Linguistic frame of reference
Linguistic frame of reference is a frame of reference
Frame of reference
A frame of reference in physics, may refer to a coordinate system or set of axes within which to measure the position, orientation, and other properties of objects in it, or it may refer to an observational reference frame tied to the state of motion of an observer.It may also refer to both an...

 as it is expressed in a language.

A frame of reference is a coordinate system used to identify location of an object.
In languages different frames of reference can be used. They are: the Relative frame of reference, the Intrinsic frame of reference, and the Absolute frame of reference. Each frame of reference in a language can be associated with distinct linguistic expressions.

Intrinsic frame of reference

Intrinsic frame of reference is a binary spatial relation in which the location of an object is defined in relation to a part of another object (its side, back, front, etc.). For instance, "The cat is in front of the house." means that the cat is at that part of the house we call its front, the side of the house that faces the street and has an entrance and maybe a porch.

Absolute frame of reference

Absolute frame of reference is also a binary system in which the location of an object is defined in relation to arbitrary fixed bearings (for instance, cardinal directions (North, South, East, West)). For instance, saying “The cat is to the south of the house” the location of the cat is described independently of the position of the speaker or of any part of the house (as in intrinsic frame of reference). Apart from cardinal directions such fixed bearings as seacoast, upriver/downriver, and uphill/downhill/across are used.

Relative frame of reference

Relative frame of reference is a ternary system. The location of an object is expressed in relation to both the viewpoint of the perceiver and position of another object. Thus saying “The cat is to the left of the house” we refer to three points of reference: the cat, the house, and the perceiver himself.

Use of different frames of reference

People can use multiple frames of reference in communication. For instance, in English all three frames of reference are available and used, however, the use of absolute frame of reference is limited to topographic objects ("Finland is to the east of Sweden."). The preferred frame of reference is the relative one.

Among the languages that rely largely on absolute frame of reference there are a lot of Australian aboriginal languages (for instance, Arrernte language, Guugu Yimithirr
Guugu Yimithirr language
Guugu Yimithirr is an Australian Aboriginal language, the traditional language of the Guugu Yimithirr people of Far North Queensland. Most of the speakers today live at the community of Hopevale, about 46 km from Cooktown...

) and some Mayan languages
Mayan languages
The Mayan languages form a language family spoken in Mesoamerica and northern Central America. Mayan languages are spoken by at least 6 million indigenous Maya, primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras...

 (for instance, Tzeltal). In Guugu Yimithirr there is no way to say "The cat is to the left of the house." and the only way to describe the location of the cat in relation to the house is "The cat is to the south of the house."

To the languages that rely largely on intrinsic frame of reference belong, for instance, Mopan (a Mayan language) or Totonac (a Totonacan language
Totonacan languages
The Totonacan languages are a family of closely related languages spoken by approximately 200,000 Totonac and Tepehua people in the states of Veracruz, Puebla, and Hidalgo in Mexico...


The use of different frames of reference has a far-reaching effect on the cognition. For instance, in order to be able to communicate in a language with absolute frame of reference the speakers have to run a kind of a mental compass, a remarkable neurocognitive capacity allowing the speakers to identify cardinal directions even in unfamiliar locations.
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