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Preference for "right" over "left" in languages

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by aisha93, Nov 15, 2012.

  1. aisha93

    aisha93 Senior Member

    Hi everybody,

    I have noticed the matter of the preference for "right" over "left" in the languages which I personally know.

    In Arabic we say (يمين Yamiin) which has also the sense of (blessing, good fortune, prosperity).

    In Persian the word (راست Raast) means (right side, true, correct, direct) and many positive meanings. In contrast the word (چپ Chap) > means (left side) and has the sense of falseness and falsehood.

    In both Arabic and Persian the word (left) is used referring to Opposition Parties (mainly communist parties).

    In English the word (right) has many positive meanings as you all know.

    In Islam (religion), the right hand is favored over the left hand, as it is advised to eat with the right hand, to start the "Wudu: ablution" by the right parts of the body, to pray with the right hand over the left and many other rituals and ceremonies.

    I don't know much about other languages and religions but the act of preference for (right) over (left) seems to be global and common amongst almost all the people of the world.

    As we all know, all human beings salute and greet each others by shaking the right hands.

    I would like to know whether other languages (including both modern an old ones) have these characteristics or not, and about the history of this matter in other religions/cultures/traditions.

  2. myšlenka Senior Member

    in Scandinavian (Norwegian at least) the word for 'right' and 'left' has no other meanings but I looked them up in an etymological dictionary and here is what I found:

    Høyre (right) - comparative form of Old Norse hœgr (comfortable, tractable etc.)
    Venstre (left) - from Old Norse vinstri (related to the word for friend.)

    So the word for 'left' is definitely a lot nicer than in many other languages. However, you can also use keiva (a dysphemism) to refer to the left hand and it is related to the word keiv/skjev (wrong, difficult, intractable etc).

    In the Bible there are many places where the right is associated with good things while the left is associated with something bad or evil. Consequently, in many paintings of the Devil he is left-handed.
  3. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    This is true in European languages too, of course. It has its origin in the seating pattern of the parties in parliament, first (I think) in France, and then in other countries. The terms "left" and "right" do not in this context imply a value judgement. The Left sits on the left even when it is not in opposition, but in government.

    Otherwise, what you are saying is correct.
  4. francisgranada Senior Member


    jobb - right (literally "better")
    bal - left (originally something like odd, bad ...)
  5. aisha93

    aisha93 Senior Member

    That's right, and there is a verse in Bible (Act 7:56) which says: (But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.)

    I really want to know what are the Aramaic words for (right and left), and other ancient languages like Greek, Avestan, Sanskrit, Latin,...etc. And also about the attitude of other ancient religions (other than Abrahamic ones) towards the matter of favoring right side over left side.

    I unfortunately have no idea.

    Oh, I wasn't aware of this, thank you.

    It seems that this is a general rule in most of the languages, anyway, I think it is worth waiting for other members from different parts of the world to get a better perspective.

    Thank you all, and I hope you all share your knowledge about this interesting subject to draw a useful conclusion
  6. JeanDeSponde

    JeanDeSponde Senior Member

    France, Lyon area
    France, Français
    Well, it is said that Charlemagne (circa 800), when visiting a school, divided the pupils in two groups, with the good ones to his right and the bad ones to his left.
    The associations "right [droit]=good" and "left [gauche] = bad" is so deeply rooted in French that it sure predates the French revolution by many centuries (see e.g. être adroit = skillful vs. être gauche = clumsy).
    I would not be surprised to learn that the first French republican parliament had decided to set the bad pupils where they belonged...
  7. apmoy70 Senior Member

    Hi aisha,

    In Greek right is «δεξιός, -ά, -ό» [ðeksi'os ðeksi'a ðeksi'o] (masc. fem. neut.) which is an ancient adj. and noun «δεξιός, -ὰ, -όν» dĕksi'ŏs (masc.), dĕksi'ă (fem.), dĕksi'ŏn (neut.) --> the right hand/side, from PIE root *deks-, right (cf. Lat. dexter > It. destro, Sp. diestro, O.Fr. destre; BCS desni). The stranded fem. adj. «δεξιά» [ðeksi'a] means either the right hand or the right wing in politics.
    Since ancient times, it described the dexterous, skilful, clever person while its superlative «δεξιώτατος» dĕksi'ōtatŏs stood for the courteous and kind person.
    In battles the right wing («δεξιόν κέρας» dĕksi'ŏn 'kĕras --> right horn) was occupied by the bravest and most skilful warriors, it was a position of honour.
    In Modern Greek, a remnant of the said superstition has survived in the wish «όλα να πάνε δεξιά» ['ola na 'pane ðeksi'a] lit. "[I wish] everything went rightwards [for you]", we hear from relatives, friends on the occasion of a new job; every New Year's Day, I remember my grandfather (born in 1910) asking some kid playing out in the street to be the first stranger entering our house "με το δεξί" [me to ðe'ksi] lit. "with the right [foot]", a gesture that simple rural people believed would bring good fortune, abundance of goods/crops for the whole year.
    Also in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox rite, when a Bishop is present and during the Hierarchal Trisagion, he chants one of David's psalms (79/80): «Κύριε, Κύριε, ἐπίβλεψον ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἵδε, καὶ ἐπίσκεψε τὴν ἄµπελον ταύτην καὶ κατάρτησαι αὐτήν, ἥν ἐφύτευσεν ἡ δεξιὰ σου» (Septuagint).
    "O God of hosts, look down from heaven and see, and visit this vine and the vineyard which Your right hand has planted, and the branch that You made strong for Yourself" (NKJV).
    In Ancient Greek religion and system of belief, the left hand/side «ἀριστερὰ» ăristĕ'ră (in Modern Greek also «αριστερά» [ariste'ra]) was believed that brought bad omens. In fact even the invocation of the name «ἀριστερὰ» was considered it summoned evil spirits, so they replaced it in the colloquial language with the euphemism «εὐώνυμος, -ος, εὐώνυμον» eu'ōnumŏs (masc. & fem.), eu'ōnumŏn (neut.) --> euphemism for left hand/side lit. of good name, e.g. «ἐξ ευωνύμου» --> from the good-named [i.e. side/hand].
    It must be said though that even the name «ἀριστερὰ» is a euphemism as it derives from «ἄριστος» 'ăristŏs --> the best, morally best, bravest (cf. aristocracy). The archaic name for it was «λαιὰ» lǣ'ă (fem.) --> left side/hand (PIE root *leh₂iuo-, left; cf. Lat. lævus, OCS лѣвъ (lěvŭ))
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2012
  8. aruniyan Senior Member

    Words in Tamil.

    Vala - right ( Other words like Vallaar(strong), Vallunar (expert) etc...)
    Ida - left (related to restriction, difficulty, not free to move, inbetween etc... as in words like Idai, Idar, Idam)
  9. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    It was probably rather a matter of honour and privilege. The seating order existed already in the original assembly of the États Généraux: Nobility and clergy to the right of the king; commoners to the left.
  10. nnikolov30 New Member

    It works the same way in Italian:
    Destra - right (comes from Latin dexter, from which comes the word dexterous)
    Sinistra - left (cognate with English word sinister, which means something bad)

    I really don't know what's going on with these words for directions.. :D
  11. aisha93

    aisha93 Senior Member

    This is amazing.
    It appears to be almost the same for most (or maybe all) of the Indo-European languages, according to Google Dictionary.

    Thank you very much for your reply, a very good piece of linguistic information.
  12. origumi Senior Member

  13. ancalimon Senior Member

    There were rules among old Turks in which different people had their yurts on the right or left side of the Khan's yurt according to what their role was. (actually it was a three dimensional system also with height) I don't remember the exact rules but we also have some superstitions regarding right and left.

    In Turkish:

    sağ: right side, alive, to milk
    sağlık: health, vigor
    sağlam: solid, strong, stable, durable, trustworthy
    sağ ol: thank you (be right, be healthy)

    sol: left side, wither
    soluk: breath

    solugay (Mongolian) : against, reverse, imperfect, opposite
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2012
  14. sotos Senior Member

    In Japanese (and possibly in Chinese) the words "right" (direction) and "correct" are written with the same character.

    However, notice that the Greek for left is "aristera" which is very close to the w. "ariston, arista etc" (the best). Those Greeks are sinister, aren't they?
  15. origumi Senior Member

    Strong's explains: Apparently a comparative of the same as ariston; the left hand (as second-best) -- left (hand).

  16. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    In Polish right is prawy, which also means righteous, and is the stem of the word prawda (truth).
    Left is lewy (compare Latin laevus), which means illegal in colloquial language (lewe interesy= illegal business).
  17. UrduMedium Senior Member

    United States
    Urdu (Karachi)
    In Urdu (possibly Hindi too?) there are at least two popular ways to refer to right and left

    1. daa'eN (right) and baa'eN (left). [N=nasal n]. These two words seem to simply refer to right and left (as in direction), and are not loaded with other meanings.

    2. seedhaa (right), and ulta (left). Especially when referring to hands. Here the loaded meaning is very much present. seedha also meaning upright, and ulta upside-down.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2012
  18. Lugubert Senior Member

    I can't find any other direction related value judgements in Swedish than vänsterprassla (vänstra): cheat; to have an extramarital affair. That's vänster = left For höger = right, there's the figurative någons högra hand, somebody's foremost help(er).
  19. aisha93

    aisha93 Senior Member

    This is interesting.
    In Arabic we say ذراع اليمين (right arm), for example: أنت ذراعي اليمين (literally: you're my right arm) which means: you're my truest/most faithful/best helper or assistant.
  20. francisgranada Senior Member

    This exists also in Hungarian: te vagy a jobbkezem (lit. you are my right hand)
  21. ancalimon Senior Member

    I think it exists in most of the languages. In Turkish too. (sağ kolumsun : you are my right arm)
  22. rusita preciosa

    rusita preciosa Modus forendi

    USA (Φιλαδέλφεια)
    Russian (Moscow)
    In Russian it is almost exactly the same:

    Right: правый /pravyi/ also means right/correct, righteous; some words with the same root are правда /pravda/ truth; правильный /pravilnyi/ correct etc…

    Left: левый /levyi/ in modern slang also means “illicit, suspicious”.

    There is a positive meaning related to the word “left”, but that is not a traditional/ethymological meaning - it is from a story by the author Leskov published in late 1800s. In the story the protagonist Левша /levsha/ (Lefty), a left-handed gunsmith, is so skilled in his craft that he is able to put tiny horseshoes on a life-size mechanical flea, with microscopic nails and his signature, all without even a magnifying glass. As per that story sometimes a very skilled person is called a Левша.
  23. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Yes, here we have an example where Russian and Polish are almost identical. "Prawy" was also used in the meaning right/correct as late as in the XIX century, but this meaning is now obsolete. The Polish counterpart of правильный is prawidłowy.

  24. LilianaB Senior Member

    US New York
    Yes, that might be true, but the etymology is related to left-handedness and right-handedness in my opinion. The majority of people are right-handed and this is perhaps why left might be considered unusual, or even improper by the traditionalists. In the past people were even trying to teach left-handed children to use the right hand only for writing and eating, and anything else in fact.
  25. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    Indeed, Liliana, that's the origin of all the "right=good, left=bad" words and expressions, and it goes rather further than left being considered 'unusual' or 'improper'. From mediæval times until quite recently (and quite possibly as far back as pre-history), superstition led to left-handedness being seen as evil, demonic, the mark of the devil — or at the very least left-handed people were thought to be bringers of bad luck.

  26. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    And the same in English for technical terms in heraldry - dexter and sinister - right and left.

    The right arm/hand is unsurprising; the vast majority of the world is right handed and need for that limb is far greater than the loss of the left.
  27. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    You realise, of course, that dexter and sinister are simply the Latin words for right and left. English "sinister" is not "cognate" with the Latin or Italian word, but borrowed from the former.
  28. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    English - England
    Of course! But the heraldic use is good English. It is no longer "borrowed", I think that it has been assimilated - we have the adjectives dextral and sinistral - right and left.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2012
  29. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    In Scandinavian, høyre/höger (R) is derived from a word meaning 'convenient', whereas venstre/vänster (L) is based on the same root as a word meaning 'friend'. The interesting thing about the Scandinavian terms is that they do not seem to have any particularly positive or negative connotations. They also have no other meanings than describing relative directions.
  30. tFighterPilot Senior Member

    Israel - Hebrew
    In Hebrew also "right hand" יד ימין /yad yamín/ and "my right hand" יד ימיני /yad yeminí/
  31. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    And in English: "He's my right-hand man".

  32. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Pekino, Ĉinujo
    Chinese/Italian - bilingual
    In Italian: "Lui è il mio braccio destro" (he's my right arm).

    Probably Italian is the only language to use "sinistro" as the only word for "left". Besides of being used as an adjective, meaning "sinister", it's also a noun meaning "accident", used in formal situations, such as insurance or car accident reports.

    "Destro" with the meaning of "dexterous" is rarely used in modern Italian, but we may use the corresponding noun "destrezza" (dexterity) and its opposite "maldestro" (according to WR dictionary: clumsy, bumbling, maladroit).

    In the Middle Ages the left hand was considered "the Devil's hand", and so the left-handed people were very stigmatized and forced to use the right hand to write (what still used to happen in China in the 90s). Probably for this, "left" was associated with bad things.

    What's interesting is that I discovered that in ancient Chinese, and in some formal coumpounds, it's the same thing!
    Thw word for left zuó also means queer, wrong, incorrect, different, contrary, opposite.
    While the word for right yòu also means "the right side as the side of precedence" (although according the Chinese definition is: higher in status).
    Wow! I didn't know that they had also these meanings!

    In my Chinese dialect, left hand and right hand use different words than the directions.
    Left hand is called 假手, literally "false hand", or according to other studious 借手, literraly "borrowed hand".
    Right hand is called 顺手, literally "smooth hand".
  33. arielipi Senior Member

    Im not sure hebrew has this preference as much as people make the preference, when i think of all the terms choosing right over left, they are all borrowed, except for "my right hand","standing to his right"[=stood for him].
  34. Maroseika Moderator

    It seems quite natural that the name for left and right hands are derivative from the notions "bad" and "good". Like left, links, laevus, левый < bounded, and right, recht, derecho, правый < right, correct.
  35. e2-e4 X Senior Member

    I would think this is an illusion of modern "political correctness". It's now that almost everybody talks of left-handed people, this is one of the distinct traits of the modern times; at the times when the meanings of the words were being coined, I doubt anybody would think of left-handed people except on some very special occasions. I think, left was bad because it's hard and unpleasant to work or battle with anything that happens to appear at the left hand. For example, a sly man would walk from the left if he wanted to kill you or deceive you and be not killed. But the Devil is sly by definition.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2012
  36. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Pekino, Ĉinujo
    Chinese/Italian - bilingual
    My opinion is: most people are more capable using the right hand, while the left hand was less capable, for that reason left hand was considered the devil's hand. And so, left-handed people were considered strange, and maybe possessed by the devil.
  37. e2-e4 X Senior Member

    Yes, but when considering the issue with the language, this strangeness looks to be an effect rather then the cause.
  38. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Pekino, Ĉinujo
    Chinese/Italian - bilingual
    OK, we agree on the facts, but not on which is cause which is the effect. Other than the left-hand being weaker, I don't see any valid reason for "left" being associated with bad things linguistically.
  39. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    But language is simply an expression of the thoughts and observations of people. Because left-handedness was seen as strange/unfamiliar/abnormal, people associated it (in their minds) with "bad". In expressing that thought, they used the word for 'left' to indicate that something was "bad". That's valid linguistically, as much as any meaning-shift is valid.

  40. Youngfun

    Youngfun Senior Member

    Pekino, Ĉinujo
    Chinese/Italian - bilingual
    Yes, Wordsmith :)
    That's what I wanted to say, that "left-handedness seen as strange/unfamiliar/abnormal" is the cause, not the effect.
  41. e2-e4 X Senior Member

    I agree with you, but it's the left hand, not left-handed people. The latter are so uncommon that I don't think their existence would affect language. Normally, in the usual situations, we think nothing of them. The first, as the weaker hand, is given to almost everybody, except the minority who either don't have left or right hand, or both, or who use their left hand better than their right one.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2012
  42. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    Ah, I see what you mean now, Youngfun. This isn't a case of a random linguistic mutation causing a new usage, but of a real-life association causing a meaning-shift.
    I'd hardly call 10% of the world's population "uncommon"! [source; you may also like to read the sections on "Social stigma" and "Negative associations of language", to see that left-handed people's existence did indeed affect language].
    Well, if he had tried that in the days when people wore rapier-style swords, his misjudgement might have been his downfall. Right-handed people wore their swords on the left hip. When drawing the sword at close quarters, an aggressor on the left could be struck quickly. Striking one on the right needed a longer sweep, and possibly a repositioning of the arm to achieve a thrust. An attacker coming from the right stood a better chance of succeeding, if he was fast enough.

    Last edited: Dec 12, 2012
  43. nnikolov30 New Member

    Personally, I had other opinions but my latest and the one I believe the most is because of handedness. Studies show that 90% of human population is right-handed to 10%, which are left-handed. And by handedness I mean not only in writing, but in doing all sorts of everyday work. In Latin, left is "sinister" and right is "dexter". As we know, sinister in English means something evil, something not right (well, obviously :p). Regarding "dexter", I can trace its etymology from Proto-Indo-European deks-, which means correct. So as the ancient people worked manually with tools and were predominately right-handed, I suppose for them the "correct" method of using the tools was with the right hand and the "wrong" way - with the left. So eventually, as they didn't have names for directions, they named right and left "the right way of using the tools" and "the wrong way of using the tools". Again, this is my own opinion :D
  44. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    If that's true, nnikolov, then it suggests that the words for right and left (in Indo-European languages) were originally derived from those for right and wrong — rather than being subsequently applied in the sense of right and wrong, as we've been discussing above.

    Well, maybe there's food for thought there. I guess much depends on the reliability of the assumption ...
    ... I know you advanced it as opinion, not fact, but it would be interesting to see if it can be substantiated.

  45. e2-e4 X Senior Member

    I would.
    Well, it didn't say anything about such an effect of a category of people on language. What seems to have affected the languages is the fact that the left hand is usually weaker and less artful, less dexterous; this path of meaning-shift is more direct, more plain and thefore more likely (in either direction). Who would care or think of the same ten percent, or, after all, which speaker would care or think of anybody but herself or himself, and of actual words that everybody around uses?
    This is an example, after all, but thank you for the note (besides, the power of fist is always with us, unlike the power of sword :) ). Another example is a 'left-handed occasional job', (Russian: «левый приработок»): quite naturally, if I use my left hand worse than I do my right hand, then it's just very natural to call 'left-handed' any work that is done badly or without proper care, to associate it with my left hand. That's egocentrism of language and of thought; and when different languages contradict each other, the majority wins, which is true not only for language, but for any custom.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2012
  46. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    The population of geographical Europe is 10% of the world's population. I'd be surprised to hear anyone say "Europeans are so uncommon that I don't think their existence would affect language". What's more, left-handed people are more evenly distributed throughout the world than Europeans are, so in every society every tenth person you meet, on average, is left-handed.
    But it does. The whole "Social stigma" section is about left-handed people, and makes considerable reference to the language used to describe being left-handed (which isn't the same as a right-handed person using his left hand). It also contains a link to a fuller article. The last paragraph of the "Negative associations ..." section refers specifically to terms used for left-handed people.

    As to which had the greater effect on language (the existence of left-handed people, or the inferiority of right-handed people's left hand), I'm unaware of any research on that. However, if you think about it, the number of occasions where a superstitious observer would be disturbed by seeing a left-handed person naturally using his left hand (1 in 10!) is probably much greater than those occasions where he would see a right-handed person unnaturally using his left hand.

    I would imagine also that xenophobia is more common than self-denigration: human nature is such that people are more likely to reject others whom they consider to be abnormal/alien/non-conformist than to reject an integral part of themselves.

    Anyway, take that as you will.

  47. e2-e4 X Senior Member

    Languages of people outside Europe? Well, it happens this and that way. Europeans had power with them, that's why they affected other peoples' languages.
    Only when you notice them being such, which is far less common. :)
    Yes, this is the issue: which one has the greater effect… I think, our left hands are always with us, but the left hands of other people are rather away and one wouldn't even think of them except specially needed.
    Why to reject? It's just about making the distinction between proper and improper, a quite frequent one. One might want to do something improperly, because he thinks it's good for him to avoid a dubious task, for example, or it's good to make some money without much effort. People would consider slyness as something bad inside others, but good inside themselves. Otherwise, one might be willing to say he won't do something with the wrong hand, no way! He's a good man :) .
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2012
  48. NorwegianNYC Senior Member

    New York, NY, USA
    Which cannot possibly be correct. In many, but not all, Indo-European languages will the terms for left and right have dual (or more) meanings, but only few of them have the same meaning. Latin dexter is from the PIE root deks- meaning ether "right hand" or "south" (i.e. whilst facing East). English/German right/rechts is from PIE reg-, meaning "move straight" or "make right".

    It is also worth noting that in Scandinavian, the terms høyre/höger and venstre/vänster has no alternative meanings, and are derived from terms meaning 'convenient' and 'friendly' respectively. There might be a pattern of "right - wrong" when it comes to right and left, but it is certainly not a linguistic pattern.
  49. nnikolov30 New Member

    What I actually meant to say was that at that time they maybe had some everyday phrases of remarking those who were left-handed and used the tools "wrongly", in the sense of "the majority of us use the tools with the right hand and you use them with the left one".
    But on the other hand, if we consider that as true, then how do we explain people naming more socially-orientated parties as "left" and more market-economy ones "right"? I mean, what was their reason for naming them like that and not the other way around? This is all so strange..
  50. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    To my way of thinking, that seems a strange outlook on life — and it doesn't explain the widespread past association of the left hand (or of left-handedness) with the Devil or with evil, which goes well beyond the concept of being just acceptably improper.

    I can easily imagine a community ostracising a left-handed person (as being a manifestation of Satan). I have more of a problem with the idea of an individual going around proclaiming that a part of his own body has been possessed by the Devil; (sounds like an invitation to have it chopped off!).

    Indeed, I don't favour it as an argument myself. What I actually said was:
    Even nnikolov30 wasn't putting it up as a fact, just an idea, and I was interested to see whether there could be any actual evidence to support that idea.
    In fact I couldn't find any source for that, whereas ...
    ... is supported in numerous references.

    So yes, it does look as though the additional meaning of correct/true/good/etc came after the meaning of right(-hand).


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