Bill Watkins, who teaches Chinese and science at a small independent high school near Baltimore, asks three semi-related questions about directional words.
1. Chinese say the cardinal directions in this order, "east, south, west, north" (dōng 东, nán 南, xī 西, běi 北）whereas in English we say "north, south, east, west." Any explanation of and significance to the difference?
2. Chinese say dōngběi 东北, xīběi 西北, xīnán 西南, dōngnán 东南 ("east-north," "west-north," "west-south," "east-south"), but Japanese and Koreans reverse it, using the same order as we do in English. Why?
3. A fun science question is to ask Americans and Chinese which way a compass points. Americans say north (sometimes after a bit of thought); Chinese do not have to think, because the Chinese word for compass is "south-pointing needle" (zhǐnánzhēn 指南针). The follow-up question is who is right? Should it not be the Chinese, since they invented it? (Neither is right: the two-ended compass is aligning itself within a magnetic field. Which end one chooses to be the "arrow" is arbitrary.) But is there any significance to Westerners choosing north and Chinese the south? What about other cultures?
I am aware of these differences, but I don't know the answers to all of Bill's questions. Perhaps Language Log readers can provide some of the missing pieces.