 2015 at 4:31 am

By Antonio Graceffo

On a map up, we have all accepted that up is North (Actually, as a map is 2D, we have accepted that forward is both up and consequently North. Up would take you into a third dimension and off the map.).There is no reason for that. We just all agreed on it. But, when you go to a culture that isn’t familiar with maps, not only will they not know this, but they will ask you “why?”. And you will be unable to explain it, because you simply take it for granted.

Once, when I was teaching class in Germany, I went to point something out on a world map and was very embarrassed because I was having trouble orientating myself. This, of course, confirmed for my students, the prejudice that Americans are ignorant of world geography. The issue, I eventually figured out, was that in the US, America is at the center of a world map, and all other countries orient off that center. When I explained this to my German students, they attributed this fact to American nationalism, as everyone knows Germany is meant to be at the center of a world map.

Linguistically, we can see how our place in the world effects our perception and how that, in turn effects our language. On an American map, the Middle East is far away. In fact, it’s half-way to China, which is why we call it “The Middle East.” On a German map, the Middle East doesn’t seem all that far away. And thus, in German, the Middle East is called “The Near East.”

If the Middle East were nearer, would we have a different relationship with the policies we make?

Eventually, after having taught in so many countries, I realized that each country places itself at the center of its world map. Now that I know this, it makes perfect sense. Since, you would generally be looking at the world from your own country, facing out, the world is oriented off of your starting point. But knowing this still made it difficult to use maps when I later lived in Asia. Picture a world map where East Asia is the center, Europe is on the extreme left and America is on the far right. The first time I saw that, I asked “America is East of Taiwan?” But, the globe is a circle. I guess we could argue that any point is East of any other point.

There is one more perception for you. Where does East end and West begin on a circular object? And why? Let’s add to this that the Earth is not actually a circle, we have just decided it was convenient to draw it that way.


In the truest sense, the way a country makes a map demonstrates how that country perceives the world.

In the West, we read left to right, top to bottom. In other cultures they read right to left. And the front cover of the book is the back cover. But even in the west, the left to right across the page rule doesn’t always hold. A newspaper, for example, is read in vertical columns. I once had a class in Cambodia whose reading level was quite high, but the whole class failed a reading comprehension exam which was based on a newspaper text. They didn’t know to read a newspaper in columns, rather than straight across the page, left to right.

On the highway in America, arrows telling you to continue straight ahead, are actually pointing up into the sky. “Next rest stop, this way.” Does America have flying cars?

In Chinese, the word for “up” is “shàng” and it’s represented by a character that looks like an arrow pointing up into the sky 上. The word for “down” is “xià” and it’s represented by a character that looks like an arrow pointing “down”, into the Earth 下. And that all makes sense to my Western brain. But the Chinese word for next week is “Xià zhōu” 下周. In my mind, next week should be “up”, not down. But I guess, just like “North” being “up” there is no reason for me to feel that way. And yet, it seems counter intuitive that in Chinese next week, next time, and next month are all represented by a “down” character. The one logic I came up with for this might be because on a calendar, whether Chinese or Western, next week is down the page, and next month is down the page. In which case, the West is “wrong?”

Obviously, there is no wrong or right. But these types of perceptions, these prejudices that we have are so deeply instilled that we aren’t even aware of them. And, when we encounter a culture which sees the world differently, we either can’t understand or can’t imagine that people perceive the world in other ways.

An endless collection of these types of perceptions compose our relationship to and understanding of our native tongue, and to language in general. We carry these perceptions with us into foreign cultures, and then wonder why we have difficulty understanding our foreign friends or learning a foreign language.

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

The Monk from Brooklyn, the book which gave Antonio his name, and all of his other books, the book available at His book, Warrior Odyssey, chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia, including stories about Khmer and Vietnamese martial arts as well as the war in Burma and the Shan State Army,  is available at

See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on



Brooklyn Monk fan page

Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE

Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)


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