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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton January 20, 2022

Geocentric directional systems in Australia: a typology

  • Dorothea Hoffmann , Bill Palmer EMAIL logo and Alice Gaby
From the journal Linguistics Vanguard


This paper presents the results of a survey of geocentric directional systems across Australia using published and unpublished material as well as fieldwork data, providing the first systematic overview of such systems in Australia. The 116 sampled varieties, spoken across diverse landscapes, exhibit variation within and across languages. Many make use of more than one directional system. This paper sets out to create a systematic typological overview of geocentric directionals in Australia taking into account cultural and topographic salience, revisiting existing classifications of directional systems.

Corresponding author: Bill Palmer, School of Humanities, Creative Industries and Social Sciences, College of Human and Social Futures, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia, E-mail:

Funding source: Australian Research Council

Award Identifier / Grant number: DP200101079


We are grateful to Joe Blythe, Claire Bowern, Margaret Carew, Rebecca Defina, Nick Evans, John Giacon, Cliff Goddard, Mark Harvey, Clair Hill, Felicity Meakins, Cassy Nancarrow, David Nash, Maïa Ponsonnet, and Erich Round for general discussion and information about specific languages, and to an anonymous reviewer for comments. We are grateful to Brenda Thornley for preparing the maps at Figures 1 and 2.

  1. Research funding: We gratefully acknowledge support from the Australian Research Council Grant DP200101079.

Appendix: Survey data summary


  1. A full list of all sources consulted for this survey is available in the Supplementary Material associated with this paper.

  2. Language names follow the Gambay First Languages Map ( Location and topographic details are accessible via the Gambay Map zoom function. Names from Glottolog and other well-known names are in parentheses in the table.

  3. The names of language families follow Glottolog.[4] For families other than Pama-Nyungan (PN), only the family name is given, or “Isolate” for family-level isolates. For Pama-Nyungan languages, first-order subgroups are also given. For especially large first-order subgroups, second-order subgroup names are also given in parentheses.

  4. The columns representing spatial systems in the table are checked if at least one attested term in the language is anchored in the relevant phenomenon. For example, the “river” column is checked if at least one term is attested that invokes a watercourse (upriver, downriver, cross-river, along-river, or riverbank distinction). The column is checked whether the relevant term or terms uniquely invoke that phenomenon (e.g. a dedicated “upriver” term), or is colexified with another anchoring phenomenon (e.g. a term that lexifies both “upriver” and topographic elevation). See Section 2 for further discussion. The spatial system columns are as follows:

    1. Cardinal (the language displays at least one attested term encoding an abstract cardinal direction, whether all four are attested or only three, two, or one; note that such terms may form part of a single system with other terms anchored in topography, see Section 2.1)

    2. Sun

    3. Wind

    4. Climate (climate or weather)

    5. Coast

    6. River

    7. Tide

    8. Cultural (spiritually or culturally significant places)

    9. Elev. only (it is confirmed that the language has no geocentric terms other than elevation)

    10. Elev. attest (topographic elevation is only geocentric system attested)

    11. Elevation (topographic elevation attested)

These final three columns all relate to topographic elevation. The “Elev. only” column is checked if it is confirmed that the language does not employ any geocentric terms other than for topographic elevation (this applies to only one language in the sample, Murrinhpatha). The “Elevation” column is checked if the language is attested as employing terms referring to topographic elevation, regardless of whether they solely encode topographic elevation, or colexify topographic elevation with vertical elevation or another topographic phenomenon. The total of this column and the absence of a check in the column for any particular language should not be taken as significant. It is likely that the lack of attestation of topographic elevation in many or even all such languages results from a gap in the often limited data for the relevant languages. All but one language with no check in this column do have terms for vertical elevation (‘up’ vs. ‘down’), but we have not been able to confirm from the available data that these terms also apply to topographic elevation – however there is no evidence that they do not. The limited data simply does not contain examples that clearly indicate topographic rather than vertical elevation. The exception is Darkinyung, where even terms for vertical ‘up’ and ‘down’ are not attested in the source. This is likely to be the result of the limited nature of the salvage data assembled in the source, rather than evidence of the absence of vertical elevational terms from the language. Aside from Darkinyung, all languages in the sample are attested as having terms for vertical elevation, so this is not shown in the table. The “Elev. attest.” column shows the subset of languages displaying topographic elevation where that is the only attested geocentric system in the language. The “Elev. only” and “Elev. attest.” columns differ in that the former shows languages where it is confirmed no geocentric system other than topographic elevation is encoded, whereas the latter shows languages where no geocentric system other than topographic elevation is attested, but the absence of attestation of other systems may simply be a gap in the data.

Language ISO Language family (PN = Pama-Nyungan) Cardinal Sun Wind Climate Coast River Tide Cultural Elev. only Elev. attest. Elevation Sources
Total languages attested with each system (n = 116) 78











Adnyamathanha adt PN Arandic-Thura-Yura x x x x McEntee and McKenzie 1992; Nash 2013; Schebeck 1973, 1974
Alyawarr aly PN Arandic-Thura-Yura x x x J. Green 1992; J. Green et al. 2019; Moore et al. 2004; Yallop 1977
Angkamuthi (Uradhi) PN Paman (Northern Pama) x Crowley 1983
Anguthimri (Mpakwithi dialect) awg PN Paman (Northern Pama) x Crowley 1981
Anmatyerr amx PN Arandic-Thura-Yura x x J. Green 2010
Arabana ard PN Karnic x x x Hercus 1994
Awabakal awk PN Southeastern (NSW) x x x x Anonymous 2008; Lissarrague 2006
Banyjima (Panytyima) pnw PN South-West (Pilbara) x x Dench 1991; Sharp and Thieberger 1992
Bardi bcj Nyulnyulan x x x x Bowern 2012, 2016, pers. comm.
Bayungu bxj PN South-West (Pilbara) x Austin 1992b; Deak 2008; Walgar 2006
Bilinarra nbj PN Desert Nyungic (Ngumpin-Yapa) x x x Meakins 2013, pers. comm.; Meakins and Nordlinger 2014
Bundjalung (Middle Clarence Bandjalang) bdy PN Southeastern (NSW) x x x x Crowley 1978; Smythe 1978
Bunganditj/Boandik xbg PN Southeastern (Victorian) x x Blake 2003a
Bunuba bck Bunaban x x x Knight 2004; Rumsey 2000
Dalabon (Ngalkbun) ngk Gunwinyguan x x x Cutfield 2011; Ponsonnet 2013, pers. comm.; Ross 2011
Darkinyung (Hawkesbury) xda PN Southeastern (NSW) x Jones 2008; Wafer & Lissarrague 2008
Dhanggati (Dyangadi) dyn PN Macleay-New England x x x Lissarrague 2007, 2021
Dharug (Eora, Dharruk, Sydney) xdk PN Southeastern (NSW) x Nash 2013, pers. comm.; Steele 2005; Troy 1994, 2019
Dhuwal (Djapu) dwu PN Yuulngu x x x x Heath 1980c; Morphy 1983
Dieri (Diyari) dif PN Karnic x x Austin 2013a, 2013b, 2021
Djabugay dyy PN Yimidhirr-Yalanji-Yidinic x x x Patz 1991; Quinn et al. 1992
Djinaŋ (Djinang) dji PN Yuulngu x x x x x Waters 1984, 1989, 2011
Dyirbal dbl PN Dyirbalic x x x Dixon 1972, 2003
Eastern Arrernte (Mparntwe dialect) aer PN Arandic-Thura-Yura x x x x J. Green 2005; Henderson & Dobson 1994; Wilkins 1989, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2006
Gagadju (Gaagudju) gbu Isolate x Harvey 2002; Spencer 1914
Gangalidda (Yukulta, Ganggalida) gcd Tangkic x x x Keen 1983; Nancarrow 2014, pers. comm.
Garrawa (Garrwa) wrk Garrwan x x x Furby & Furby 1976; Mushin 2012
Gathang (Worimi) kda PN Southeastern (NSW) x x x x Lissarrague 2010
Gooniyandi gni Bunaban x x x McGregor 1990
Gooreng Gooreng (Gureng Gureng) xgg PN Southeastern (North Coast) x x x Brasch 1975; Helon 1994
Gumbaynggirr (Kumbainggar) kgs PN Southeastern (North Coast) x x x x Eades 1979; Morelli 2008, 2015; Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Coop. 2001; Smythe 1948–1950
Gunditjmara (Warrnambool, “Dartmoor” doculect) gjm PN Southeastern (Victorian) x x x Blake 2003b
Gun-nartpa (Burarra) bvr Maningrida x x x x Carew 2016, pers. comm.; Glasgow 1984; Glasgow & Glasgow 2011; R. Green 1987
Gurindji gue PN Desert Nyungic (Ngumpin-Yapa) x x x Dunn et al. 2021; Meakins & McConvell 2021; Meakins 2011; Meakins & Algy 2016; Meakins et al. 2013, 2016
Guugu Yimidhirr kky PN Yimidhirr-Yalanji-Yidinic x x x de León 1995; Haviland 1979, 1993, 1998; Levinson 2003
Iwaidja ibd Iwaidjan x x x x x Edmonds-Wathen 2011, 2012; Pym & Larrimore 2011
Jaminjung dja Mirndi x x Hoffmann 2011, 2019; Schultze-Berndt 2000, 2006, 2008
Jaru ddj PN Desert Nyungic (Ngumpin-Yapa) x x x x Dahmen & Blythe n.d.; Tsunoda 1981; Wrigley 1992
Kala Lagaw Ya (Western Torres Strait) mwp PN Kala Lagaw Ya x x x Bani 2001; Ford & Ober 1991; Stirling 2011
Kalkatungu (Kalkadoon) ktg PN Kalkatungic x x x x x Blake 1979a; Enoch 2013
Kamu xmu Eastern Daly x x Harvey 1990; Palmer et al. 2021
Kaurna zku PN Arandic-Thura-Yura x Amery & Simpson 2013; Fitzpatrick 1989; Simpson & Hercus 2004
Kayardild gyd Tangkic x x x Evans 1992, 1995, pers. comm.; Ross 2011; Round pers. comm.
Kaytetye gbb PN Arandic-Thura-Yura x x Koch 1984; Turpin 2000; Turpin & Ross 2012; Wafer 1982
Kugu Uwanh (Kuku Uwanh, Kugu Nganhcara) uwa PN Paman (Wik) x Smith & Johnson 2000
Kuku Yalanji gvn PN Yimidhirr-Yalanji-Yidinic x x x Hershberger & Hershberger 1986; Oates 1992a; Patz, 2002
Kuuk Thayorre (Kuuk Thaayorre) thd PN Paman (Southwest Pama) x x x x Boroditsky & Gaby 2010; Gaby 2012; Gaby et al. 2017
Kuuku Ya’u kuy PN Paman (Northeastern Pama) x x x Thompson 1988; Hill 2002, 2011, 2017
Lardil lbz Tangkic x x x x Klokeid 1976; McKnight 1999; Nancarrow pers. comm.; Nash 2013; Ngakulmungan Kangka Leman 1996; Tindale 1974
Limilngan lmc Limilngan-Wulna x x Harvey 2001
Malak Malak mpb Northern Daly x x x x Hoffmann 2013, 2017, 2019; Lindsay et al. 2017; Palmer et al. 2021
Malgana vml PN South-West (Kartu-Nhanda) x Gargett 2011
Mangarrayi mpc Mangarrayi-Maran x x x x x Merlan 1989
Margany zmc PN Greater Maric x Breen 1981
Marrithiyel (Marithiel) zmj Western Daly x I. Green 1989; Tryon 1974
Martu Wangka (Manyjilyjarra dialect) mpj PN Desert Nyungic (Wati) x Hill et al. 2016; Marsh 1976; Sharp & Thieberger 1992
Martuthunira vma PN South-West (Pilbara) x x x Dench 1987, 1995; Sharp & Thieberger 1992
Matngele zml Eastern Daly x x x x Harvey n.d.a; Hoffmann 2017; Palmer et al. 2021; Zandvoort 1999
Mawng Iwaidjan x x Capell & Hinch 1970; Hewett et al. 2013; Singer 2006, 2016; Singer et al. 2015
Mbabaram vmb PN Paman (Finasleigh Pama) x x x Dixon 1966, 1991
Murrinhpatha mwf Southern Daly x x Blythe et al. 2016; Bohnemeyer et al., this collection; Gaby et al. 2016; Gaby & Singer 2014
Muruwari zmu PN Southeastern (NSW) x x Oates 1988, 1992b
Na-kara nck Maningrida x x x x x Eather 1990; Eather et al. 2005
Narungga nnr PN Arandic-Thura-Yura x x Eira et al. 2010
Ndjébbana (Djeebbana) djj Maningrida x x x x x McKay 2000
Ngaanyatjarra ntj PN Desert Nyungic (Wati) x x Douglas 1964, 1988, 2010; Glass 1983, 1997, 2017; Glass & Hackett 1970; Nash 1997
Ngadju (Ngadjunmaya) nju PN South-West (Mirning) x x Hanson 2013; Nash 1997; von Brandenstein 1980
Ngandi nid Gunwinyguan x x x x Heath 1978
Ngarla nrk PN South-West (Pilbara) x x Brown & Geytenbeek 1989; Sharp & Thieberger 1992; Westerlund 2015
Ngarluma nrl PN South-West (Pilbara) x x von Brandenstein 1970; Kohn 2012; Sharp & Thieberger 1992
Ngen’giwumirri (Ngan’gityemerri) nam Southern Daly x x x Hoddinott & Kofod 1988; Palmer et al. 2021; Reid 1990
Ngiyampaa (Ngiyambaa) wyb PN Southeastern (Wiradhuric) x x Donaldson 1980
Noongar (Nyunga) xrg PN South-West (Nyunga) x x x x x x Bindon & Chadwick 2011; von Brandenstein 1988; Smith-Ali et al. 2021; Wykman 2005
Nyamal nly PN South-West (Pilbara) x Brown & Geytenbeek 1992; Burgman 2007
Nyangumarta nna PN Desert Nyungic (Marrngu) x x Sharp 2004; Sharp & Thieberger 1992; Thomas et al. 1990
Nyawaygi nyt PN Nyawaygic x x x x Dixon 1983
Nyulnyul nyu Nyulnyulan x x x x McGregor 2011a, 2011b
Pintupi piu PN Desert Nyungic (Wati) x x Hansen & Hansen 1974, 1978, 1992; Lewis 1976a, 1976b
Pitjantjatjara pjt PN Desert Nyungic (Wati) x x x Defina, pers. comm.; Eckert & Hudson 1988; Goddard 1992, pers. comm.; Goddard & Defina 2020
Pitta Pitta pit PN Karnic x x Blake 1979b
Rembarrnga rmb Gunwinyguan x x x McKay 1975, 1988; Saulwick 2003, 2009
Ritharrŋu (Ritarungo) rit PN Yuulngu x x x Heath 1980a
Roper Kriol rop Creole x x x Hoffmann 2011, 2019; Lee 2014
Taungurung (Thagungwurrung) dgw PN Southeastern (Victorian) x x x Healy 2011
Thalanyji (Dhalandji) dhl PN South-West (Pilbara) x Austin 1992c
Tiwi tiw Isolate x x x x Lee 2013; Osborne 1974
Umpithamu (Umbidhamu) umd PN Paman (Northeastern Pama) x x x Verstraete 2008, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2012; Verstraete & de Cock 2008
Wagiman wag Isolate x x Anonymous 2009; Cook 1987; Harvey, pers. comm.; Palmer et al. 2021; A. Wilson 2006; S. Wilson 1999
Wajarri wbv PN South-West (Kartu-Nhanda) x x Douglas 1981; Marmion 2021; Yamaji Language Centre 1992
Walmajarri wmt PN Desert Nyungic (Ngumpin-Yapa) x x Hudson 1978; Hudson et al. 1984; Richards & Hudson 1990, 2011
Wardaman wrr Yangmanic x x x Merlan 1994
Warlpiri wbp PN Desert Nyungic (Ngumpin-Yapa) x x x Laughren 1978; Nash 1986; Simpson 1991; Swartz 1982, 2012
Warndarrang (Warndarang) wnd Mangarrayi-Maran x x x x Heath 1980b
Warnman wbt PN Desert Nyungic (Wati) x Anonymous 2003; Burgman 2010; MacCallum 1992; Nash 1997; Sharp & Thieberger 1992
Warray wrz Gunwinyguan x x Harvey 1986, n.d.b, n.d.c, n.d.d, pers. comm.
Warrgamay wgy PN Warrgamay x x x Dixon 1981
Warrungu (Warrongo) wrg PN Greater Maric x x x Tsunoda 2011
Warrwa wwr Nyulnyulan x x x McGregor 1994, 2006
Wemba Wemba (Western Victoria) xww PN Southeastern (Victorian) x x Hercus 1986, 1992
Westside Kriol rop Creole x x Hoffmann 2011
Wik-Mungkan wim PN Paman (Wik) x x Kilham 1974, 1977; Kilham et al. 1986, 2011
Wiradjuri wrh PN Southeastern (Wiradhuric) x x Grant & Rudder 2010; Wafer & Lissarrague 2008
Woiwurrung wyi PN Southeastern (Victorian) x x Blake 1991
Wubuy (Nunggubuyu) nuy Gunwinyguan x x x x Heath 1980d, 1982, 1984; Hore 1994; Horrack 2018
Yalarnnga ylr PN Kalkatungic x x Breen & Blake 2007; Blake 2006
Yandruwantha (Yandruwandha, Innamincka) ynd PN Karnic x x x x x x Breen 2004a, 2004b, 2015
Yankunytjatjara kdd PN Desert Nyungic (Wati) x x Goddard 1985; Nash 1997
Yanyuwa yao PN Ngarna x x x x Bradley et al. 1992; Kirton & Charlie 1996; Kirton & Timothy 1982
Yawuru ywr Nyulnyulan x x x x Hosokawa 1991
Yaygirr xya PN Southeastern (North Coast) x x Crowley 1979; Morelli 2012; Wafer & Lissarrague 2008
Yidiny yii PN Yimidhirr-Yalanji-Yidinic x x x Dixon 1977
Yindjibarndi yij PN South-West (Pilbara) x x x x x Dench 1995; Mark & Turk 2003; Sharp & Thieberger 1992; von Brandenstein 1970; Wordick 1982
Yintyingka ayd PN Paman (Northeastern Pama) x x x Verstraete & Rigsby (2015)
Yir Yoront yyr PN Paman (Southwest Pama) x x x x x x Alpher 1991
Yugambeh (Tweed-Albert Bandjalang) PN Southeastern (NSW) x x x Sharpe 1998, 2005
Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay kld PN Southeastern (Wiradhuric) x x Ash et al. 2003; Austin 1992a, 1993; Giacon 2017; Sim & Giacon 1998


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Supplementary Material

The online version of this article offers supplementary material (

Received: 2021-05-04
Accepted: 2021-08-31
Published Online: 2022-01-20

© 2021 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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