The four cardinal directions or cardinal points are the directions of north, east, south, and west, commonly denoted by their initials: N, E, S, W. East and west are at right angles to north and south, with east being in the clockwise direction of rotation and west being directly opposite. Intermediate points between the four cardinal directions form the points of the compass. The intermediate (intercardinal, or ordinal) directions are northeast (NE), southeast (SE), southwest (SW), and northwest (NW).
On Earth, upright observers facing north will have south behind them, east on their right, and west on their left. Most devices and methods for orientation therefore operate by finding north first, although any other direction is equally valid, if it can be reliably located. Several of these devices and methods are described below.
Locating the directions
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The Earth's sun
The position of the Sun in the sky can be used for orientation if the general time of day is known. In the morning, the Sun rises roughly in the east (due east only on the equinoxes) and tracks upwards. In the evening it sets in the west, again roughly and only due west exactly on the equinoxes. In the middle of the day it is to the south for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere, who live north of the Tropic of Cancer, and the north for those in the Southern Hemisphere, who live south of the Tropic of Capricorn. This method works less well closer to the equator (i.e. between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn) since, in the northern hemisphere, the sun may be directly overhead or even to the north in summer. Conversely, at low latitudes in the southern hemisphere the sun may be to the south of the observer in summer. In these locations, one needs first to determine whether the sun is moving from east to west through north or south by watching its movements—left to right means it is going through south while right to left means it is going through north; or one can watch the sun's shadows. If they move clockwise, the sun will be in the south at midday, and if they move anticlockwise, then the sun will be in the north at midday.
Due to the Earth's axial tilt, no matter what the location of the viewer, there are only two days each year when the sun rises precisely due east. These days are the equinoxes. On all other days, depending on the time of year, the sun rises either north or south of true east (and sets north or south of true west). For all locations the sun is seen to rise north of east (and set north of west) from the Northward equinox to the Southward equinox, and rise south of east (and set south of west) from the Southward equinox to the Northward equinox.
A more accurate fix can be made if the time of year and approximate latitude are factored in. The amount that the sun appears to be either north or south depends on both the time of year and latitude of the observer. Knowing these will enable the observer to be more precise when determining the cardinal directions from the sun's position, particularly in the early morning or late afternoon.
An analog watch can be used to locate north and south. The Sun appears to move in the sky over a 24 hour period while the hour hand of a 12-hour clock face takes twelve hours to complete one rotation. In the northern hemisphere, if the watch is rotated so that the hour hand points toward the Sun, the point halfway between the hour hand and 12 o'clock will indicate south. For this method to work in the southern hemisphere, the 12 is pointed toward the Sun and the point halfway between the hour hand and 12 o'clock will indicate north. During daylight saving time, the same method can be employed using 1 o'clock instead of 12.
The photograph shows a specialized 24-hour watch designed for finding directions using the Sun in the northern hemisphere. With the watch set to indicate local time, the hour hand is pointed directly at the Sun. North is then indicated by the local midnight position.
Finding Direction using stars
Astronomy provides a more reliable method for finding direction at night. All the stars appear to lie on the imaginary Celestial sphere. Because of the rotation of the Earth, the Celestial Sphere appears to rotate around an axis passing through the North and South poles of the Earth. This axis intersects the Celestial Sphere at the North and South Celestial poles, which appear to the observer to lie directly above due North and South respectively on the horizon.
In either Hemisphere, observations of the night sky show that the visible stars appear to be moving in circular paths, caused by the rotation of the Earth. This is best seen in a long exposure photograph, which is obtained by locking the shutter open for most of the intensely dark part of a moonless night. The resulting photograph reveals a multitude of concentric arcs (portions of perfect circles) from which the exact center can be readily derived, and which corresponds to the Celestial pole, which lies directly above the position of the true pole (North or South) on the horizon. A published photograph exposed for nearly 8 hours demonstrates this effect.
The Northern Celestial pole is currently (but not permanently) within a fraction of 1 degree of the bright star Polaris. The exact position of the pole changes over thousands of years due to the precession of the equinoxes. Polaris is also known as the North Star, and is generically called a pole star or lodestar. Polaris is only visible during fair weather at night to inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere. The asterism "Big Dipper" may be used to find Polaris. The 2 corner stars of the "pan" (those opposite from the handle) point above the top of the "pan" to Polaris.
While observers in the Northern hemisphere can use the star Polaris to determine the Northern celestial pole, there is no corresponding "southern pole star". However an adequate substitute is to use the constellation Crux (The Southern Cross). The southern celestial pole lies at the intersection of (a) the line along the long axis of crux (i.e. through Alpha Crucis and Gamma Crucis) and (b) a line perpendicularly bisecting the line joining the "Pointers" (Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri).
At the very end of the 19th century, to avoid the need to wait for fair weather at night to precisely verify one's alignment with true north, the gyrocompass was developed for ship use in scenarios where the magnetic compass simply wasn't good enough. It has the further advantages of immunity to interference by stray magnetic fields, and not depending on Earth's magnetic field at all. Its major disadvantage is that it depends on technology that many individuals might find too expensive to justify outside the context of a large commercial or military operation. It also requires a continuous power supply for its motors, and that it be allowed to sit in one location for a period of time while it properly aligns itself.
Near the end of the 20th century the advent of satellite-based Global Positioning Systems (GPS) provided yet another means for any individual to determine true north accurately. While GPS Receivers (GPSRs) function best with a clear view of the entire sky, they function day or night, and in all but the most severe weather. The government agencies responsible for the satellites continuously monitor and adjust them to maintain their accurate alignment with the Earth. There are consumer versions of the receivers that are attractively priced. Since there are no periodic access fees, or other licensing charges, they have become widely used. GPSR functionality is becoming more commonly added to other consumer devices such as mobile phones. Handheld GPSRs have modest power requirements, can be shut down as needed, and recalibrate within a couple of minutes of being restarted. In contrast with the gyrocompass which is most accurate when stationary, the GPS receiver must be moving, typically at more than 0.1 mph (0.2 km/h), to correctly display compass directions. Within these limitations GPSRs are considered both accurate and reliable. The GPSR has thus become the fastest and most convenient way to obtain a verifiable alignment with the cardinal directions.
The directional names are also routinely and very conveniently associated with the degrees of rotation in the unit circle, a necessary step for navigational calculations (derived from trigonometry) and/or for use with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) Receivers. The four cardinal directions correspond to the following degrees of a compass:
- North (N): 0° = 360°
- East (E): 90°
- South (S): 180°
- West (W): 270°
An ordinal, or intercardinal, or intermediate, direction is one of the four intermediate compass directions located halfway between the cardinal directions.
- Northeast (NE), 45°, halfway between north and east, is the opposite of southwest.
- Southeast (SE), 135°, halfway between south and east, is the opposite of northwest.
- Southwest (SW), 225°, halfway between south and west, is the opposite of northeast.
- Northwest (NW), 315°, halfway between north and west, is the opposite of southeast.
These 8 words have been further compounded, resulting in a total of 16 named (and numbered) points evenly spaced around the compass.
Usefulness of cardinal points
With the cardinal points thus accurately defined, by convention cartographers draw standard maps with north (N) at the top, and east (E) at the right. In turn, maps provide a systematic means to record where places are, and cardinal directions are the foundation of a structure for telling someone how to find those places.
North does not have to be at the top. Most maps in medieval Europe, for example, placed east (E) at the top. Many portable GPS-based navigation computers today can be set to display maps either conventionally (N always up, E always right) or with the current instantaneous direction of travel, called the heading, always up (and whatever direction is +90° from that to the right).
The direction of travel required to reach the intended destination is called the bearing. Since the real world presents numerous obstacles, a person must adjust their heading accordingly. Upon moving forward, the bearing will change so that it always points at the destination, thereby giving clues as to which way to turn. When travelling, it is often easier to work out where the next turn is, and whether to turn left or right, when the direction of travel is always up.
In the real world there are six cardinal directions not involved with geography which are north, south, east, west, up and down. In this context, up and down relate to elevation, altitude, or possibly depth (if water is involved). The topographic map is a special case of cartography in which the elevation is indicated on the map, typically via contour lines.
A line (here it is a great circle on the celestial sphere) drawn from the center of the disk to the North celestial pole will intersect the body's limb at the North point. Similarly, a line from the center to the South celestial pole will define the South point by its intersection with the limb. The points at right angles to the North and South points are the East and West points. The North point will then be the point on the limb that is closest to the North celestial pole.
Germanic origin of names
During the Migration Period, the Germanic languages' names for the cardinal directions entered the Romance languages, where they replaced the Latin names borealis (or septentrionalis) with north, australis (or meridionalis) with south, occidentalis with west and orientalis with east. It is possible that some northern people used the Germanic names for the intermediate directions. Medieval Scandinavian orientation would thus have involved a 45 degree rotation of cardinal directions.
- north (Proto-Germanic *norþ-) from the proto-Indo-European *nórto-s 'submerged' from the root *ner- 'left, below, to the left of the rising sun' whence comes the Ancient Greek name Nereus.
- east (*aus-t-) from the word for dawn. The proto-Indo-European form is *austo-s from the root is *aues- 'shine (red)'. See Ēostre.
- south (*sunþ-), derived from proto-Indo-European *sú-n-to-s from the root *seu- 'seethe, boil'. Cognate with this root is the word Sun, thus "the region of the Sun."
- west (*wes-t-) from a word for "evening." The proto-Indo-European form is *uestos from the root *ues- 'shine (red)', itself a form of *aues-. Cognate with the root are the Latin words vesper and Vesta and the Ancient Greek Hestia, Hesperus and Hesperides.
Cardinal directions in world cultures
Many cultures not descended from European traditions use cardinal directions, but have a number other than four. Typically, a “center” direction is added, for a total of five. Rather than the Western use of direction letters, properties such as colors are often associated with the various cardinal directions—these are typically the natural colors of human perception rather than optical primary colors. Some examples are shown here. In many regions of the world, prevalent winds change direction seasonally, and consequently many cultures associate specific named winds with cardinal and ordinal directions. The classical Greeks personified these winds as Anemoi. The article on boxing the compass contains a more recent list of directional winds from the Mediterranean Sea.
Countries where Arabic is used refer to the cardinal directions as Ash Shamaliyah (N), Al Gharbiyah (W), Ash Sharqiyah (E) and Al Janobiyah (S). Additionally, they use also Al Wusta for the center. All five are used for geographic subdivision names (wilayas, states, regions, governorates, provinces, districts or even towns), and some are the origin of some Southern Iberian placenames (Algarve, Portugal or Axarquía, Spain).
Dynastic Chinese culture and some other Central Asian cultures view the center as a fifth principal direction hence the English translated term "Five Cardinal Points". Where it is different than the west, is that the term is used as a foundation for I Ching, the Wu Xing and the five Naked-eye planets.
Each direction is often identified with a color, and (at least in China) with a mythological creature of that color. Geographical or ethnic terms may contain the name of the color instead of the name of the corresponding direction. These traditions were also carried west by the westward migration of the Turkic peoples.
- Qingdao (Tsingtao) "Green Island": a city on the east coast of China
- Red River (Asia): south of China
- Heilongjiang "Black Dragon River" province in Northeast China, also the Amur River
- Kara-Khitan Khanate "Black Khitans" who originated in Northern China
- Black Sea: north of Anatolia
- Black Ruthenia
In Mesoamerica and North America, many traditional indigenous beliefs include four cardinal directions and a center. Each direction was associated with a color, which varied between groups but which generally corresponded to the hues of corn (green, black, red, white, and yellow). There seems to be no “preferred” way of assigning these colors; as shown in the table, great variety in color symbolism occurs even among cultures that are close neighbors geographically.
Some indigenous Australians have cardinal directions deeply embedded in their culture. For example, the Warlpiri people have a cultural philosophy deeply connected to the four cardinal directions  and the Guugu Yimithirr people use cardinal directions rather than Relative direction even when indicating the position of an object close to their body (see Use of cardinal direction instead of relative direction).
The precise direction of the cardinal points appear to have been important to some Aboriginal cultures (see aboriginal stone arrangements).
Many aboriginal languages contain words for the usual four cardinal directions, but some contain words for 5 or even 6 cardinal directions.
Unique (non-compound) names of ordinal directions
In some languages, such as Finnish, Estonian and Breton, the ordinal directions have names that are not compounds of the names of the cardinal directions (as, for instance, northeast is compounded from north and east). In Finnish those are koillinen (northeast), kaakko (southeast), lounas (southwest), and luode (northwest). Compare with the non-compound names used for the numbers 11–19 in English (eleven, rather than *ten-one) and special names for one and a half and two and a half in Hindi. In Japanese, there is the interesting situation that native Japanese words (yamato kotoba, kun readings of kanji) are used for the cardinal directions (such as minami for 南, south), but borrowed Chinese words (on readings of kanji) are used for ordinal directions (such as tō-nan for 東南, southeast, lit. "east-south"). In the Malay language, adding laut (sea) to either east (timur) or west (barat) results in northeast or northwest, respectively, whereas adding daya to west (giving barat daya) results in southwest. However, southeast has a special word: tenggara.
Sanskrit and other Indian languages that borrow from it use the names of the gods associated with each direction: east (Indra), southeast (Agni), south (Yama/Dharma), southwest (Nirrti), west (Varuna), northwest (Vayu), north (Kubera/Heaven) and northeast (Ishana/Shiva). North is associated with the Himalayas and heaven while the south is associated with the underworld or land of the fathers (Pitr loka). The directions are named by adding "disha" to the names of each god or entity: e.g. Indradisha (direction of Indra) or Pitrdisha (direction of the forefathers i.e. south).
Order of directions
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While the directions can be listed in any order, most formally in clockwise or counterclockwise order, starting from some point (such as NESW, or, following the sun from daybreak in the northern hemisphere, ESWN), different languages conventionally use different orders, often using pairs of opposite directions. In English, the conventional order of the directions is "north, south, east, and west" (NSEW = N/S + E/W). In Japanese, most common is EWSN (東西南北 = E/W + S/N), and east-west (東西) is idiomatic for “everywhere, in all parts”; Japan is located at the extreme east of Eurasia.
Non-compass directional systems
Use of the compass directions is common and deeply embedded in European culture, and also in Chinese culture (see South Pointing Chariot). Some other cultures make greater use of other referents, such as towards the sea or towards the mountains (Hawaii, Bali), or upstream and downstream (most notably in ancient Egypt, also in the Yurok and Karuk languages). Lengo (Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands) has four non-compass directions: landward, seaward, upcoast, and downcoast.
- Boxing the compass for all thirty-two English-named internationally-used principal points of the compass.
- Elevation – the mapping information ignored by the cardinal point system
- Geocaching – an international hobby
- Geographic Information System (GIS)
- Latitude and Longitude
- List of cartographers – about famous cartographers through history
- List of international common standards
- Magnetic deviation – to understand why a compass does not align perfectly with the Earth's north and south poles.
- Orienteering – to learn about an internationally popular hobby and sport that depends on the above knowledge for success.
- Uses of trigonometry
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- entries 86-7 of the Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch
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