Another summer gone

All lies.  The promises I made to myself that I’d post here even while I was doing my fieldwork: all the products of a self-deluded mind.  Is this what happens when you get tenure?  Who knew?

In any event, yes, I’m still alive, and yes, as alluded above, I now have tenure and can spend the next 30 years ranting about ‘kids these days’ or whatever I choose, but no, I haven’t been around much online – although I have been spending some time on Twitter @schrisomalis.  But enough wallowing.  No time for wallowing.

Once again I’ll be teaching my undergraduate Language and Culture class, which starts tomorrow – except where I had 36 students last year, this year I have 61 (!). Who knows how it happened, although I’m not really complaining.    I am running the Lexiculture project again, no matter how ill-advised that may be with a class of that size.  With luck, I’ll end up with a dozen or more papers submitted to the online repository, volume 2.  I’ve been collecting new words for the project all year, and now have about 70 or so, which of course, I thought would be plenty, but turns out to be barely enough.  But enough, nonetheless.  I’ll post the full list I’m making available to the students. 

I’m also trying something really new this year.  Last winter, my Culture, Language, and Cognition course was successful but big for a senior/grad course – I had over 20 enrolled, not all of whom had an enormous interest in the topic.  But I have several grad students working on projects with such a bent, or prepping for qualifying exams, or otherwise interested, and they didn’t really get as much of a chance to engage with the ideas as they would have in a seminar.  So this term I’m running a sort of weird hybrid directed study / seminar for a half-dozen of the folks from that class, a book-a-week thing focused on contemporary books in the field (broadly construed).  The students will be posting reviews of these books in this very location – stay tuned for more on that!

In the spirit of general exhaustion, I’ll be doing three or four conferences this year, publishing some results off my long-term ethnographic project at the Math Corps (hard to believe it’s been six years, really), finishing off a couple of articles that have been roaming the mighty savanna of my desk for far too long, and getting to work on the next book(!).  After all, there’s always the next promotion!   Apparently I am too stupid to realize that I don’t have to exhaust myself with work.

 

 

Jim Lambek, 1922-2014

I learned the sad news today that the mathematician Joachim Lambek (Jim to all of us who knew him) passed away yesterday at the age of 91.    Jim was one of my mentors and an external committee member for my Ph.D.     Jim will be known to mathematicians (of whom I suppose relatively few if any will read this blog) for his many articles in formal subjects far beyond my knowledge or ability, but also as a warm and generous scholar.

I came to him in a rather roundabout way; in discussions with my advisor, Bruce Trigger, he suggested to me that if I really wanted to do this numbers thing, then I should have a mathematician on my committee just to make sure I wasn’t mucking things up too badly.  As it turned out, I was very fortunate that Jim was at McGill, as he was a major pioneering figure in applying mathematical methods to linguistics (1958, 1979), had written several pieces on the analysis of kinship systems using techniques pioneered by, for instance, Floyd Lounsbury, had also published anthropological material with his son Michael (who I later met at the University of Toronto) (Lambek and Lambek 1981), and was also the co-author of a superior undergraduate text on the history of ancient mathematics, The heritage of Thales (Anglin and Lambek 1995).  At our first meeting I must have seemed such the infant, but he graciously passed me an offprint of his recent paper ‘A rewrite system of the Western Pacific’ (Bhargava and Lambek 1995) and suggested that we could have some future discussions, which we did.  His impact on Numerical Notation and on my work as a cognitively-oriented linguistic anthropologist is subtle but great.    I am hardly the sort of person who can summarize his much broader impact on his home discipline, except to say that he will be missed.

Anglin, WS, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. The Heritage of Thales. Springer.
Bhargava, Mira, and Joachim Lambek. 1995. “A rewrite system of the Western Pacific: Lounsbury’s analysis of Trobriand kinship terminology.” Theoretical linguistics 21 (2-3): 240-253.
Lambek, Joachim. 1958. “The mathematics of sentence structure.” American mathematical monthly:154-170.
Lambek, Joachim. 1979. “A mathematician looks at Latin conjugation.” Theoretical Linguistics 6 (1-3):221-234.
Lambek, Joachim, and Michael Lambek. 1981. “The kinship terminology of Malagasy speakers in Mayotte.” Anthropological linguistics:154-182.

A new look

As you will see (at least, if you view the site on the WordPress page as opposed to on an aggregator or somewhere else), I have changed the theme and layout for the site.   Hope you like it – any theme is going to have its advantages and disadvantages.   Frankly I was getting annoyed at the small text size and plainness of the old theme, which had been around since the blog’s inception in 2008.  This one has larger text and is more modern, and the main headings are larger and clearer (now at the left sidebar).    Comments and criticisms are welcome, bearing in mind that this is a free WordPress site so my options are somewhat limited.

XLent LInguistics

As was correctly answered in the comments to the previous post, I am now 40 years old (XL) and the next time that my age in Roman numerals will be the same length as my age in Western (Hindu-Arabic) numerals will be when I am 51 (LI).    49 is not a correct answer in this case because the Romans did not habitually use subtraction in this way; irregular formations like IL (49) and XM (1900) do sometimes occur irregularly, but normally one cannot ‘skip’ a power.  I can only be subtracted from V and X; X can only be subtracted from L and C; and C can only be subtracted from D and M.

As any schoolchild can tell you, one of the purported disadvantages of Roman numerals is that their numeral-phrases are long and cumbersome (e.g., 37 vs. XXXVII).  And of course, for many numbers that is true.  But for many other numbers (e.g., 2000 vs. MM) the Roman numeral is  equal in length or shorter than its Western numeral counterpart.     Note, in particular, that round numbers tend to be those that are shorter in Roman numerals; this is because, since the Roman numerals don’t have a 0, that numerals that in Western notation would have a 0 have nothing in their Roman counterpart.

Among numbers whose Roman numeral and Western numeral notations are exactly the same length, there doesn’t initially appear to be much of a pattern:

1, 5, 11, 15, 20, 40, 51, 55, 60, 90, 102, 104, 106, 109 …

but then we see a new sequence emerge -

111, 115, 120, 140, 151, 155, 160, 190 …

which are just the numbers in the sequence from 11-90 with an added C on the front, which makes sense, since you’re just adding a 1 in front of them, similarly.

You could be forgiven in thinking that these numerals come up frequently, since we’re in the midst of a giant cluster of years with this property -

… 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2020 …

but then after that, it’s another 20 years before 2040.

Unsurprisingly, numerals containing 3 rarely have equal-length Roman equivalents and numerals containing 8 never do.     So once you get past 3000, these numbers become extremely rare.    Roman numerals don’t have a standard additive representation for 4000 and higher; you can write 4000 as MMMM, but normally one would expect a subtractive expression with M (1000) subtracted from 5000.  There are Roman numerals for 5000, 10000, 50000, 100000, etc., but they are extraordinarily rare, and the Romans during the Empire instead tended to place a bar (or vinculum) above an ordinary Roman numeral to indicate multiplication by 1000; thus,  IV=4000.  The addition of this feature creates a real conundrum: does the vinculum count as a sign or not?    If it does, then IVI=4001 has four signs; if not, then IVII=4002 does.

I’ll leave this aside and stop here to save all of our brains.   Thanks for playing!

 

 

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 6 (2014)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2014 edition of my course, Language and Societies, and presented at the course blog of the same name. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next week, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Alex B. Hill: A critical discourse on Detroit’s ‘Food Desert’ metaphor

Maya Stovall: How Ballet Terminology is Disputed and Employed as the Language of Dance

Roba Hrisseh: Social Stigmas Attached to Dialectal Differences: Lebanese and Yemeni Dialects in Dearborn City, Michigan

Suzanne Walsh: The Car Becomes Me

Kyrene Collins: Color Terminology in English and French

Srinawati: Sundanese Speech Levels

Eric Boulis: Klingon as Reviewed by the Fans

Taylor Monday: Sustainability: Defining Something that Deals with Everything

Zeina Lubus: English and French code-switching – an index to Christianity and Islam in modern Lebanon

Kaitlyn Ahlers: “Bold, Brash” Brews: Sensory Description among Craft Beer Consumers

Rachel Willhite: Gender Perspectives and Prediction in Online Communication

C. Lorin Brace VI: Together Forever: Gendered Language Use in Gravestone Epitaphs

Michael Elster: Transmitting “Realness”: Linguistic and Economic Tension in Drag Queen Speech

Andrew Bray: Wheel, Snipe, Celly: Understanding the Creation, Expansion, and Evolution of the Ice Hockey Anti-Language

Amber Aschwanden: Roman obelisks and the convergence of historical and contemporary linguistic landscapes – A pilot study

Madelyn Gutkoski: Discourse of Fitness and Sport in the CrossFit Community of Practice

Stanislava Chavez: Language and Warfare: Prehispanic Pukaras and Scholars’ Battle Over Andean Militarism

Daniel Mora: Profanity in social settings

The Case of the Missing Pi Day 4s

Yesterday was Pi Day, 3/14 (those who prefer days before months can have Pi Approximation Day, 22/7) and in celebration of this momentous annual event, I invited several of my American colleagues (who have learned to tolerate my numerical eccentricities) over to my house in Canada for an International Pi Day Pie Party, which was a great success.  And, of course, as befitting this event, we had Pie, complete with Pi (to two decimal places) on top:

It's blueberry!So far, so good.  (And for the record, it was very good).  There was only one problem: the local dollar store I went into had a very odd distribution of candle numerals: it had tons and tons of 0, 1, 2, and 9, some 3s, but no 4s, 5s, 6s, 7s, or 8s.  As a professional numbers guy, and also as a guy who needed a 4 for his pi(e), this was deeply disconcerting.

After a moment, I figured out why. Ordinarily, when stores buy products that come in different varieties from wholesalers, the default is to order the same amount of each variety.   In this case, the store had obviously ordered an equal amount of each numeral, but they were being purchased by consumers at different rates.    Now, there is nothing about the properties of the natural numbers that would lead to this observed distribution (if it were Benford’s Law in action, it would be 1 and 2 that would be in short supply). Rather, the explanation is a social one:   Many parents do not buy birthday candles for their child’s first, second, or third birthday, because, while, as my (thankfully childless) brother noted, “Babies love fire!”, parents of toddlers do not.    At the other end, by the time your kid is about 9, and certainly by the double digits, they’ve probably outgrown the ‘giant novelty numeral candle’ phase of their lives.  Ages 4-8 are the sweet spot, and thus these sell out much more quickly.

I also note that, for adults, decadal birthdays like 20 and 30 tend not to attract much numerological attention, whereas 40, 50, and 60 certainly do (not so sure about 70 and 80), and by 90 most of the clientele is deceased.    This doesn’t explain why there were so many 0s available – perhaps purchasers are aware of this phenomenon and order extra zeroes, but don’t take account of differential demand for the tens digits.

Now, if we lived in a perfect world where suppliers and store owners had full information about their stock and made perfectly rational decisions, purchasers would notice such discrepancies and perhaps order more of the missing numerals.  The local dollar store, however, does not occupy such a world.  Fortunately, this being Windsor, Ontario, there was another dollar store across the street, and while it also had a skewed distribution, lo and behold, it did have one lonesome 4 for purchase (seen above).   Thus my Friday Pi Day pi display supply foray was saved.  Yay! (Try saying that in Pig Latin.)

Actually, this is not the first time I had encountered this phenomenon.  Back in 2008, when American gas prices first regularly began to hit $4.00 a gallon, the New York Times reported on, of all things, a shortage of numeral 4s, because their number sets were purchased with an equal distribution across all ten digits (presumably with extra 2s and 3s purchased individually to deal with those dollar amounts).  Once that leading digit got to 4, there was a temporary shortage, leading to some store owners writing their own makeshift 4s until new ones could arrive.

Thus, while we think of linguistic and symbolic resources like numerals as being effectively infinite, in contexts like these, you can indeed have shortages and surpluses.   Thankfully, now that we’re on to the Ides of March and our Pi Day shortage is dealt with for another year, I can store these candles for future use, if I want.  The pie, on the other hand, has gone to a better place.  Because, while you may sometimes need to ration your fours, let’s hope we never live in a world where we have to ration pie.