I hope this is the correct forum to ask; if not, please migrate to a better place.

How did humans came to agree on a distinction between the directions "right" and "left"? I could think of two alternative ways:

  1. Biology: the right hand is usually stronger, so humans can agree that the direction of the stronger hand is "right" and the other direction is "left".
  2. Astronomy: in the northern hemisphere, when people look to the direction of the rising sun (= east), they see it turning slightly to the right of them (= south). So they could agree that the direction the sun turns to is "right" and the other direction is "left".

Is there any evidence to one or the other or to another explanation?

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    $\begingroup$ I take it you want to know why we use these particular words in English (where "right" also means "correct")? In which case, your question probably belongs on english.stackexchange.com, where, in fact, it's discussed well here, here, and here $\endgroup$
    – Eoin
    Mar 2 '15 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Eoin I didn't mean to ask about the English words... I want to know how the concepts of left direction vs. right direction emerged in the human mind. These concepts exist in many different languages (not sure if all of them). $\endgroup$ Mar 2 '15 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ In addition to defending your question, it would be appropriate to edit the question to better reflect your intent. $\endgroup$ Mar 3 '15 at 22:11

There is a perspective called the "sociological imagination" that can be used to "frame," or interpret, perceptions. In part, this perspective involves an awareness toward the linkages between history and biography, between social structure and consciousness, and between "knowledge" and its socio-cultural contexts.

The words you question are simply tools or descriptive labels applied to some "sense" and useful for both individual and communal understanding of space-time. There is a class of words (called "closed" class words) -- called so because, unlike nouns and verbs, it is tremendously difficult to invent new words (icons or symbols) for the associated concepts. These words fall into a class of words that have their foundation in protolanguage -- with associated, generally-accepted, emerging concepts from early hunting and gathering societies 100,000BC-80,000BC. At this early stage, knowledge transfer (education) was through socialization of the young (largely an informal process where children learned both through their play and through observing and imitating their elders).

Specifically to your question, some close class words indicate relative direction (to, from, through, left, right, up, down) in the manner of vectors. Other words such as above, below, in, on, at, next to, and by serve to orient relative to other objects.

Suppose one had to explain the meaning of the words “left” and “right” to someone who had never heard those words before. Further suppose, that you had to explain such in a purely verbal manner -- without drawing pictures or pointing at things or otherwise making gestures. One would perhaps start by appealing to a shared experience, communal concept, or draw upon mathematics (geometry). But what if one were constrained to make no assumptions about where the person is coming from or how much geography he or she knows? You then might hope that they knew something about the stars or the sky. One could begin with up and down and move on to the motions of objects in the sky.

Another way the concept of "left" and "right" could have emerged to common understanding is through anatomy (human or otherwise). Socializing methods of butchering flesh, combat training, and burial rites all would include relative orientation, placement, and direction.

The cognitive origin of the notions of "left" and "right" emerge from common experience and/or how experience relates to tangible objects or phenomenon.

This rabbit hole goes a lot deeper; however, for the sake of being cogent and succinct, I am observing some self-imposed boundaries. There are egocentric coordinate acculturation conventions and spatiality (geo-centric, stellar-centric, (sub)atomic-centric) traditions that can shake things up a bit but I believe such begin to tangent off point.


  • Calvin, W. (2004). A brief history of the mind: From apes to intellect and beyond. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • The New Ambidextrous Universe: Symmetry and Asymmetry from Mirror Reflections to Superstrings: Third Revised Edition. By Martin Gardner​. 2005.
  • The Handedness of the Universe. Roger A. Hegstrom and Dilip K. Kondepudi in Scientific American, Vol. 262, pages 108-115; January 1990.
  • Alien Pizza, Anyone? On other worlds, biochemistry could have taken a different turn. Davide Castelvecchi in Science News, Vol. 172, No. 7, pages 107-; August 18, 2007
  • THEORIES. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from http://www.trinity.edu/mkearl/theory.html#imag
  • $\begingroup$ I see in your answer, both the astronomical perspective (the stars) and the biological perspective (the anatomy). Is there any evidence to the question, which of these perspectives were more dominant in the evolvement of the left/right concepts in different human communities? $\endgroup$ Mar 4 '15 at 6:55
  • $\begingroup$ At the risk of stating the obvious, the evidentiary element of your inquiry ventures well into (pre-)oral tradition of ancient peoples (or perhaps even scratching into late primate evolution). I posit that the next leg of the journey dives deeply into the niche science of Cognitive Archaeology. While I've not encountered such evidence, I believe there might be potential to explore sound hypothesis in the examination of applied symmetry (or distinct breaks there from) in ancient artifacts. $\endgroup$ Mar 6 '15 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ Consider the following for investigative outreach: Yvan I. Russell, (Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford; Middlesex University, London); Dr. Alexis D. J. Makin, (University of Liverpool) and Dr. Marco Bertamini, (University of Liverpool); or Dr. Matthew Walls, (University of Oxford). If I stumble on something more specific and evidentiary, I'll refine my answer. $\endgroup$ Mar 6 '15 at 0:11

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