By Rob Packer

In most of the languages I know, you describe the process of working out where you are on the map or in relation to your surroundings with a variant on orientation: Orientierung in German, orientación in Spanish, ориентация (orientatsia) in Russian and so on and so forth. The word comes from oriens, the Latin word for east, and creates an image in my mind of people lost in a forest or on the steppe bumping about in the dark until the sun rises and the riddle is solved. According to Wikipedia, the actual origin of the word is has an even more metaphysical feel to it, coming from the mediaeval tradition of putting east at the top of the map and Jerusalem at its centre, such as in the Hereford Mappa Mundi. The tradition of setting churches (and Roman temples) on an east-west axis could be an alternative.

The exception is Portuguese, where the word I’ve most commonly seen is nortear, taking its directions as most modern maps do today. This isn’t to say that orientar doesn’t exist in Portuguese (it does) and by the same token, nortear does in Spanish, although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it used. So why the difference?

I like to think of it as a holdover of the language’s own history embedded within its DNA: according to the Real Academia Española of Spain, the Spanish nortear is mainly used at sea, where mariners have to navigate on the earth’s fixed axis. And the word has its origins in norte, a Germanic word, which (and this is pure speculation) makes me think of it as a word that sprung up from people communicating with each other in the vernacular, which probably dates it later—a more learned Latinate equivalent would be something like boreate or septentrionate. But in Portuguese, you could nortear your way around Rio de Janeiro just as easily as you could mathematics. It may or may not be the case, but I like to imagine the word echoing down from the pre-longitude Age of Discoveries, Vasco da Gama, Henry the Navigator and all the others, whose astrolabes would have orientated them in terms of their latitude, but would not have told them how far east or west they were.


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