North, south, east, west

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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.


  1. maidhc said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 5:52 am

    It's a common concept in many Indo-European languages that we orient ourselves, i.e., stand looking at the rising sun. So north is to the left and south is to the right. West is to our back, which is the direction of death.

    So north (left), south (right), east (forward), west (back). Compare the old Catholic joke: "spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch".

    People who live in high Northern Hemisphere latitudes would most likely navigate using the Pole Star. So a compass would likely be seen as something that points to the North Pole even during the day. Whereas if you lived closer to the equator, it would be more random whether you thought a compass pointed north or south.

    Whether you say "Northeast" or "Eastnorth" seems like a minor language point. Either way would work.

    Here is another variation. In English of an old-fashioned kind, we say "here", "hither", "hence". In Irish, for example, the directions have a similar structure, so there are different words for "in the north", "to the north", "from the north".

  2. John Shutt said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:19 am

    Re (1) I've toyed over the years with two theories, neither of which enthuses me. Perhaps, somewhere in the misty past, somebody-or-other wanted to discourage associations of deosil ordering with pre-Christian religion, and 'signing the cross' calls for two perpendicular lines. Alternatively, perhaps it's a matter of the sound of the words: pairing the two "-th" words, and pairing the two "-st" words. The phonaesthetic theory seems to me more compelling for (2). I somewhat prefer the phonasthetic theory over the religious for (1), possibly due to a soft spot for phonaesthetics.

  3. Jim Breen said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:20 am

    Not answering Bill's questions, but pointing out that in Japanese you can say it both ways. Both 東南 and 南東 mean "south-east", with the latter being about twice as common.

    Similarly for "north-east" you can say either 北東 or 東北, although the latter is usually reserved for the name of the region to the NE of Tôkyô (Tôhoku).

  4. mcur said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:22 am

    re: question 2, as far as I know the Japanese order was informed by the Chinese order in the past, hence place names like the Tohoku region (東北地方) and South-East Asia (東南アジア, lit. "East-South Asia"). At some point (Meiji period? Post-WWII?) this changed to follow the Western order simply as a move towards westernization.

    Of course, there's also the classical Japanese cardinal directions, which were likewise informed by Chinese culture: NE is 艮 (ushitora, "ox-tiger"), SE is (巽 tatsumi, "dragon-snake"), etc. These go clockwise around the zodiac, so effectively they end up being NE, ES, SW, WN, which is a totally separate order again.

    Do/did the Chinese use zodiac signs for directions, or was that a Japanese innovation on a borrowed idea?

  5. GH said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:42 am

    I would speculate that the conventional ordering of the cardinal directions in English comes from thinking of them as two axes, so that it's really "North-South, East-West."

    Apparently it's not a fixed pattern throughout Europe; at least a colleague informs me that in German it goes "Nord, Ost, Süd, West."

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:52 am

    The conventional orders of the pairs north/south and east/west are alphabetical in English. That might be pure coincidence but it's not implausible to think that alphabetical-order might become conventional for such pairs when there's no other "natural" order from a conceptual perspective. The same alphabetical order, however, seems to hold true for most/all modern Germanic/Romance languages, so it's maybe hard to find a test case where cultural background is similar but alphabetical order would dictate a different result to see what happens.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:52 am

    South has traditionally been the most propitious direction in Chinese culture and cosmology.

    See, for example, "The 'South' in Chinese History", by D. W. Y. Kwok.

    Ancient Chinese spoke of "the south-facing ruler" (nán miàn chēng wáng 南面称王). From the time I began studying Chinese language and culture, oh, so long ago, I have always felt that the underlying reason for that was because — for the denizens of the Yellow River Valley where the kings and emperors of the past were situated — the South was the direction of warmth. They oriented their thrones and their palaces to the south, whereas the north to their backs was the direction of darkness and cold.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 6:56 am

    FWIW, the google books n-gram viewer indicates that in its corpus "north to south" has consistently been more common than "south to north" and the same with "east to west" versus "west to east."

  9. GH said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 7:05 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    East-West is a natural ordering since that's the way the sun moves (appears to move). As for North-South, that might also derive from the role of the Pole Star in navigation, thus making North primary.

  10. Jason Cullen said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 7:17 am

    "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?"

    The obvious answer is "why not?" We have two possible options: northeast or eastnorth, and it turns out that some languages use one and other languages use the other. Why not?

  11. JS said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    An elderly teacher of mine in Beijing once drew a map of the adjoining area with south at the top, explaining that while he realized maps now generally did the opposite, he preferred to show things "as they really were." That is to say, south = forward/front is a longstanding and pervasive association within Chinese culture; the word bei3 北 'north' is generally understood to be related to that for 'the back, turn the back to', bei4 背. (Laurent Sagart at some point proposed a parallel etymology for the word 'south', nan 南, which in my view was rather less convincing.)

    To add to what GH says about "the way the sun moves," the traditional Chinese order of the cardinal directions (dong > nan > xi > bei / E>S>W>N) offers a still fuller sequence. The sun(s?) is at early epochs understood to emerge in the east, move to the south, descend in the west and then return to its point of origin via the northern/subterranean "yellow springs."

    I suppose I would see the (dong or xi)+(nan or bei) sequence for the ordinal directions as reflecting the prominence of nan and bei, as one might understand preceding dong/xi as serving a grammatical modifying role. (That is, dongnan / xinan are first of all kinds of south.)

  12. Joseph F Foster said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 8:23 am

    The or a partial answer to this maylie in ancient Chinese astronomy, which was rather different from Mediterranean astronomy. The latter was ecliptically oriented while Chinese astronomy was equatorial, with the center of the sky being the Forbidden Purple Enclosure — the North circumpolar stars, more or less-and then orienting [pun with malice aforethought] everything else in the sky out from that. Nearest thing to the "zodiac" was the 28 houses, derived from the Synodic Month, 29.53 days. So the answer to the question of order of the cardinal directions might derive from Chinese astronomy. Then of course again, the customary ordinary recitation of the directions may antedate bureaucratization of the sky in Chinese culture.

    As to the saying that the compass points "South", the early Han Dynasty compasses were spoon shaped devices, with the cup, or "enclosure" [possibly analogous with the circumpolar center of the sky in the Forbidden Purple Enclosure] at the North end and the stem "pointing" to the Southerly end of the magnetic alignment. It is though that these N~S aligning spoons may have been magnetized lodestones.

  13. Hilário de Sousa said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 8:40 am

    北 'north' and 背 'back' are etymologically related; 北 has *entering tone, and 背 has *departing tone (i.e. in Old Chinese the etymon of 'back' had an extra -s suffix). (Similarly, in Manchu 'south' and 'front' have similar forms, and in Mongol öbür is 'front'/ 'sunny side'.)

    Analogous to the order of 左右 'left right' and 前後 'front back', if you face the south, you have 東西 'east west' and 南北 'south north'.

    As for why 東南西北, rather than, e.g., 南北東西… I don't know. Language arbitrariness I suppose.

    Anyway, the order of 東, 南, 西, 北 is so ingrained that people sometime care more about this order than whether the directions actually match, c.f. the 東南西北 seats in [Cantonese?/Chinese?] Mahjong which are assigned anti-clockwise, so:

    西 東

  14. Eric P Smith said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    But which end of a compass needle points north? We call it the north pole, ie the north-seeking pole. But opposite poles attract. So the north pole of a compass needle points north, because the Earth has a south pole at its North Pole, and a north pole at its South Pole.

  15. Wolfgang Behr said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 9:51 am

    As a very strong tendency (though not without exceptions), combinations of tones in Classical Chinese compounds tend to be ordered in the sequence even-rising-entering-departing ~ 平上去如. In German-speaking sinology, this principle is sometimes referred to as "Unger'sche Tonregeln" (Unger's tone rules") because Ulrich Unger, the doyen of German Eary China philology in the 20th century (cf.,, first explicitly described the underlying ideas in the 1960ies and looked at their application in Early Chinese poetry and argumentative prose in several of his papers published in his samizdat journal Hao-ku 好古.
    The rationale behind the sequencing is some kind of sonority scale of Old Chinese syllables combined with the fact that tonogenesis was historically not an abrupt process, such that the departing tone (from OC *-s) arose later than the other tones, and thus kept its functions as a productive suffix suffix in derivational morphology longer. That means you can have OC closed syllables (Middle Chinese entering tone words) followed by *-s (e.g. *-ps, *-ks etc.) and final glottal stops followed by *-s, but not the other way round, i.e. no clusters of the type *-sk or *-ʔk, apparently.
    The most robust part of these rules is the placement of rising tone and entering tone syllables in compounding. The MC rising tone goes back to an OC final glottal stop *-ʔ, entering tones to *-p, *-t, *-k, such that they would create a hiatus in the middle of a disyllabic word or phrase forming one breath group. In other words, in combinations like 東北 "east-north" [even-entering] from OC *tʕoŋ.*pʕək (MC tuwng.pok) you place the velar *-k at the right edge of the compound, rather than in the middle of it, because *pʕək.tʕoŋ* would be somewhat harder to pronounce. Same thing for 西北 [even-entering] *s-nʕər.pʕək, MC *sej.pok). Similarly, you usually say "old and new" in English, but xin1jiu2 新舊 "new and old" in Chinese, not because of some semantic constraints or because of some different (Whorfian) linearity in the experience of time (pace Boroditsky), but because xin1 新 (OC *C.sin, MC *sin) as an even-tone word has to precede the departing tone word jiu4 舊 (*N-kwəʔ-s, MC *gjuwH) in order to push *-s to the right edge of the word. These effects are statistically pretty robust and have been studied early on by Ting Pang-hsin 丁邦新, in "國語中雙音節並列語兩成分間的聲調關係" [The tonal relationships between the elements of disyllabic coordinated compounds in the National Language (Guoyu)],Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology (Academia Sinica)/《歷史語言研究所集刊》39.2(1969):155-174.

    It is more difficult to explain what governs the sequence of words in the same tone, such as xīnán 西南 and dōngnán 东南, although I suspect that even in such cases, phonological considerations such as voicedness of the intital and [+/- close] or [+/- back] of the main vowel] often outrank semantic ones. For a good discussion of the involved problems see Francoise Bottéro, "L’ordre des constituants dans les mots composés par coordination d’antonymes », Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale 25-1, 1996, p. 63-86.


  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 10:02 am gives a few examples from what I expect must be a fairly vast literature out there about cultural/linguistic variation in this regard. There is I believe also some use in Chinese culture of the 3-D notion (possibly via Buddhism) of the "six directions" (east/south/west/north/up/down).

  17. J. M. Unger said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 10:04 am

    For me, the interesting thing in Chinese is not the ESWN order. After all, ESWN is cyclic in the clockwise direction if you're standing on the ground and pointing to cardinal points on the horizon. The common English pattern N-S/E-W is axial, a different concept, but we have no trouble seeing that ESWN is terrestrially cyclic. The odd thing is that, in mahjongg seating, ESWN runs counterclockwise! My guess is that this comes from using Polaris for orientation. If you face Polaris, you always face North, but Polaris is relatively close to the horizon (if you're in the Chinese latitudes), so the stars near it and down to the horizon look like they're "below" all the rest in the same field of view. Assuming you can crane your neck but don't turn your body, counterclockwise ESWN is the right way to label your view.
    To put is another way, if you look at a map, the counterclockwise order of directions is ENWS. The rules of mahjongg are, from this perspective, a clue to origins of the (counterclockwise!) order ESWN.

  18. GeorgeW said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 10:08 am

    In the previous century, I purchased a compass in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In the shop I couldn't tell which point of the needle pointed north or south. I asked the shop keeper, "Which way is north." He pointed and said, "That way." I asked, "But, how do you know." He said, "I have lived here all my life."

    I went ahead and bought it and out in the bright sunlight I could see that one end of the needle was a little darker than the other.

  19. KWillets said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 10:30 am

    With the compass needle, do Chinese say its axis is "North-South" or "South-North"?

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 11:18 am

    Re maidhc's early point, the "spectacles testicles" etc. jokey mnemonic is perhaps no so old as I would have thought, with the earliest definite hit in google books only from 1972 (with two or three possible earlier allusions back to the mid-1950's). While mildly irreverent, it doesn't seem so strongly taboo to plausibly be the sort of thing that was in common oral use for decades upon decades before turning up in print. Heck, if it was an old enough Catholic schoolboy usage, James Joyce would probably have worked it into some scene involving the young Stephen Dedalus.

    There's also the peculiar fact that it's an unreliable mnemonic (maybe something got inverted as with the mah jongg cardinal directions?), in that if, like me (and I don't think this is an unusual idiosyncrasy and may well be majority practice among Anglophone males), you typically wear your watch on your left wrist and carry your wallet in your right hip pocket, it will make you cross yourself in the Eastern Orthodox fashion, i.e. "backwards" from the Western perspective. That works for me personally, but there's no reason to believe that the mnemonic would have arisen among the tiny percentage of Anglophones who cross themselves in the Orthodox style.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 12:43 pm


    It's hard for me to imagine Chinese saying xī 西 ("west")–dōng 东 ("east") and běi 北 ("north")–nán 南 ("south") when pairing off the directions, rather than the customary dōng 东 ("east")–xī 西 ("west") and nán 南 ("south")– běi 北 ("north"), so ingrained are the latter pairs. For example, the division between the North and the South (we naturally refer to it that way in English), has always been referred to by the Chinese as Nánběicháo 南北朝 ("Southern and Northern Dynasties", AD 420-589), which sounds awkward to us in English.

  22. hanmeng said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

    On a somewhat related note, is there a reliable explanation of how 東西·dōngxī came to mean "thing"?

  23. Marijn said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    For some reason, 东西南北 feels more natural to me than 东南西北. For example, I'd say the following sentence wouldn't sound well if it had the other order: 他醉得连东西南北都不知道了 'he is so drunk that he has no idea where he's going (literally: can't even tell east-west-south-north)'. But I'm no native.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 3:28 pm


    It was inevitable that someone would ask this obvious question, and I dreaded having to answer it, since I've never seen a completely convincing, definitive answer. Feeling somewhat obliged to bite the bullet, I looked up dōngxī 东西 ("east-west" –> "thing") in the Chinese Wikipedia, and came away feeling satisfied that the explanation given is about the best that could be expected.

    As a matter of fact, the Wikipedia article lists three closely related explanations that are backed up with a number of quotations from sources ranging from the Song period (960-1127) to the 20th century. Basically, the argument is that, in terms of goods / stuff in space, dōng 东 ("east") and xī 西 ("west") stand for stuff / goods from all directions, just as chūn 春 ("spring") and qiū 秋 ("autumn") stand for the four seasons of the year (i.e., all time).

  25. Jongseong Park said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

    Actually, the Korean order is again different: 동서남북 東西南北 dongseonambuk [toŋsʰʌnambuk], or "East-West-South-North". Figure that one out… I think Japanese uses the same order, but I'd be happy to be corrected.

    Koreans say both 동북 東北 dongbuk [toŋbuk] "east-north" and 북동 北東 bukdong [pukt͈oŋ] "north-east", with the choice depending on each case. For instance, Northeast Asia is 동북 아시아 Dongbuk Asia [toŋbuɡaɕʰia] "East-north Asia", but the Northeast passage is 북동 항로 北東航路 bukdong hangno [pukt͈oŋhaŋno] "north-east sailing route". For just the direction, my feeling is that 동북 dongbuk "east-north" is preferred.

    Similarly, 동남 dongnam [toŋnam] "east-south" might be slightly preferred over 남동 namdong [namdoŋ] "south-east", 서남 seonam [sʰʌnam] "west-south" over 남서 namseo [namsʰʌ] "south-west", and 서북 seobuk [sʰʌbuk] "west-north" over 북서 bukseo [puks͈ʌ] "north-west", although the specific usage depends on context. My hunch is that the former forms are used in more traditional coinages, with the latter forms often the result of translations of Western terms (e.g. the aforementioned Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage 북서 항로 北西航路 bukseo hangno [puks͈ʌhaŋno] "north-west sailing route").

    For east-west, 동서 東西 dongseo [toŋsʰʌ] "east-west" is the only possible order. For north-south, you only see 남북 南北 nambuk [nambuk] "south-north", at least in South Korea. But I think North Koreans reverse this and say 북남 北南 buknam [puŋnam] "north-south", for obvious reasons.

  26. Rubrick said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    This seems to me to be clear evidence that Chinese language and culture dates back at least 780,000 years, to before the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal.

  27. markonsea said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer:

    Think pocket watch.

    At least, that's how I've always imagined it: actual points on the chest (the wallet being in the jacket pocket), not just vague directions.

    Of course, I've no idea on which side of the weskit a watch pocket is, so I may be entirely wrong about this …

  28. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 8:30 pm

    @markonsea – that's an impressive proposal and the first source I googled up indeed says you should have the pocket watch in a pocket on the right side of your vest if you're right-handed. Similarly, I expect that if I habitually stuck my wallet in an inside pocket of my suit coat I would typically (being right handed) put it on the left for easier access. Although as to "actual points on the chest" i think the horizontal part of crossing oneself is usually done substantially higher up then where the watch pocket would traditionally be located, and there's the additional difficulty of the expression not surfacing in print until pocket watches were already themselves a near-archaism.

  29. Christopher Hodge said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

    I'm from Blighty and I only know us to say "north, east, south, west", ie calling the directions out clockwise (as taught by the mnemonic: never eat shredded wheat). Does Bill Watkins display some cultural imperialism or something similar in saying "in English we say" when he means "in American English we say"?

  30. Phil Bowler said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 11:32 pm

    @Christopher Hodge
    I’m British, too, (Kentish, b. 1947) but, as far as I remember, have always used the NSEW sequence, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘never eat shredded wheat’ (at least in this context).

  31. S. Tsow said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 3:58 am

    I am awed by all this scholarship. My own unscholarly feeling is that we say "north" first because north is at the top of the planet, and that's where Santa Claus lives. Also, the North won the U.S. civil war.

    We say "south" second because we don't want the south to feel bad because it's at the bottom of the planet, Santa Claus doesn't want to live there, and the South lost the civil war. We're trying to boost its morale, so to speak. In effect, we're saying, "Don't feel bad, guy, at least you've got penguins."

    We say "east" third because somebody has got to go third, and clam chowder and fried clams come from the US east coast. As indeed do I. This gives the east coast more prestige than the west coast, even though the west coast has more Mexican restaurants.

    We say "west" last because somebody's got to go last, despite the Mexican restaurants, and the west is the only one left.

    This theory is unscientific, subjective, and subject to revision at any time.

  32. Guy said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 6:56 am

    Actually Australian English often uses NESW too. Except the mnemonic is "never eat soggy wheatbix".

  33. V said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 8:43 am

    J. W. Brewer: "The conventional orders of the pairs north/south and east/west are alphabetical in English. That might be pure coincidence but it's not implausible to think that alphabetical-order might become conventional for such pairs when there's no other "natural" order from a conceptual perspective. The same alphabetical order, however, seems to hold true for most/all modern Germanic/Romance languages, so it's maybe hard to find a test case where cultural background is similar but alphabetical order would dictate a different result to see what happens."

    In Bulgarian the traditional order is east-west-north-south, while alphabetically it's west-east-north-south (that also makes the order in the combinations always ANTI-alphabetic.).

  34. Mr Punch said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    In America we don't seem to need mnemonics to remember the cardinal points.

  35. V said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 11:08 am

    Mr Punch: Should you not direct that objection to the post we are commenting on?

    Victor Mair said: "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. […]"

  36. Thomas Rees said,

    May 28, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    I'm from Southern California and I use NESW – 0°, 90°, 180°, 270°

  37. Yuval said,

    May 29, 2014 @ 1:44 am

    Eastwards is the preferred *orientation* also in Semitic languages. The Ancient Hebrew for East /qedm/ shares the root with "front, ahead", while Arabic's [shamaal] for North is a cognate of "left", cf. Hebrew [smol].

  38. Jeff W said,

    May 30, 2014 @ 2:46 am

    I was thinking that maybe there was some longstanding “primacy” of north in Western culture whereas the Chinese almost literally turned their backs on the north in preference to the south, as Victor Mair says. After all, Ptolemy established the convention of the orienting maps with north at the top. (Historian Daniel Boorstin speculates that maybe that was because the better-known places in his world were in the northern hemisphere.) And didn’t ancient Egyptians, 2500 years before, align the Great Pyramid to within three-sixtieths of a degree of true north-south, using some method to ascertain true north? (Turns out maybe not: a new paper says that “the east-west orientation in relation to sunrise or (in one case) sunset may have been a, or even the, key factor in determining their orientation in many cases.” OK, so maybe not that longstanding.)

    Still, maybe there is something to the idea that the east as the place of the rising sun every day and the south as the general location of warmth became propitious in an ancient agricultural China (reinforced later by the south-pointing compasses), whereas the north attained primacy, providing the one fixed astronomical point (the North Star), later in a West that was focused on oceanic navigation where you obviously could not rely on landmarks. That’s just a guess on my part.

  39. Keith said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 5:18 am

    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?

    Surely because it is in their DNA, in the same way that exercising hegemony is not in their DNA…

    Joking aside, I am a little bit surprised by the ordering of the intermediate points (our NE, SE, SW, NW).

    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?

    If we give the cardinal points the numbers 1 to 4, in the order NSEW, then it is easy to say that in the intermediate pairs the lower number comes first in English, i.e. NE is 13, SE is 23, SW is 24 and NW is 14.

    If we give the Chinese cardinal points numbers in the same way (i.e. dōng 东 is 1, nán 南 is 2, xī 西 is 3 and běi 北 is 4) this would lead to :

    dōngběi 东北 being 14,
    xīběi 西北 being 34,
    xīnán 西南 being 32,
    dōngnán 东南 being 12

    So in three cases out of four, the Chinese place the cardinal points in lowest to highest order as in English. So I think my theory is not universal.

    That leaves me thinking that the real reason is phonetic; that perhaps at some time in the past the pronunciation of the intermediate points was such that the cardinals had to be placed in a particular order, so as to conform to some rule.

    As for the Koreans and Japanese using the same ordering as English, I suspect that a conscious decision was taken at some point during a period of Westernisation, like the adoption of what we call Arabic numerals and of driving in Japan on the right side of the road (i.e., the left-hand side).

  40. Lily said,

    June 7, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

    I learned "never eat soggy waffles" as a kid (despite that *one* kid who insisted it was "never eat soggy washing machines"). For some reason I've never had an instinctive grasp of relative directions on maps, so I sometimes have to mutter it to myself to this day.


  41. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    June 16, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

    None of the comments notice that the Chinese people have not always used the order Dong, Nan, Xi, Bei. In fact they only began to use this order on a regular basis from the 20th century. The normal order of the directions until the 20th century was Dong-Xi-Nan-Bei.

    In my Chinese history: A New Manual (Harvard 2013), I address the question under the heading "Orientations" on page 203 and trace the changing order throughout history.

    Any discussion of questions like these needs to consider the development of the language. And also (in this case) other directional sets (e.g., Zi-Wu-Mao-You used in boxing the compass), i.e., NSEW; see my Manual, page 582

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