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What are some alternative direction systems besides egocentric direction systems (left, right, &c)?

Some natural languages use {north, south, east, west} like Guugu Yimithirr and Tzeltal (Maya) (source for Tzeltal). The situation in Tzeltal is probably more complex, since there's references to an uphill/downhill distinction too, but I'm having trouble locating a free resource for it.

Ithkuil uses the position of the sunrise and sunset. It does not appear to use the current position of the sun.

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    How about listener-centric positioning? Taking the concept of "Left ... no, YOUR left." or "At your 3 o'clock" to a new extreme ... – Lou Aug 27 '20 at 12:49
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    @Lou I think that would make a good answer. – Gregory Nisbet Aug 31 '20 at 2:54
  • Hawaiian uses 'seaward' (kai) and 'upland/inland' (uka), and words for 'south/left' (hema) and 'right/north' (ʻākau) (East and West are different words as well). – Oliver Mason Sep 1 '20 at 19:43
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Okay. How about instead of an egocentric direction system, employing a listener-centric or "you"-centric system? We do this in natural language when we say "On your left" or "At your 3:00". Probably such a system would be developed among speakers from a highly empathetic and listener-oriented culture, where the individual's reference is considered secondary to the listener's.

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    So when I tell you of an incident, I need to know where you were at the time, and which way you were facing? – Anton Sherwood Sep 1 '20 at 4:48
  • Interesting question, I hadn't thought that far ahead to be honest. I imagine you would construct all storytelling and accounting from the listener's POV. E.g. when Allan is telling Bob about the time Carl spoke to David, Allan will implicitly frame the story from Bob's perspective, as if Carl and David are on Bob's "left" and "right" respectively, in Bob's mental space. Which I suppose is not dissimilar from how we tell stories in an egocentric spatial system. – Lou Sep 1 '20 at 10:17
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    Or perhaps, within the narrative, everything that Carl or David says uses the other person as a spatial reference. So Carl might say to David "There's a fly on your left ... oh no, it's moving above the head of the person you're talking to." It's not fleshed out, but OP asked for alternate ideas of spatial referencing systems, and it was the first thing that came to mind. – Lou Sep 1 '20 at 10:20
  • I suppose you can also allow circumlocutions similar to English's on your left when using an allocentric coordinate system. So, when telling a story about yourself that involves no other people and takes place away from where the current conversation is happening, you can say things like on my left, there was a red car. In that case, the on my would not be optional. – Gregory Nisbet Sep 2 '20 at 0:58
  • The problem with using someone else as reference is that you need to know at all times where someone is in reference to you, which is fine if you are talking to them face to face but does no good if you are not face to face. – Keith Morrison Jan 12 at 16:01
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For directions on a galactic scale, much SF (and the Traveller RPG) use Coreward (toward the center of the galaxy), Rimward (away from the center of the galaxy), Spinward (moving about the center of the galaxy in the same direction as general stellar motion), and Antispinward or Trailing (moving about the center of the galaxy in the direction opposite to the general stellar motion).

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All answers so far assume a system of orthogonal directions, each having an "anti direction". I suspect this predisposition is connected to our left-right symmetric bodies with natural forwards and backwards, as well as ups and downs. Languages constructed for aliens need not conform to this!

Take a starfish, for instance. If they have five distinct arms, that would give five directions in their plane, along with up and down.

For radially symmetric, disk-shaped creatures (or for communicating between radially symmetric spaceships or other vehicles) the only meaningful purely self-relative directions would likely be relative up and relative down (along with hither and away). For a creature shaped like a jellyfish, without any visual clues to other fixed directions, this could be combined with cardinal up and down.

Star or disk shaped creatures could of course point, either by turning their up or down towards something (which would be two different prepositions!), or by deforming themselves, shining a light etc. They could also use auxiliary phrases as "towards Alice" or "the way we came".

A more sophisticated option would also be to talk of the direction perpendicular to cardinal up AND to relative up, maybe like a cross product in mathematics? This would be sort of akin to our left and right, if the creature moves in its relative up direction, that is.

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So, one idea I was considering is a spatial reference system designed for indoor navigation. It's intended to coexist alongside an egocentric direction system which is much more typical.

There's a cardinal direction, let's call it P that refers to the direction towards the primary entrance/exit or "downhill" as a metaphorical extension.

If used in a room or house, the primary entrance is the front door to the house, the main door to the room, the door you used, or the door that is currently to your back.

If used outside on a hill or mountain, the foot of the hill is the primary entrance. Let q refer to a direction 90 degrees to the right of the current direction.

The idea, basically, is that if you are travelling uphill or into a room, P is the direction you would have to go to double back.

Here's a crude drawing of a room with the directions labeled with their symbolic names.

    +-------------------------------------+
    |                                     |
    |                                     |
    |                                     |
    |                                     |
    A                 Pq                  |
                       |                  |
                   P---+---Pqq            |
                       |                  |
    V                 Pqqq                |
    |                                     |
    |                                     |
    |                                     |
    +-------------------------------------+
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  • This is, essentially, the system firefighters use. One side of the building, usually the side facing the street is designated Alpha, then you proceed around, clockwise, so that, if you're facing the building from the street, the left side is Bravo, the back side is Charlie, and the right side is Delta. The corners, logically, are Alpha-Bravo, Bravo-Charlie, Charlie-Delta, and Delta-Alpha. If you tell me you need a ladder on the Bravo side near the Bravo-Charlie corner, I know exactly where to send it. – Keith Morrison Jan 18 at 20:30

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