Etymology of Cardinal Directions

How South meant East and Our Mental Maps turned Upside Down. A consideration of the etymology and root meaning for terms used as cardinal directions in Germanic languages, as well as Classical Latin and Classical Greek, to better understand the orientation of ancient peoples.

In the nineteenth century, the regional government of Sydney, New Holland, chose to rename their colony Australia. The name was not accidental. Maps of the world in the centuries prior referred to a then hypothetical sixth continent in the distant south by the Latin phrase terra australis, or "southern land". Decades later, when the sixth continent was in fact discovered to exist, the name Terra Australis was already claimed, and as such the land was subsequently dubbed Antarctica.

At the same time in Europe, there was a country in the northern Alps. Maps of the Middle Ages called it Marchia Orientalis, or the "March of the East". With the population of the region shifting from Romantic-speakers to Germanic-speakers, the Latin name was translated to the German as Österreich. Later cartographers further adapted the name, preferring a latinate spelling of the German sounds, producing the form that appears in anglophone maps today: Austria.

Both the Latin that produced Australia and the German that produced Austria are Indo-European languages that feature the same initial austr- sound cluster, but it seems unusual that one refers to direction of "south" while the other to the "east". The anomaly raises questions of which is right and why is the other wrong.

Our mental maps today mime the maps we see in books, which orient north to the upper margin of the page. The reason for this has to do with how to use a compass with a map, turning the map so that the marked north matches magnetic north on the compass. The compass is not very old and our words for the cardinal directions are much older, which is why we prefer words like north and west over up and left. But, what did they mean before they found meaning from the compass?

East and West

Latin being a much older language than the German that produced Austria, inclines one to assume that it hold the older and thus more correct or authentic conception in the austr- root. But, a cursory survey comparing Modern English and German with Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, and Proto-Germanic shows this far from the case:

east Ost eāst austr *ōst *austrą
west West west vestr west *westrą

The consistency in sounds across Germanic languages was no expected nor that they match the reconstructed in Proto-Germanic. It would suggest that the concepts of east and west are very old and have remained the same in Germanic languages since Antiquity.

The anomalies only become apparent when one compares the Proto-Germanic *austrą and *westrą to their near contemporaries in Latin and Classical Greek:

ME PG Lat CGrk
east *austrą oriēns 'ηλιον
west *westrą occidēns 'εσπερα

The variation is much more significant at this level than it is in the descendants of Proto-Germanic, but they all share a common theme in orientation. Consider west in Proto-Germanic and Classical Greek: *westrą and 'εσπερα. Classical Greek does not feature a consonant comparable to the w sound. It's approximation would be υι or υε. If the υ were contracted, it would produce a heh sound like the start of 'εσπερα. Meanwhile, the t in *westrą and the π in 'εσπερα, under Grimm's law connect back to the same p sound. 'εσπερα for "west" also translates to evening, much as in Proto-Germanic the related word *westraz has the same meaning. Both derive from *wekwsperos in PIE, which would seem to mean something like "evening", (combining the unknown element *we- with *kwsep for "night").

In the case of *austrą and 'ηλιον, the connection is a little more difficult. The Proto-Germanic *austrą derives from *h2ews- in PIE, which can mean "east" or "dawn". While 'ηλιον means "east" only, shifting the gender from neuter to masculine produces the name Helios, god of the sun. Helios in turn derives from the PIE *sóh2wl, also meaning "sun", which will come up again later.

The oriēns and occidēns of Latin remain anomalies. The noun oriēns derives from the verb orīrī, "to rise", which connects to *h3er- in PIE, which has the same meaning. Similarly, occidēns derives from the verb occidere, "to fall down", from ob- "facing" and cadere "falling". The verb cadere connects thence to PIE as *kh2d-, which also means "to fall".

From this initial survey, it is clear that somewhere after Proto-Indo-European and just before the development of Classical Greek, Latin, and Proto-Germanic a sense of direction developed in Europe that oriented itself to the sun.

Considering these changes along the axis of the zodiac alone, Latin would seem an oddity. It abandons the older terms for dawn and dusk in favor of new constructions. The fact that these words derive immediately from Latin roots rather than PIE words, would suggest that the concept emerged in an earlier stage of Latin rather a preceding protolanguage.

It is also notable that the PIE word *wekwsperos does enter Latin as vespers, preserving there the original meaning of "evening" without shifting to "west". Similarly, the PIE word *h2ews-, enters as auster, meaning the "south wind", which remains anomalous, but makes more sense in light of the other directional axis.

North and South

Given the consistency of terms for east and west in Germanic languages shown above, it is not surprisingly that there similar consistency found in the words for north and south:

north Nord norþ norðr nort *nurþrą
south Süd sūþ suðr sunt *sunþrą

As this is the same concept, it should also not come as any surprise that the comparison of the reconstructed Proto-Germanic with the antique languages of Latin and Classical Greek shows a similar pattern of variance and inconsistency. Suggesting that the cardinal directions as concepts developed independent of one another in these cultures:

north *nurþrą septentrio 'αρκτος
south *sunþrą meridies νοτος

In collecting translations from Latin and Classical Greek, the substantive cardinal direction was preferred over alternatives like adjectives or references to wind. The Latin word auster refers to the wind rather than the direction, which is meridies. The word meridies derives from the Latin medius and dies, meaning "noon". Though there remains the issue of how auster as "south wind" derives from the PIE word *h2ews- for "dawn", but this anomaly is less unusual when compared to Proto-Germanic, (no etymological source was found for the Greek νοτος).

While the Latin and Classical Greek words for "north" are clearly unrelated in origin, they are related in conception and in what they tell us about the Greeks and Romans of the period. The word septentrio agglutinates septem and trio to loosely mean "seven plow ox". Meanwhile 'αρκτος translates to "bear". There is a constellation visible in the northern hemisphere that the Romans called the Wagon, (that is, the septentrio) and that the Greeks called the "bear". Later astronomers translated the Greek name into Latin, giving us Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, which is to say these words are a specific reference to the star Polaris.

In the case of Proto-Germanic, the celestial reference is southern: *sunþrą derives from the PIE word *sóh2wl, meaning "sun". The same PIE word that produced 'ηλιον in Classical Greek for east. This is interesting because it parallels the PIE for dawn becoming south in Latin. As for north, *nurþrą derives from the PIE word *h1ner-, meaning "inner" or "under", which is not at all clear except as to suggest that the Proto-Germanic peoples were not keen observers of the night sky or lacked contact with peoples who were, (such as the Egyptians).

Solar Orientation

While there is considerable variety in the words and etymology around cardinal directions, there is some general consistency that would seem to go back to Proto-Indo-European.

That is, all words for east and most words for south derive from PIE words for sun and dawn. All words for west derive from PIE words for decline or evening. The consistency in these roots would suggest that the people speaking PIE primarily traveled and navigated by day, when one could "orient" oneself by the position of the sun.

But, while there was likely a practice of solar orientation, the inconsistency in the specific PIE words that came to reference cardinal directions would seem to suggest that this practice did not extend an abstract concept of "east" as a direction. Compare the general variety in sources between antique languages of Latin, Classical Greek, and Proto-Germanic to the extreme consistency between Germanic languages. It is clear that there were general PIE words for "sun" and "dawn" that were used in reference to directions, but a definite Proto-Germanic word for the concept of "east" that carried forward into its descendants.

The concept of cardinal directions would seem to exist in Classical Greek and Proto-Germanic as something that evolved over time with people referencing east, south, and west in relation to other things until the words stuck. That the Latin words formed in Latin seems unusual, possibly due to something learned through contact with the Greeks.

The consistency of words for sun and dawn coming to mean south is jarring at first observation of Australia and Austria, but it starts to make sense in consideration of where Proto-Germanic and Latin speaking peoples lived in prehistoric and archaic periods. South in Latin is the same word for "noon". In the northern hemisphere at midday the sun hangs directly due south. It's not obvious in most of the United States, but at the 46° N latitude, (the Alps), it is noticeably south in the winter and 57°, (southern Scandinavia), even more so. The oddity then is that PIE had different words for "sun" and "dawn". These words were associated either with the location from which the sun rose or with the part of the sky through which it spent most of the day.

The association of Polaris with the cardinal direction of north in Latin and Classical Greek fits with the literary evidence of their being seafarers at the time when these languages were in use. Traveling over land without roads is difficult in the dark, whereas traveling after sunset when at sea is sometimes a necessity.

The PIE word serving as root for the Proto-Germanic concept of north is interesting in its own right. The idea of "inner" or "under" as roots for north seems unusual. It suggests winters in Scandinavia where the sun is only up a few hours to mean the land is somehow under the rest of the world. Possibly, an association of the cold with an underworld. Alternatively, given a solar orientation, the Proto-Germanic peoples seeing south as "up" and north as "down", in contrast to how the compass today orients use to think in the reverse.