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Spatial Orientation in Ruapai


Note: until recently, this language was referred to simply as the "Lullaby Language", after the lullaby that gave it its start. You will still see it referred to by that name in other places.

Ruapai — spoken by the almost-human-but-not-exactly residents of a faraway planet that I have never tried to name — approaches spatial orientation and the relative locations of objects in a manner quite unlike the default egocentric and cartesian systems of non-technical English. The most neutral terms for spatial relationships are best described using a three-dimensional, radial coordinate system, and while an egocentric frame of reference is technicially possible, convention and cultural norms lead speakers to use a shared conceptual circle or sphere — either imaginary or reified as a room or other enclosed space — as their primary frame of reference in almost all situations.

A Radial Coordinate System

In the abstract, the Ruapai coordinate system defines locations in a space in terms of the center of a hypothetical circle — henceforth referred to simply as the middle — and a front, i.e. the point on the side of the circle with a radial position of 0° (or, if you would prefer, 12 o' clock). The details of how the middle and front are defined are quite complex, and we will dive into them in greater detail later on, but for now, let's just assume that these two points are well defined in our hypothetical speaker's mind — if you asked them to, they could go stand in the middle and face the front, allowing the coordinate system to temporarily match up with our egocentric assumptions.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that all spatial expressions are evaluated with regard to this single shared coordinate system. Individual objects or persons are almost never assigned their own hypothetical circle (barring certain circumstances that will be addressed further on), and the existence of separate terms for the left and right instances of most body parts that come in pairs means that there are relatively few circumstances when even a non-native speaker would feel the need to do so. Even so, thinking in an absolute coordinate system can be unintuitive for native speakers of most widely-spoken Earth languages, so it is worth always keeping this thought in the backs of our heads.

With that in mind, Ruapai spatial relations are expressed in terms of linear distance from the middle and radial distance (in one of two directions) from the front. Each dimension is typically expressed by a different set of terms, and in most cases, only one will be necessary — for instance, to express that furniture has been pulled away from the walls (for painting, say), one need only say that all of the chairs and tables have been moved closer to the middle, whereas a person standing around at a party might be located using only a radial expression (unless they were standing close to the center of the room).

Linear Distance from the Middle

Linear distance from the middle is relatively easy to conceptualize: an object can be in the middle, it can be close to it, far from it, or a middling (ha!) distance away. It can also be right at the conceptual boundary of the space, or beyond it (or perhaps even far beyond it). Note that, in a radial coordinate system, an object across the middle from another has a radial relationship to the second object, not a linear one — unless one object is so much further from the middle than the other that a comparison in terms of linear distance from the middle would be warranted too!

In Ruapai, we divide this semantic space into three basic terms: in (or near) the middle, further away from the middle (but still within the boundaries of the conceptual circle), and outside of the conceptual circle. These terms are intransitive by default, but their comparative forms (which are transitive, as the comparative adds an object of comparison) are used to decribe the relative positions of objects in a space.

Note that in the absense of an actual wall, the edge of the conceptual circle may be somewhat fuzzy, hence the lack of a term for "at the edge of the conceptual circle". In a room with a real wall, of course, there would be plenty of ways of expressing "against the wall" or "very close to the wall but not touching it"; these expressions are well beyond the scope of this post (although I would like to elaborate on them at some point in the future). In the absense of a real wall, a superlative form of the further away from the middle term or something along the lines of almost beyond the conceptual boundary would suffice.

Radial Distance from the Front

Radial distance from the front can be calculated in one of two directions: clockwise (i.e. turning to the right from the perspective of a person standing in the middle facing the front) or counterclockwise (turning to the left for the aforementioned hypothetical observer). In either direction, a person can either be within 90° or less of the front, or more than 90° from it (with a strong implicature that they are less than 180° away, although this implicature can be canceled). There are also terms meaning at the front (more or less) and opposite the front, which tend to refer to a more narrow range of locations around the circle than the clockwise and counterclockwise terms.

In practice, this means that the conceptual circle is divided up into four almost-quadrants, plus a smaller sliver at the front and "back". Expressing the prototypical meanings of "left" and "right" in English (in reference to a room) requires a composite expression — usually something along the lines of "almost more than 90° in the clockwise/counterclockwise direction". A useful, if slightly more complex, metaphor is the rough bearings used by sailors to indicate the position of other ships in relation to theirs, or the "clock face" system used for similar purposes by people who grew up with face clocks.

It is useful to note that, while comparative forms of all of the expressions mentioned here can be used to indicate relative position of two objects or persons in a room (i.e. "they are further clockwise than I am"), this usage breaks down if the entities in question are not in the same quadrant in the conceptual space. In that case, speakers almost universally fall back on absolute positions — "I'm here, the box is there". Saying that a person standing immediately to the "left" of the front is "more clockwise-and-greater-than-90°" than someone standing on the "right" side of the room sounds a bit like describing the last window on the left as the first window on the right: it is the kind of thing you might encounter in a riddle or a deliberately tricky math problem, but nobody would actually talk that way in real life. Crucially for English speakers to remember, there is no single direct translation for "across the room", "kitty corner", or similar common terms.

Defining the Middle and Front

For non-native speakers or learners of Ruapai, one of the hardest aspects of mastering the spatial orientation system is simply deterining which points are the middle and front of a particular situation. While there are a handful of easy scenarios — for instance, describing the locations of items on the deck of a ship, or in any other relatively small vehicle — others require a bit more thought or experience with Ruapai culture. Thankfully, though, the majority of situations fit one of a few relatively simple models, all of which make logical sense once their internal logic is explained. Do bear in mind, however, that language is always flexible, and even native speakers encounter differences of intuition regarding their reference points in a space.

Let's go over a number of common scenarios below. Each and every one of these deserves very thorough elaboration in the future (time and brainpower willing), but an attempt has been made to sketch out each one to some level of detail.

Rooms and Other Enclosed Spaces

In a room, or a comparable natural space (say, a cave), there is almost always an obvious "middle of the room" that speakers will have no trouble agreeing on. In a hallway or a very long room, especially one with a pronounced curve, the perceived middle may shift depending on which part of the space is most contextually salient (compare walking on a road below), but most rooms that English speakers would call rooms have a clear middle.

Defining the front can require a little bit more work, but remains fairly simple: most rooms have a natural "business end", be it a stage, a hearth, a display of some sort, or merely a large window. Broadly speaking, the front of a room is the direction that a person's attention is most likely to be focused (or is expected to be focused, at least) when they are in the room — and in addition to physical features of the structure, other cues, such as the direction in which chairs are facing, are often taken into account. Under certain circumstances, the front can shift — say, if it gets dark and people move from watching birds out the picture window to huddling around the fireplace — although most people (and especially people who live in the structure of which the room is a part!) will assign each room a "default" front.

One of the greatest sources of ambiguity when orienting oneself in an enclosed space occurs in rooms with no defining features other than the main entrance: some speakers will interpret the entrance as the front, whereas others will define the front to be the wall opposite the entrance. Furthermore, the choice between those two options is heavily influenced by context, and may depend on what the speaker expects to do in the room and whether they expect the entrance to be a focal point of their attention (say, if they are waiting for somebody) or merely the way they got into the room (or the way they see into the room or space, despite not intending to go in, as would be the case with, say, a small closet): in the former case, the front might be assigned to the entrance, but in the latter it would almost universally be the opposite wall.

As an asside, most rooms in Ruapai society are round or oblong, and the square corners common in modern Earth architecture are extremely rare. The more time you spend in Ruapai buildings, the more sense the radial coordinate system makes.

Walking on a Road or Path

When traveling along a path, the front is, by default, the point at which the direction of travel intersects the conceptual boundary of the space. This is true even if a group of people are traveling together and not everybody is looking or even (at the moment) walking in the same direction — the front is defined by the direction that the group has "voted" for with their feet and faces, even if some members of the group voted for something else. Note that the direction of travel takes precendence over the direction of attention: even if the entire group is walking backwards, speakers assign the front to the direction of travel only slightly less consistently than when they are facing forward.

Even so, however, some ambiguity is possible. For instance, if a person or group of people go off the path temporarily, they may sometimes be described using either the frame of reference defined by the primary journey taken by the whole group or the frame of reference defined by the detour. A wide range of factors influence which option will be used, including the contextual salience of the detour versus the main journey, the length of the detour, and whether the route of the detour follows a well defined path (either built or natural). Similarly, backtracking a short distance can also lead to an analogous ambiguous or context-dependent scenario.

The middle, on the other hand, is (broadly speaking) defined as the middle of the space that the group of travelers occupies at any given moment. If the group is relatively large, this is usually fairly obvious, but when there are only one or two travelers, it can occasionally be unintuitive, since the "space the travelers occupy" remains constant even if a sole traveler takes a very short detour to, say, throw something into a trash can at the side of the road. Additionally, if the path has well-defined boundaries (say, a sidewalk or paved road), the conceptual boundary of the space will coincide with those and the middle will be more or less equidistant between them; however, in the absense of such boundaries, both the exact location of the middle and the conceptual boundary around the space may be somewhat fuzzier. In a situation with two or more well-defined boundaries (i.e. a street with a sidewalk), contextual cues may be necessary to determine which set is most salient.

It should be noted that the "travelers" in this scenario need not be people — animals, cars, or floatsam drifting down a river would be treated similarly. It also makes no difference whether the speaker is a part of the group of travelers or simply an observer — given similar knowledge of the situation, the same relational terms would be used.


The front of a vehicle, unsurprising, is more or less unambiguously assigned the same way an English speaker would assign it — to the nose, bow, or other part of the vehicle that points forward when the vehicle is moving in its most prototypical fashion. On an ocean-going ship, the radial coordinate system corresponds well to a simplified version of the traditional system of "bearings" — the front and the point oppposite the front correspond to ahead and behind/aft, and <90° and >90° clockwise and counterclockwise terms define fore and aft quadrants on the starboard and port sides (respectively). Similarly to a room, the conceptual boundary of the space is well defined by the sides of the vehicle.

It's important to remember that the "vehicle" rules only apply when the vehicle itself is treated as the frame of reference: i.e. many speakers, especially those without a lot of sailing experience, will treat the cabin of even a small boat as a room rather than simply a part of the boat; an interior stateroom on an ocean liner would almost universally be treated as such. Just about every vehicle, no matter how small, contains compartments or parts that would provide sufficient context to pull a speaker out of the "vehicle" frame and into the "room" or "random object" frames.

Furthermore, the "vehicle" frame of reference only comes into play for people or objects that are truly inside the vehicle, or at least fully contained within it when projected onto a two-dimensional plane parallel to the ground. A human riding a bicycle or skateboard would not, to a Ruapai speaker, be in the bicycle or skateboard's frame of reference, but rather that of the road. However, in contrast, an insect that landed on a bicycle seat would be conceptualized within the bicycle's frame of reference.

Other Natural and Artificial Environments

Broadly speaking, natural clearings function similarly to rooms, although in relatively radially symmetrical environments speakers may be more likely to disagree on the location of the front. Small bodies of water often fall into the same category as well, although the same caveat applies (and when in a boat, the vehicle frame of reference usually takes precedence). Similarly, valleys, rivers, and very long lakes can be treated like the paths mentioned above.

In a wide open space without clear landmarks or travelers to trigger any of the existing frames, the direction of the front more or less corresponds to the direction from which the sun rises (which I will not call East, because this is not Earth). This is the assumption made when reading a Ruapai map or discussing the positions of objects in a reference frame comparable to a conceptual version of a map. The exception — because of course there has to be an exception — is villages, towns, and other settlements, which almost always have a clear front defined by some natural feature that the settlement grew up around (often a river or body of water).

There are probably many intricacies and details to this that may never be fully explored.

The Human Body as a Frame of Reference

For cultural (and arguably also biological/psychological) reasons, Ruapai speakers express locations in reference to themselves extremely rarely. It is, however, possible, and does come up in real life (e.g. in medical contexts), although separate, frozen expressions for the left and right versions of many limbs and organs render this unnecessary more often than an English speaker might suppose.

By default, if the human body is to be used a frame of reference, the plane on which the middle, front, and conceptual boundary are located passes through the person from left to right and head to toe — imagine the Vesuvian Man, or alternatively a person lying on their back on the floor. In this scenario, the middle is situated near the person's belly button, and the front is their forehead. What English speakers might describe as the person's "front" and "back" are considered to be above and below the plane, with very little variation regardless of how the person orients their body. Body cavities, on the other hand, are more or less treated equivalently to closets or rooms. At that scale, furthermore, the speaker is no longer treating the person as the frame of reference, and the cultural reluctance to use a person as a reference frame does not apply.

Animals are treated similarly to humans, except that up corresponds to the animal's back, and down to their stomach. This particular difference in spatial language — even given how rarely the human body is treated as a frame of reference — is one of the core linguistic differences in how people versus animals are discussed in Ruapai: using the "animal" frame for a person would be actively dehumanizing, whereas the "human" frame would merely put the person on the metaphorical spot.

Random Objects

All household appliances with an easily identifiable "business end" are treated as metaphorical extensions of animals, although speakers may exhibit slight disagreement on exactly where the "business end" is in the case of, say, something equivalent to a Roomba, where the "head" is hidden underneath and the external shell is largely featureless. Appliances that you put things inside, however, are treated as rooms, usually with the front at what English speakers would call the back of the appliance's interior cavity.

Objects that lack a natural "head" or other clear front are usually conceived of as having their front at that point that would make the line from front to middle parallel to that between the front and middle of the frame of reference that the object is currently within. In practice, this is relatively rare, and speakers will usually default to using the room as a reference frame instead of an object without an obvious front. Rare does not, however, mean impossible, especially if no other means of communicating a particular spatial relationship is available.

Sources of Confusion and General Tips

The presence of (conceptual) concentric circles or parallel lines can make it difficult to identify the front, middle, or conceptual boundary of a space. While this may seem daunting at first, recognize that even fluent native speakers would have trouble with this — English speakers constantly find themselves having to clarify their egocentric reference frames ("no, your left, not mine!"), and this is no different. Ruapai speakers would have somewhat of an intuitive sense for when to include this clarification, but even that would often be faulty.

When discussing the locations of objects beyond the conceptual boundary of the space around the middle, first ask yourself whether switching to a larger reference frame would be immediately practical. Although this is often not practical, it is often the most neutral solution, especially when an object is close to a smallish household item or a pet. This is more true when the entity to be located is larger than the entity it is being located in comparision to, or when they are the same size — if the entity to be located is significantly smaller, this rule does not necessarily hold.

Expressing Up and Down

Unsurprisingly, vertical spatial relationships — corresponding to up and down in English — are also expressed using a radial coordinate system in Ruapai. Thankfully, this system is much simpler than that used for coordinates in the horizontal plane, since it only has to describe locations along a semicircle stretching from the top of the conceptual dome to the bottom of the conceptual "bowl" beneath the speaker's feet.

As hinted at in the last paragraph, vertical locations are conceptualized on (or in relation to) a notional dome, forming a half sphere with its rim at the conceptual boundary surrounding the horizontal frame of reference, and its top directly above the middle. In addition to this dome, there is also a conceptual "bowl" beneath the plane, again with its rim at the conceptual boundary and its bottom directly beneath the middle. The sphere formed by this bowl and dome can be thought of as an extension of the conceptual boundary into three dimensions, and when reckoning in three dimensions, distances from the middle are treated as absolute distances, rather than being projected onto the horizontal plane.

Given that conceptual model, the semantic space of vertical locations is carved up into three terms: at (or very close to) the horizontal plane, some distance up the side of the dome radially (but no more than 90° from horizontal), and some distance down the side of the bowl radially (but no more than 90° from horizontal). To indicate a precise location, these terms are combined with expressions indicating radial distance from the front in the horizontal plane (specifying the location along the horizontal conceptual boundary from which the listener should track upwards onto the dome or downwards onto the bowl) and expressions indicating linear distance from the middle.

Note that items no higher off the floor than a typical person is tall are often described colloquially as if they were in the horizontal plane, unless there is a specific need to position them in vertical space as well. This does not negate anything else in this section, but in a very small space, it can occasionally lead to surprises if the listener is thinking in terms of a literal 3D radial coordinate system.

Another caveat to be aware of is the fact that the floor of a room typically forms a hard conceptual boundary to the room's reference frame, even if the conceptual bowl should dip well below it. An object located beneath the floor, if located in the reference frame of the room, would be described with the "beyond the conceptual boundary" term in almost all cases. Exceptions to this would be rooms with a glass or otherwise see-through floor, or rooms that are otherwise arranged so that the space beneath the floor is still inside of the conceptual boundary.

Finally, in a spherical room, with a distinctly bowl-shaped floor, the middle might end up being assigned to a point above most speakers' heads, in the true middle of the space (vertically as well as horizontally). Rooms like this are not particularly common, and even native speakers might be tripped up at first were they to suddenly find themselves in one. Note that this particular scenario would only be triggered if the lower walls of the room sloped very strongly and noticeably outward; even then, some speakers would still locate the horizontal plane along the floor if a portion of it were flat.


Here's a list of the actual terms defined above. Note that all of these spatial terms are intransitive verbs — if a noun referring to the frame of reference is included, it will take the form of an adjunct suffixed with the Adverbial marker -at.

akta 'to be outside of the conceptual boundary'

apir 'to be counterclockwise of the front radially (more than 90° away)'

hivim 'to be below the horizontal plane radially (no more than 90°)'

imas 'to be clockwise of the front radially (but less than 90° away)'

jaka 'to be counterclockwise of the front radially (but less than 90° away)'

kurrat 'to be opposite the front'

kuvar 'to be in the middle'

paun 'to be at or near the horizontal plane'

timi 'to be at the front'

uata 'to be some distance from the middle (but still inside the conceptual boundary)'

ussap 'to be above the horizontal plane radially (no more than 90°)'

vukur 'to be clockwise of the front radially (more than 90° away)'

Bear in mind, of course, that these are all basic terms, despite their long and sometimes unwieldy translations in English. Although spatial terms can pose problems in any language, Ruapai children can be assumed to master these terms no later (or not significantly later) than Anglophone children master "right" and "left".

One thing not discussed in this post at all, and certainly not listed in the vocabulary section, is the directionals — short particles indicating a direction (most of the time), which are usually placed immediately after a verb. Besides their explicit meaning, a directional can often indicate (or reinforce) the fact that a verb describes a state change, rather than just a static fact. While directionals are entirely relevant to a discussion of spatial language in Ruapai, this post can function without them, as the directional concepts they indicate are already well defined here. Directionals will likely be covered in a later post, however.


Although this has been a very long post, we have still only scratched the surface of how spatial terms work in Ruapai. Many of the topics covered have been marked as requiring more thought and development, and many of those will never be developed as fully as they could be — there are only so many hours in a day, and only so many days in a year. Nevertheless, this short glimpse of Ruapai spatial terminology should (hopefully) be useful, both as documentation of the language for my own reference, and as reference material for (among others) future conlang relay participants.

A secondary purpose of this post is to demonstrate just how deep the conlanging (and linguistics!) rabbit hole can go. Simply writing down a few words and grammatical rules doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the level of complexity embedded in any language, and even most "relatively complete" lexica and grammars provide only a superficial view of what an actual speaker of said language would need to know to use it competently. While this may sound at first like a challenge to less experiences conlangers, I would encourage everyone to view this depth of complexity not as a hurdle to clear, but as an opportunity to explore — what can your language do when you truly dig into it?

Returning to Ruapai, it is worth mentioning a cultural aspect that may prove interesting in light of this post: Ruapai speakers assign middles in general a great deal of cultural significance, in the same way that many Earth cultures assign great significance to beginnings and finales. While it may be naive to assume that this cultural aspect is directly related to the significance of the middle in Ruapai spatial orientation, it serves at very least as a good mnemonic, and is probably a relationship worth developing in greater depth in the future.

Expect more on this topic in the future, both for Ruapai and for other conlangs!