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We normally say to my right and to my left.

If something is located to my top or bottom how would I say that? Say, I am lying on the floor, to my right there is a wall, to my left there is a desk* and to my top/bottom? Should we use top and bottom or is there a better way of saying this?

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I think this is general reference. The fact that English doesn't use "to my top/bottom" the same as "right/left" hardly seems justification for the question. –  FumbleFingers Feb 23 '12 at 17:00
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Hmm, seems to me that this is exactly the sort of question that is difficult to answer by looking in a dictionary. It's about how words are actually used versus dictionary definitions, and exactly the sort of thing that trips up non-native speakers. –  Jay Feb 23 '12 at 17:38
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This is precisely a linguistic question, dealt with in detail under the rubric of Deixis. –  John Lawler Feb 23 '12 at 18:15
    
This reminds me that there is, or perhaps was, an Australian people who located themselves by reference to points of the compass. Wherever they were,they knew intuitively where north, south, east and west were and described their movements and the location of objects and other people, in those terms. –  Barrie England Feb 23 '12 at 18:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 2 down vote accepted

If you are lying down, "above" and "below" continue to be with respect to gravity.

Hence, when you're lying down, the ground is below you, and the sky is above you.

You might refer to things "at your feet" or "behind your head".

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I think this is the reaso we don't have self-referential up and down, because everyones reference is re gravity. –  Schroedingers Cat Feb 23 '12 at 17:07

To my right there's a wall, to my left there's a desk, above me there's a ceiling and below me there's a floor.

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I am not standing. I am lying on the floor. –  Noah Feb 23 '12 at 16:55
    
@Noah: I don't see how that matters. The ceiling is still above you, whether stand, crouch, crawl, sleep or cook. –  RiMMER Feb 23 '12 at 16:56
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Right. But say, I am not talking about the ceilings. To my head side there is a cabinet. And to my foot side there is chair. –  Noah Feb 23 '12 at 16:58

'Top' and 'bottom' are not directions (or prepositions), they are features of a static object by itself: 'the top of my head'.

'To my top' sounds like a direction but is somewhat infelicitous; it sounds like you are a box. You'd prefer to say 'towards my top' or 'towards my head' and that can come from any direction around the top/head.

'Above' and 'below' are the directions (and grammatically prepositions). They go in the direction according to gravity. If you are hanging upside-down, 'above you' is in the direction of your feet.

If you are on the space station with no gravity, it is relative to your head, 'above you' is always in the direction out the top of your head. But that is not particularly common usage. 'above you' is by far away from the pull of gravity.

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If you are lying on the floor on or near Earth's surface on your back, I would take above you to mean above your ventral surface; that is, away from Earth's center, along a radius, out toward space.

Along the head-to-foot axis, or anteroposterior axis, "the polar opposite to the anterior end is the posterior end", your head being at the anterior end of your body, according to vertebrate directional terms in wikipedia.

The terms top and bottom are used ambiguously in your question, as top might refer to any of dorsal, ventral, or anterior, depending on whether you regard top as equal to spatial direction up, vs taking it as a body-relative term.

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These questions (and many others) are answered in Fillmore's Santa Cruz Deixis Lectures. The one to read about these terms is Lecture 2, entitled simply "Space".

Since Fillmore is a far better writer, I forbear to summarize them here. Go the source.

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Thanks. Interesting... –  Noah Feb 23 '12 at 21:44

As Mitch notes, "top" and "bottom" are not directions like "left" and "right" are.

I don't think English has any words resembling top and bottom that are used in the same was as "to my left/right". You can say "The ceiling is above me" to convey this idea. But there is no word I can think of that you could say "The ceiling is to my _" like you would say "The door is to my left." That said, "above" and "below" convey the meaning you seem to be looking for, they're just not used the same way.

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