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Biased semantics for right and left in 50 Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages


  • Wulf Schiefenhövel

    Corresponding author
    1. Max Planck Institute, Human Ethology, Bavaria, Germany
    • Address for correspondence: Wulf Schiefenhövel, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Human Ethology, von-der-Tann-Str. 3, Andechs, Bavaria, Germany 82346.

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The negative bias accompanying the terms left and left-handers has long interested researchers. This paper examines a large number of languages of Indo-European and non-Indo-European origin for such biasing. One surprising outcome is that, within the Indo-European language family, the terms for right and left do not go back to one set of antonyms but have their etymological roots in a number of different core semantic concepts. As in the non-Indo-European languages, right is almost always thought of positively, whereas left is negatively connotated. This is interpreted as the outcome of a universal human evaluation process, partly based on the principle of embodiment. The terms for right never have, in any of the examined languages, a negative bias; the words for left, usually never positively biased, were turned into euphemisms in three language groups (Scandinavian, Greek, and Avestan). On one interpretation, this seems to be an act of historical political correctness, corroborating the negative attitude cultures have for left-handers, very likely an outcome of discrimination of minorities.