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Does anyone know of a connection, or some sort of established historical/etymological explanation why in a few languages, "the opposite of left" and "legal term" are the same or seemingly related words? Do they all have a common root? Did they develop independently?

Examples:

  • English: right - right
  • French: droit - droit
  • German: rechts - Recht
  • Polish: prawo - prawo
  • Russian: право - право
  • Finnish: oikea - oikea
  • Mungbam: -ntSEhE- -ntSEhE ("left/wrong")

If you know of more examples that have the same connection, you can add them to your answer.

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    Finnish: oikea - oikea Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 8:22
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    in Mungbam you have -ntSEhE "wrong/left"
    – user483
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 13:19
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    Portuguese: direita (fem. inflexion of direito) - Direito ; Spanish: derecha (fem. inflexion of derecho) - Derecho
    – sergiol
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 2:55
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    English SE features this similar question: english.stackexchange.com/a/296382/50720.
    – user5306
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 7:29
  • Spanish: derecho (legal), derecha (direction) Commented Oct 16, 2022 at 15:28

16 Answers 16

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In medieval Christian theology, things that were left-handed were things that belonged to Satan (or were corrupted by him). This is where the Latin-derived word sinister became synonymous with evil (even in Latin sinestra meant unlucky as well as left). Right being the opposite of left therefore became associated with good purely by being the opposite.

Historically, the left side, and subsequently left-handedness, was considered negative in many cultures. The Latin word sinistra originally meant "left" but took on meanings of "evil" or "unlucky" by the Classical Latin era, and this double meaning survives in Italian, and in the English word "sinister".

Source.

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    I understand now the connotation of left being bad and right good, but from what I've read so far, it originated before christian theology became dominant enough to influence language. Are the origins really in Latin? Or maybe earlier languages - what about outside of the indo-european scope? And if it should be Latin, is there a first documented usage? To when does this concept of left being bad and right good date back to? I remember something about babys in ancient greece being allowed to move their right hands first, while having their left hands kept bound... Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 17:15
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    Vjacheslav Ivanov (UCLA and RGGU) argues that the left-right dichotomy has been known since Ancient Egypt; left associated with women, right with men. As for Latin, there were other words too, laevus and scaevus.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 23:36
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    This answer addresses why "right (direction)" is related to "right (good)", but not why it is related to "right (entitlement)". Commented Sep 15, 2012 at 21:39
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    In Taiwanese Hokkien, tsiànn is the everyday morpheme for right (direction). It also means upright/straight, real, primary, or exactly (as in exactly on time). One expression for the left hand is bái-tshiú. Bái means ugly/bad.
    – ROBOKiTTY
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 13:28
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    In Mandarin, zuǒ is the morpheme for left (direction). It's occasionally associated with impropriety. The phrase pángmén zuǒdào, lit. 'sidedoor left-way', originally referred to unorthodox cults. It can mean any non-accepted mode of thinking today.
    – ROBOKiTTY
    Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 13:29
27

In Korean, 오른쪽 wolunccwok "right (direction)" comes from 옳- wolh- "correct" + -은 -un (Attributive) + 쪽 ccwok "direction", literally meaning "the correct direction". Another word for "right side", 바른편 palunphyen, literally means "The correct side" as well.

Similarly, 왼쪽 oynccwok "left (direction)" comes from 외- oy- "crooked" + -ㄴ -n (Attributive) + 쪽 ccwok "direction", literally meaning "the crooked direction".

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  • Your interesting post implies that the answer to the question stated in the title of the OP is "No": Korean is not (I assume) an Indo-European language. Another question then would be what is the common denominator. One possibility that comes to mind is that the languages evolved before the blessed invention of the toilet paper and shared an agreement about which hand to use instead. Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 7:16
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    That's a rather bizarre possibility to come to mind when Europe and Korea both have foliate plants. The far more apparent connection is that for most people the right hand is facile and the left isn't.
    – lly
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 13:43
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It exists in semitic languages. "ymn" has directional right as its radical sense in the Ethiopian semitic languages but is also commonly used for good news, e.g., Yemane is a common name there, like Yaman in arabic languages. (I had always assumed the country name Yemen drew from the same root but Wikipedia claims that is just folk etymology: "One etymology derives Yemen from ymnt, meaning "South", and significantly plays on the notion of the land to the right (𐩺𐩣𐩬).[36]".) Likewise the word for directional left "tsgm" is also the common word for "trouble", as with latin "sinister". I don't know if this type of thing is the "weak" connotation in Arabic you mention; actually as a speaker the connotation isn't appreciably weaker to my ear.

Your second question, about the stability of PIE "right" vs "left", probably constitutes a separate question.

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    Regarding the etymology of Yemen, the association of right with south (and left with north) is also fairly common in semitic languages. (See e.g. imittu in Akkadian, presumably also derived from the same y-m-n root via regular sound changes, something like *yaminatu(m) > *imintu(m) > imittu(m).) I would guess the name ultimately derives from the same root either way. Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 19:37
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In Finnish, oikea means both correct and the right direction.

Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language, part of the Uralic languages and thus not Indo-European.

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    But it's close enough that it could be areal.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 13:49
  • hat's where the Ikea come from?
    – Anixx
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 13:00
  • 2
    No, IKEA is based on the name of the founder and the name of the farm and town where he grew up (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IKEA)
    – Vegard
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 8:43
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The English word "right" comes from Proto-Indo-European word o̯reĝtos which meant "correct" and had cognates o̯reĝr "directive, order", o̯reĝs "king, ruler", o̯reĝti "guides, directs", o̯reĝi̯om "kingdom". The root itself meant "direct, straight" and reflected in many English words both inherited and borrowed, such as "direction", "correction", "rectum", "region".

The Russian and Polish word "pravo" originates from a different PIE root and cognate with the English word "first" and German word "Frau". The basic meaning of the root "per-" was "over", "through" as in PIE adverb peri, but later the meaning also shifted to "against" as in proti, "forward, ahead" and further to "first" as in prou̯os.

The later word, prou̯os, meaning "first" was used to designate a province headsman ("first" in the settlement), and later "judge" and "lord" (with feminine form preu̯ia̯ meaning "mistress, lady", reflected in German "Frau") and gave rise to the Slavic legal term as well as the Russian terms meaning "correct", "just".

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  • please, if you can, give a source for o̯reĝtos. It is intuitively reminiscent of correct, though that's traditionally analyzed as *kom + *h₃reǵ- + ? ... I wonder more about the suffix than the prefix. I get that your *o̯ corresponds formally to *h3, with different (stronger) assumptions about its phonetic qualities
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 20:09
  • Correction: That's ḱóm (the diacritics make a difference, see e.g. linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/29977). Anyhow, the question asks more than this, if it asks to compare non-IE (e.g. Arab يَسَار‎ (yasār) "left", y-s-r "easy"). Ideas for internal reconstruction of o̯reĝ-, or loans from Afro-Asiatic are welcome. I got a crazy one:cp. leviathan, left, leave, Latvian kreiss "left", crayfish" ... no wait, I meant *oarfish, a.k.a. Regalecidae, never mind. German has Führungshand "leading hand" (of sword, dance, etc.). How do Ger. prägen, brechen fit in?
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 21:59
  • @vectory h₃reǵ- is another spelling for o̯reĝ-. Regarding non-IE connections, I have nothing to say. Although be aware that Leviathan comes from the root meaning snake/serpent and has nothing to do with the left side. In PIE left-side one was lee̯u̯os and the same root lee̯- was used for lazy, let(allow), leave, etc.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 12:48
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Japanese has no such semantic connections.

  • “Right (side)” in Japanese is 右 (migi)
  • “Left (side)” in Japanese is 左 (hidari)
  • “Correct” in Japanese is 正しい (tadashii), an adjective
  • “Wrong” in Japanese is 違う (chigau), a verb that also means “to differ, to be different”

I believe Mandarin Chinese also has four different and unrelated lexemes for these four concepts:

  • 右 (yòu)
  • 左 (zuǒ)
  • 対 (duì)
  • 錯 (cuò)

Here, zuǒ “left” seems like it might be related to cuò “wrong”, but instead it comes from a root with a meaning of “to assist”, and the two are only superficially similar.

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    It does appear, though, that the Chinese word for right is derived from – or at least closely related to – words that also meant ‘be friendly, be beneficial, bless’, while the word for left only also means ‘help, assist’; so there does seem to be a certain pro-right bias somewhere in the past there as well. Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 19:17
  • Hmm, hmm, yes, bias perhaps, I don't know if I'd necessarily say "pro-right", unless you mean "exhibiting a likely linguistic manifestation of the right-handedness of most speakers of this language". For Chinese, at least, both underlying etyma for "left" and "right" strike me as positive. Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 20:40
  • I was thinking of the right-hand associations as having to do with magnanimity (being in a position to be able to bless = being a beneficial ruler), and the left-hand ones as being servile (assisting, being assistant). But maybe I’m just overthinking things. Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 20:44
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Chinese "left" can in fact mean "wrong", "deviant", etc., though this seems to come from left-handedness being deviant rather than from the etymologies of left and right. See my answer.
    – yawnoc
    Commented Oct 26, 2020 at 4:05
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Chinese has negative-left connotations (although I have encountered these much more in literary writing than in speech). It appears to be based on handedness rather than etymology.

The Kangxi entry for 左 (left) quotes the following notes from 《增韻》 (a rime book):

左,右之對,人道尚右,以右爲尊。
Left, the opposite of right. The Way of Man esteems the right, taking the right as venerated.

手足便右,以左爲僻,故凡幽猥,皆曰僻左。
Hands and feet favour the right; taking the left is deviant. Therefore of all unseen and vulgar, all are called deviant-left.

Thus "left" can mean improper, wrong, deviant, unorthodox, etc.

Wiktionary has the example "你想左了", literally "you have thought left", meaning "you are mistaken".

More examples:

  • 旁門左道, "side-sects and left-ways", for deviant or unorthodox groups and practices.
  • 左遷, "left-shift", for a demotion. Quoted by Kangxi:

    朝廷之列以右爲尊,故謂降秩爲左遷。
    The Row of the Imperial Court takes the right as venerated. Therefore we speak of a lowering in rank as left-shift.

  • 相左, "mutually left", for two things in conflict or at odds with each other.
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As an exception to the Indo-European rule, in Croatian pravo means right as in right vs. wrong and as in legal rights. E.g. Ti imaš pravo means You are right and Imaš pravo na šutnju means You have the right to remain silent. However, pravo as a direction means straight ahead.

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    That’s not really an exception – ‘right’ and ‘straight’ are also closely connected in many IE languages; cf. French droit ‘right’ vs tout droit ‘straight ahead’ (and droit itself being from Latin directus ‘direct’, itself related to rectus ‘direct, straight, right’). Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 19:09
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: I think the answer leaves out its main point: the Croatian for right (the direction) is desno, which does look like an exception — it’s not obviously similar to words for correctness, straightness, etc. in modern Slavic languages. (At least, not to the most common such words; I’m not a Slavic expert, there may well be rare words I’m missing.) However, it turns out not to be an exception: its root, Proto-Slavic desnъ, is (by non-obvious but regular changes) from PIE deḱs-, cognate to dexter etc.
    – PLL
    Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 9:21
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In Georgian, right (direction) is მარჯვენა [marjvena] and left is მარცხენა [marcxena]
გამარჯვება [gamarjveba] means victory დამარცხება [damarcxeba] means defeat
The adjective მარჯვე [marjve] translates as able, dexterous, adroit
The noun მარცხი [marcxi] can mean failure, miscarriage, or bust

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    Please add transcriptions when writing in Georgian – not many people can be expected to read it. Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 19:05
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    @JanusBahsJacquet It is possible to determine the relevant bits if you focus for a bit (ჯვ for "right" and ცხ for "left" - although it seems that მარ is also important). I agree though, a transcription would have helped.
    – No Name
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 6:53
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    @JanusBahsJacquet done Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 8:20
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    @NoName Cannot say for sure but I believe ჯვ and ცხ without მარ completely lose reference to right or left. There are several words with such roots but I cannot think of any connection with right-left, or the meanings mentioned in my answer Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 8:28
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    @NoName Difficult to say (for me). მარ still looks like a suffix. It seems to be related to direction somehow. For example, მიმართულება [mimartuleba] means direction. მართვა [martva] means administer, control, direct Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 20:01
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In Spanish, derecho can mean either right (as in civil rights, derechos civiles “civil rights”) or straight (as in straight ahead, sigue el camino todo derecho “Follow the road straight along”). The feminine form derecha means right (as in not left, gira a la derecha “Turn right”)

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In French, the word droit and its derivatives have several meanings:

Tournez à droite à l'intersection > Turn right at the intersection
Il marche dans le droit chemin > He walks in the path of righteousness
Une ligne droite > A straight line

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Are there families of Indo-European languages that don't exhibit this characteristic?

The Scandinavian languages don’t have quite the same system — the word for right still comes from adjectives with positive connotations, but slightly different ones. I’ll give Swedish since that’s what I know; the Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic words for right and left are close cognates of these.

In Swedish right is höger, which (according to SAOB) was originally the comparative of an adjective meaning fitting, convenient (no longer surviving in Swedish). Meanwhile left is vänster, originally also a comparative, meaning friendlier, more auspicious — so no negative connotations at all, although I’ve seen some etymologies linking this to a euphemism for the devil as the friendly one (but I don’t remember if this was in a reliable source; it’s not in SAOB, at least).

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I can think of two different relations between "right" meaning a direction and "right" meaning correct.

  1. Biology: the right hand is usually stronger; it is the "right" (correct) hand to do things. The left hand is the "left" (remaining; from "leave") hand.

  2. Astronomy: in the northern hemisphere, when people get up in the morning and look to the direction of the rising sun (= east), they see it turning slightly to the right of them (= south). Keeping in mind the great importance of the sun, it is easy to understand why they regarded the right side as the "correct" side, and the left side as symbolizing darkness, wrongness and evil. Note also that in Biblical Hebrew, the same word "yamin" is used for "right" and "south", and the same word "smol" is used for "left" and "north".

I am not a linguist so I am not sure whether there is evidence to one explanation over the other.

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In Russian, it's the same. Right (правый, praviy) means correct, and left (левый, leviy) sometimes means bad or wrong. E.g. saying to go to the left (пойти налево, poiti na levo) may mean to cheat in romantic relationships.

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    Russian is Indo-European, though, so this doesn’t really add much. Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 10:23
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    The left/bad connection is also common elsewhere in IE, c.f. Latin sinister, French gauche. Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 12:01
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The answer is no. Sağ in Turkish means:

  • Right (in direction)
  • Alive
  • Healthy
  • Resilient (sağlam)
  • Provide (sağla)
  • Milking (sağmak)

Sağ derives from proto-Turkic *sag

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In some south-Slavic languages, such as Serbian/Croatian etc, the word for correct isn't derived from the word for right ("desno") but from the word for straight ("pravo"), which depending on the context can mean straight ahead ("pravo napred") or straight line, opposite of bent/curved/crooked.

(this often makes for a confusion when talking to Russians, when, because of a number of similarities in languages, people expect that this will be similar as well.. but russian right is "правый, praviy".)

There is also a similar concept in English, where "crooked" can mean dishonest or cheating. Following that, it's opposite term would be "straight".

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    pravo is not word for straight. Its origin is PIE per- "over" -> "first". It then originated the PIE word for judge/elder prou̯os "the first one", which in turn gave the meaning of words "pravo" (legal right, law), proof, probe, province, pravitel (ruler), upravnik, etc. This comes from the function of the judge.
    – Anixx
    Commented Mar 31, 2020 at 13:11

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