Two ways to give directions in English are in terms of the points of the compass (north, south, east and west) and in terms of the speaker’s body (frontward, backward, left and right). In Hawaiian (haw), the word mauka means “toward the mountain” and makai means “toward the sea.”
Other languages use directions according to the flow of a river (upriver, downriver). One such language is Ahtna (aht), spoken in the Copper River area of Alaska. Four stems showing this riverine system in Ahtna are found in the paper “A theory is only as good as the data: casting a wide net in Kabardian and Ahtna documentation” by Ayla B. Applebaum and Andrea L. Berez:
- nae’ — upriver, behind
- daa’ — downriver
- ngge’ — from water, upland
- tsen — toward water, lowland
Berez is giving a talk on this system on May 26, 2011, in Santa Barbara, California. The title of the talk is “Directional Reference in Ahtna: Endangered Language, Endangered Geographic Knowledge.”
The Ethnologue gives 35 speakers of Ahtna as of 2000 while Wikipedia gives 80 speakers spread over four dialects. To learn Ahtna words, see “Ahtna Noun Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide,” updated last month by John E. Smelcer.