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I'm now familiar with enough Indo-European languages to know in almost all of them there's an etymological connection or outright homonymy between the word(s) for 'right' in the sense of direction and words for correct, true (right), good (righteous), straight, etc. along with similar connotations that make 'right' in the sense of direction lend itself easily to new coinages that have those as meanings. In addition, there's a further, although weaker, connection in some Indo-European languages between 'left' in the directional sense and concepts like wrong (morally or factually), bad, skew, etc.

It's not hard to tie all of these back to PIE origins and also maybe the predominant religions of the region and what they had in common (e.g. viewing the dominant use of the left hand as immoral or similar beliefs, I have no idea if that's actually the case). But I'd like to know to what extent this characteristic manifests in non-Indo-European languages. I know some very weak similar connotations exist in Arabic, but nowhere to the extent you find in Indo-European languages.

Do these sorts of connections exist in other languages/families of languages or is this almost completely unique to Indo-European languages? Are there families of Indo-European languages that don't exhibit this characteristic? Is there an explanation for why or could this be more or less attributed to chance (aside from the fact that most humans are right-handed and that there existed a pressure to conform in most historical human societies)?

Further, not so related question: Why is it that, again, in almost all Indo-European languages the word for 'right' in the directional sense traces back directly to the original PIE root for 'right', but in almost none of them 'left' does?

There were at least two similar questions asked on here that failed to deliver what I was looking for and one of them was (in my opinion unjustifiably) redirected to the other one, so please direct this question to a similar one only if the answers there are sufficiently thorough.

10 Answers 10

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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. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 27 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 Mar 28 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. – Ilmari Karonen Mar 28 at 19:37
7

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 Mar 27 at 13:49
  • hat's where the Ikea come from? – Anixx Mar 31 at 13:00
  • 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 Apr 1 at 8:43
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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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 28 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. – Eiríkr Útlendi Mar 30 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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 30 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 Oct 26 at 4:05
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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’). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 28 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 Mar 30 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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 28 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 Mar 29 at 6:53
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    @JanusBahsJacquet done – მამუკა ჯიბლაძე Mar 29 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 – მამუკა ჯიბლაძე Mar 29 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 – მამუკა ჯიბლაძე Mar 29 at 20:01
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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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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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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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 27 at 10:23
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    The left/bad connection is also common elsewhere in IE, c.f. Latin sinister, French gauche. – Robert Columbia Mar 27 at 12:01
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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 Mar 31 at 13:11

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