Points of the Compass

Expressing Directions in Spanish

Points of compass
¿Qué dirección? (Which direction?) Foto de Gijón, España. (Photo from Gijón, Spain.).

Alquiler de Coches / Creative Commons.

The directions of the compass in Spanish are vaguely similar to those of English and ultimately come from the same Indo-European roots. However, Spanish also has synonyms for some of the directions as well as special adjective forms that should be learned.

Lists of Spanish Words for Directions of the Compass

The primary points of the compass include:

  • norte — north
  • este (or, less commonly, oriente) — east
  • sur — south
  • oeste (or, less commonly, occidente)— west

As in English, the directions can be combined to indicate intermediate points:

  • nornoreste — north-northeast
  • noreste — northeast
  • estenoreste — east-northeast
  • estesudeste — east-southeast
  • sudeste — southeast
  • sudsudeste — south-southeast
  • sudsudoeste — south-southwest
  • sudoeste — southwest
  • oestesudoeste — west-southwest
  • oestenoroeste — west-northwest
  • noroeste — northwest
  • nornoroeste — north-northwest

In some areas, the use of sur- as the stem meaning "south" is preferred, so you'll also hear the variations such sureste and suroeste alone as well as in combination forms such as sursureste. Combinations using oriente and occidente, such as suroccidente for "southwest" and nororiente for "northeast," are also used.

Adjective forms—such as the equivalents of "northern" and "eastern"—can be made by preceding the direction with del (literally, "of the") as in del norte and del sur to mean "northern" and "southern," respectively. These are indicated below along with the special adjective forms:

  • del norte, norteño, boreal, septentrional — northern
  • del este, oriental — eastern
  • del sur, sureño, austral, meridional — southern
  • del oeste, occidental — western

To indicate direction of movement, forms such as del oeste or desde el oeste for "from the west" and hacia el oeste for "toward the west" are used. Thus, an easterly wind (one coming from the east) is a viento del este, while to say that a door faces east, for example, you could say "la puerta mira hacia el este."

A few geographical terms use the noun form where the adjectival form might be expected. In particular, the north and south poles are often called the polo norte and polo sur, respectively. Similarly, the northern and southern hemispheres are often called the hemisferio norte and hemisferio sur, respectively, although terms such as hemisferio boreal can also be used.

Capitalization of Directions

Normally, directions, whether as nouns or adjectives, are not capitalized in Spanish. However, they typically are capitalized when referring to a recognized region. For example: Antes de la guerra de Secesión, la tensión entre el Norte y el Sur era extrema. (Before the Civil War, the tensions between the North and the South was extreme.) However, if you were referring just to the southern U.S. in general, rather the specific states that form a recognized region, capitalization would not be necessary.

Directions also are capitalized when part of a name, such as in Carolina del Norte (North Carolina), Corea del Sur (South Korea), and Mercado Común del Sur (the formal name for the Mercosur, an international South American trading market).

Key Takeaways

  • The four main directions of the compass in Spanish come from the same historic roots as the English terms and thus are vaguely similar.
  • The four main directions can be combined to indicate intermediate points, such as noroeste for "northwest."
  • Special adjective forms, not always similar to the names of the directions, are sometimes in use.

Sample Sentences for Compass Directions

Había cuatro muertos y muchos heridos en accidente de autobús en el norte de Colombia. (There were four deaths and many injured in a bus accident in northern Columbia.)

Gracias a su privilegiada ubicación geográfica, el Sudeste Asiático ha sido una región que ha crecido económicamente en las últimas décadas. (Thanks to its favorable geographical location, Southeast Asia has been a region that has grown economically in recent decades.)

Alrededor de 200 personas participaron en el chapuzón más austral del mundo. (About 200 people participated in the world's most southern ocean dip.)

Los vientos alcanzaron una velocidad de 50 kilómetros por hora desde el nornoroeste. (The winds reached a speed of 50 kilometers per hour from the north-northwest.)

La noción de que ideas occidentales son subversivas ha sido recibida con amplia incredulidad, particularmente entre intelectuales. (The notion that Western ideas are subversive has been received with great incredulity, particularly among intellectuals.)

La Antártida es el continente más austral de la Tierra. (Antarctica is the Earth's most southerly continent.)

"Sur global" es un término utilizado en estudios postcoloniales y transnacionales que puede referirse tanto al tercer mundo como al conjunto de países en vías de desarrollo. ("Global south" is a term used in postcolonial and transnational studies that can refer to the third world as a combination of the developing countries.)