Review: Saxe, Cultural development of mathematical ideas

Saxe, Geoffrey B. 2012. Cultural development of mathematical ideas.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 393 pp.

Reviewed by Summar Saad (Wayne State University)

In Cultural Development of Mathematical Ideas, Geoffrey B. Saxe takes an ambitious approach in exploring the cultural and cognitive origins of mathematical thought. Using an extensive number of experiments oriented towards the particular practices of the Oksapmin of Papua New Guinea, Saxe demonstrates that individual action in relation to collective activities such as economic exchange and schooling is the “locus of both the reproduction and the alteration of cultural phenomena, whether collective practices of daily life or cultural forms of representation” (p.191). His conceptual framework, which follows Sperber and Hirschfeld’s critique of the conceptualization of culture as fixed and bounded entities rather than a “property that representations, practices, and artifacts possess to the extent that they are caused by population-wide distribution processes (p.17),” seeks to illustrate the heterogeneity and permeability of cultural and cognitive processes through activity using synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

In Part I, Saxe begins by framing the scope of his study using relevant scholarly work on the area of cognition and mathematical thought, and details his time in the field in 1978, 1980, and 2001. His approach interrogates three genetic processes: 1) microgenesis, the transformation of the body-part form into a vehicle to represent values numerically, 2) sociogenesis, which involves the microgenetic activities of multiple individuals at multiple sites that, collectively, constitute a process in which representational forms and functions are reproduced and altered in a community over time, and 3) ontogenesis, which involves the shifts in form-function relations in activity over the course of an individual’s development (p.29). Using a number of helpful figures, Saxe also unravels the specifics of the Oksapmin body-counting system where one begins counting with the thumb on one hand of the body and continues across to the opposite side ending at the little finger. Familiarity with this system is important for his investigation into how this system changes through time. By this point, the readers are ready to enter the field, where Saxe attempts to tease out the historical and social processes at play in the way the Oksapmin respond to mathematical challenges in collective activities under shifting conditions.

In Part II, Saxe traces the history of Papua New Guinea from a pre-contact period where people traded commodities including a shell currency (bonang) and through the sustained contact of the Oksapmin communities with Western societies, which led to the proliferation of trade stores that supported cash as the universal medium for exchange. Focusing on the activity of economic exchange, Saxe asserts that “with increasing participation in the money economy associated with Oksapmin cohorts, we find a shift from external correspondences that serve numerical functions to internal correspondences that serve arithmetical functions” (p.95). Saxe then shifts his focus from knowledge of Oksapmin body-part counting and Tok Pisin representational forms to look at the semiotic forms people use to represent the objects of economic exchange. What he discovers is that over time, as people began using the body system to quantify currency, reciprocally the currency system became incorporated into the structure of the body-counting system. Ultimately Saxe demonstrates that cognitive processes exhibit uniformity and variation in a single period as well as unity and discontinuity over historical time.

In Part III, Saxe reviews the transformation of schooling in Oksapmin beginning in the early 1960s and following the introduction of “Western schooling,” Bible school, and community schooling. Rather than conceptualizing schooling as a direct cause of cognitive development, Saxe focuses on the dynamics of the reproduction and alteration of the forms of numerical representation and the functions they serve as students and teachers participate in collective practices of classroom life (p. 194). He establishes the ways in which Oksapmin children reproduce the body form as they solve arithmetical problems in the same way that they produce variants in the body form, “inadvertently altering the use of the system to serve new functions (p.236).” With recent educational reforms, he notes a shift in the teaching of mathematics using only English to using Tok Pisin and Oksapmin as well. Saxe observes that with this shift came others including the use of stones in classroom computations as well as a developing facility with Hindu-Arabic-based algorithms.

In Part IV, Saxe brings the discussion full circle and returns to the implications of his findings with regards to his conceptual framework. In his analysis, he points to three key properties that emerge in form-function relations: conventionality, hybridity, and instrumentality. Using parallels from evolutionary biology, he also takes up the question of how form-function relations develop and why. Though not an anthropologist, Saxe deserves great credit for his ethnographic treatment of this serious cognitive question. Saxe successfully presents an alternative methodological approach to our understandings of culture and cognition that does not treat them as independent but rather as an interplay of the two. His work offers great insight into cognition and culture as processes rooted in a multiplicity of contexts and activities. Although this book covers a lot of ground, and is sometimes very abstract, the organization and flow of the content is seamless and easy to follow. Saxe also takes great care to account for any threats to validity, and while each of the eighteen individual studies he conducts are not without their flaws; the overall picture shines clearly at the end: culture and cognition are processes interwoven and linked through activity.

Review: Ingold, Lines: a brief history

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press. 186pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

Get out your walking stick and your comfortable shoes as you accompany Tim Ingold on this intellectual wayfarers’ journey exploring the “comparative anthropology of the line” (p1). In his path-breaking book, Lines: A Brief History, Ingold guides readers through a unique theoretical model that explores the interconnected and enmeshed lines of people and things. Ingold argues things and people are the sum of interconnected lines; to study “things and people is to study the lines they are made of” (p5). Lines and their relationships to surfaces offer a provocative frame from which to consider questions central to anthropology.

Anthropologists will find themselves familiar with “lines”: lines of descent, lines of story, lines of travel, lines of movement, lines of music, and so on. Lines: A Brief History challenges established conventions, such as kinship charts that use line to connect the dots, to advocate a theoretical approach that accounts for movement, growth and interrelationship. This challenge is animated by a key theme used throughout the book – the distinction between wayfaring and transport. Wayfaring describes a way of being in that the “traveler and his line are one and the same” (p 76). The path of the wayfarer is where life is lived. Drawing on Gibson, Ingold states that the wayfarer’s path is where knowledge is forged along the way. Transport lines are destination-oriented. They are connectors. The traveler becomes a passenger fighting against time to reach a destination. Transport lines are teleological. Ingold enjoins the reader to become wayfarer, engaging in the journey through chapters building up knowledge as one “goes along” forsaking the impulse for a “built up” conclusion.

In Lines, Ingold commences with the question how did speech become separated from song? He explores the historical relationship between speech, song, writing and musical notation. Before the printing press, both written text and song were performative as were the processes of inscription. Written notation functioned as mnemonic artifact rather than a script or score that ensured a faithful record or copy. Using comparative examples from medieval history, present day Shipibo-Conibo people in Peru, and Japanese noh theater, Ingold argues that the words “speak” to readers not as a representation of sound but in the manner of synesthesia actual sound. Writing could not be accurately conceptualized as a “visual representation of verbal sound” (p27).

Both musical notation and writing involve lines and surfaces. “To read a manuscript… is to follow the trails laid down by a hand that joins the voice in pronouncing the words of a text” (p28). The advent of printing disconnected manual gesture from the graphic output and thereby disconnected the voice (embodiment) from the page of print. Printed works became static documents. What heralded this transformation was a “fundamental change” in the conception of line and its relationship to the surface. The inscribed printed lines (words) changed the manuscript surface from a landscape to be explored into a surface that is fixed and bounded.

Ingold proposes a taxonomy of lines. The two primary types are threads and traces. Threads have a surface and can be made by human hands, or not (i.e. roots, spider webs, yarn, fishing-net, violin strings). Traces are any enduring mark left in a solid surface. Traces can be additive or reductive, or neither (i.e. worn path, chalk on blackboard, stick in sand, snail trail). Ghostly lines have no physical manifestation (i.e. constellations, survey lines, time-zones, borders). Ingold notes that the distinction between ghostly lies and real lines is “decidedly problematic” (p50). The differentiation may privilege a Western perspective. The meridian lines of Chinese medicine may be real according to a Chinese practitioner but considered ghostly (imagined) to a Western observer. Ingold does not offer any guidance on how to resolve this conundrum. He concedes that the entire line taxonomy is imperfect and potentially confusing.

Surfaces are not simply a “taken-for-granted backdrop” (p39). Whether regarded as a landscape, a space to be colonized, the skin of the body or a mirror of the mind, the conception of the surface deeply affects its relationship to line. Threads transforming into traces create surfaces (p61). For instance, knitting constitutes a surface as the knotted threads form a single surface leaving traces of the composition still visible. Traces transforming into threads dissolve surfaces. To explicate, Ingold engages with Alfred Gell’s argument that apotropaic patterns are perceived to lure demonic forces to a particular surface by their fascination with an intricate pattern. Gell’s aerial-view perspective was mistaken. Ingold convincingly argues, the trap is not one of fascination, but rather, the lines drawn cease to be a surface and become threads that trap the demon. This example demonstrates the potential explanatory power of “a comparative anthropology of the line.”

Can lines help us understand the ruptures of modernity? In the final chapter, Ingold explores the implications of “straight” lines. Straight lines are associated with moral uprightness, quantitative explanations, reason and dignity. Somewhat parallel to the metaphor of wayfinding/transport, the “workmanship of risk” has been displaced in modern society by the “workmanship of certainty.” An implement of certainty, modern CAD design embodies no movement or gesture. The straight line, the line of certainty, has become an icon of modernity (p167). This is where ruptures occur. We are reminded that fragmentation can create passages.

Sections of this book are somewhat opaque and/or vague. Given the authors concluding statements we must accept that at some of these “loose ends” are intentional (p170). I’ve already mentioned that the taxonomy of line and surface have much room for elaboration. I’ll mention just one other example here. In the Introduction (p3), Ingold argues that if we envision evolution as a tangle of enmeshed intra-human and inter-species relationships “then our entire understanding of evolution would be irrevocably altered.” It is not clear if Ingold is referring to our proclivity to fix the human lives into “temporal moments.” Alternatively this passage could refer to the enmeshment of multiple species “continually [forging] their own and each other’s lives.” How either alternative would change our conception of evolution is not clear.

Lines: A Brief History invites the reader on a wayfarer’s journey. It’s not entirely clear where one is going or where one has been, but it is clear that one has grown along the way.

Lexiculture: 2014 word list

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I am doing a new iteration of my Lexiculture Project in my undergraduate linguistic anthropology course, which I ran last year to some success (with eight papers published here online).  Over the next month, each of them will research the history, social context, cultural significance, and transformations of one English word, chosen from the list below.  Today I shared the word list with my students, giving them a couple of days to mull over their choices before the signup goes live, and so, in case you’re interested, here it is!

actress
artisanal
avatar
baby bump
barbecue
bruschetta
cafeteria
car phone
challenged
childfree
chipotle
coed
cornrows
cromulent
cyber
digital
discotheque
douche
downsize
dwarf
Einstein
erectile dysfunction
Eskimo
expat
feisty
finalize
forehead
fridge
gaslight
germ
gestalt
gnarly
going steady
gotten
guru
hardwired
hopefully
househusband
indie
Information Superhighway
ixnay
jock
karma
kewl
magick
make out
man cave
Michigander
mulatto
niche
nonzero
nth
octopi
often
organic
porridge
R.I.P.
red Indian
restroom
rock and roll
rouge
rubber
shanghaied
slider
snuck
soccer mom
soul patch
stalemate
stat
suntan lotion
suplex
swiff
tailgate
troll
unfriend
uppity
upsize
winningest
workshop
xerox
ye olde

Review: Lloyd, Cognitive variations

Lloyd, G.E.R. 2007. Cognitive variations: reflections on the universality and diversity of the human mind. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press. 201 pp.

Reviewed by Grace Pappalardo (Wayne State University)

G.E.R. Lloyd’s Cognitive Variations is loyal to its name, exploring a wide variety of cognitive differences as well as similarities cross-culturally and historically. Lloyd vehemently supports a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding cognitive variations and proves this time and again throughout the text, exploring and analyzing arguments in favor of both nature and culture as well as from universalists and particularists. He also makes the important distinction that he seeks not to prove the validity or falsity of past claims on the topics he explores, but rather to determine to what extent these claims are applicable to the greater argument. Cognitive Variations serves not as a cognitive encyclopedia, but rather as a critical overview of the research that has been done thus far in some areas of cognition. Lloyd does not seek to answer any unresolved matters, but rather to analyze the value of the available data and offer a new platform for further discussion.

Cognitive Variations addresses the commonalities and differences in human cognition using a multidisciplinary approach. In each section, he focuses on a different area of cognition currently under investigation and assesses the research and findings on each thus far. He systematically tackles topics of debate, such as color perception and natural kinds, and forms each chapter in a way that synthesizes the multidisciplinary information provided, alongside his own extensive knowledge of classical Greek and Chinese thought. In doing so, he emphasizes the multidimensionality of phenomena, explaining that across cultures, each group of people will choose to assign importance to one or some of a variety of aspects. Additionally, he grapples with the reality that even people within a common culture can differ from each other considerably, making the discovery of commonalities a challenge. However, these differences are also not solid evidence for particularism, which, as Lloyd establishes throughout, is why an interdisciplinary approach to cognition is truly best. Lastly, throughout the text, he touches on themes of methodological error and erroneous conclusion based thereupon, explaining that presupposing a result can in fact skew that result. He argues that a myopic approach utilizing a single viewpoint or discipline can lead to false conclusions masquerading as accurate findings.

Lloyd very cogently argues this last point throughout his book and is careful to point out errors in methodology that may have led researchers to misleading conclusions about their subjects. This puts much of the evidence he provides into valuable perspective and reminds the reader to take caution in assuming the validity of research results. He address Berlin and Kay’s study on color perception in this way, explaining that, whether or not they intended to, their research question and materials were inherently skewed toward the results they hoped to find. He explains that Berlin and Kay essentially got the results they hoped for by failing to recognize the connotations of the differences they perceived. He claims that in their methodology, they favored hue over luminosity, which does not really allow for an appropriate answer if the informants categorized color in other terms. Lloyd here employs his knowledge of ancient Greek color classification to further explain his opposition to Berlin and Kay’s supposedly conclusive results on color universals. He presents the terms leukon and melan, which he explains are descriptors not of hue, but rather of luminosity. Additionally, Lloyd adds that similar to perceiving luminosity or saturation instead of hue, Berlin and Kay may have overlooked the fact that a color term may not have been the target identifier for a particular object. As Conklin’s findings explain, although an identifier may appear to be addressing color, it may very well be instead addressing a different primary connotation, such as wetness or dryness.

Despite the extreme variability of claims Lloyd addresses in Cognitive Variations, he manages to maintain an unbiased stance on each topic. While he imbues the text with his own judgements, his attempts at a true dissection of past arguments for the betterment of the cognitive discourse are successful. While Lloyd’s book is an impressive piece of scholarship, weaving together arguments made by those with opposing viewpoints, it is certainly an overview of these arguments. This is not to discount his achievements in bringing together such a diverse set of accounts, but rather to note that each chapter does not go into immense detail on each cognitive variation discussed. If more information was desired on certain arguments, further outside reading would be required. However, painstaking detail is not Lloyd’s objective here, but rather to bring together various and often opposing viewpoints and piece them together to make more sense of human cognition.

In total, Lloyd accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do. In sharing such a wide variety of findings from research in biology, psychology, anthropology, history, and more, he rightly concludes that the most effective way to approach issues of human cognition is through an interdisciplinary approach. As he shows throughout the text, failing to look at research findings through multiple lenses can lead to error and misleading conclusions. Taking advantage of the strengths of each discipline can make for more conclusive and accurate discoveries.

Review: Tomasello, A natural history of human thinking

Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A natural history of human thinking.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 194 pp.

Reviewed by Heather Buza (Wayne State University)

Is there a cognitive evolutionary relationship between great apes and humans? In his valuable book, A Natural History of Human Thinking, Michael Tomasello discuses current research on great ape as well human adult, toddler, and infant cognition. He provides evidence that great apes and humans share many cognitive features due to descent from a recent common ancestor, then discusses exactly what differentiates human cognition from great ape cognition. He neatly disposes with the idea that language is thought, and attempts to explain why humans think in a more cooperative and coordinated fashion. When did human cognition become substantially different from great ape cognition? What might have caused this shift in cognition? Tomasello theorizes about these questions and offers a plausible two-step shift in human cognition that he terms the shared intentionality hypothesis. From his hypothesis, Tomasello discusses how human cognition, communication and culture emerged.

Tomasello’s book covers a lot of evolutionary ground, tracing human evolution from the emergence of the genus Homo around 2 million years ago when Tomasello believes shared intentionality first emerged. Tomasello uses the term objective-reflective-normative thinking to describe the components of the shared intentionality hypothesis, which consists of three key components: our ability to represent things cognitively, to infer possible outcomes, and to monitor our own behavior in relation to the larger group norms. Thus, human cognition is unique because we are capable of evaluating situations with multiple variables, including various social perspectives, while also accounting for our own behavior and considering how it will fit into the larger behavioral norms of a group.

The first part of the two-step shift in human cognition involves the emergence of socially shared joint goals or joint intentionality. Tomasello offers the example of hunter-gatherers who begin to cooperate in order to acquire enough food for survival. Following joint intentionality, Tomasello describes collective intentionality. This second step occurs later, after the hunter-gatherers have had time to develop some cultural conventions and norms. Ultimately, this second cognitive shift resulted in modern humans’ existence in a matrix of culture and language.

Tomasello acknowledges some gaps in his theory and welcomes input. He is clear, though, that humans are not hardwired to think in a culturally cooperative, group-oriented perspective. Rather, humans are capable, and modern humans may certainly be more prone to thinking in this way, as they are constantly bombarded by culture and language. However, Tomasello reminds the reader that evolution cannot see cognition; rather, it can only see behaviors that affect survival. Cognition and decision-making abilities do not preserve well. Tomasello concludes with two questions, which require further thought. What does the individual bring to the table? While individuals participate in joint attention and joint goals, investigating what the individuals brings to the ‘joint’ portion of the communicative act is an important aspect. Also, humans’ overwhelming tendency to objectify entities should be further investigated.

Tomasello brings important new information together in his book. He highlights important contributions to the field and rightfully acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge. While on the whole approachable, could be improved with less complicated jargon at a few junctures. But importantly, Tomasello does not oversell his theory or make claims that reasonable people cannot accept. A Natural History of Human Thinking is an excellent contribution to the field of cognitive science.

Review: Cerulo, Never saw it coming

Cerulo, Karen. 2006. Never saw it coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 336 pp.

Reviewed by Michael Thomas (Wayne State University)

Evelyn Waugh, a notoriously prickly Catholic satirist, was once asked by his friend Nancy Mitford how he could be so cruel and still call himself Christian, to which he replied, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” This pithy anecdote is useful to keep in mind when reading Karen Cerulo’s Never Saw it Coming, for it colorfully illustrates a challenge at the heart of any project seeking to evaluate the relative influence of inferred cognitive or ideological inputs on behavioral outputs.

Cerulo’s is an interesting book for a number of reasons; the curious reader is sure to find it valuable wherever they may stand in relation to its sometimes nebulous premises and impressionistic exposition. That is to say, the book primarily articulates its thesis through offering a fair amount of statistical information and some well formulated examples, though at the expense of some specificity with regard to the concepts and mechanisms underlying the phenomenon itself. Cerulo’s bold attempt at synthesizing cognitive and social theory to explain an interactive social phenomenon she calls “positive asymmetry” is less of an analytical argument than an expansive theoretical hypothesis, and so for this reason the lack of specificity may be forgivable given the scope and complexity of the central claim.

According to Cerulo, positive asymmetry functions as a bias toward privileging positive outcomes in decision-making, which can have an ultimately negative effect in that this phenomenon can occlude imagining “worst case” scenarios. The positive asymmetry is, Cerulo insists, pervasive in American, but not only American, culture and can partially explain the inability of institutions or individuals to foresee “worst case” scenarios, or, more accurately, “especially bad” scenarios. As pervasive as this phenomenon is, however, it is not universal and Cerulo is commendably sensitive to identifying where, and under what conditions, it does not apply. Aside from exceptional circumstances, this widespread failure of imagination leaves organizations and individuals vulnerable to any number of potential failure modes.

Essentially, Cerulo’s thesis is that the structure of human cognition relative to classification and inference is such that in the event of uncertainty, such as in future planning or decision making, the mind will categorize according to “best fit”. Relying on the inductive model of the mind, the “best fit” refers to a classification scheme wherein the most salient instance of a category is considered the most representative and so inferences regarding candidate members of some category are made in relation to that exemplar. Her thesis is built upon the model Eleanor Rosch advances, sometimes called prototype theory or exemplar theory, and is typically formulated in contrast to deductive theory theories such as those of Bob Reider and Doug Medin. What this means in practice is that insofar as negative circumstances, and the effects of negative circumstances, are rendered variously insignificant, they cannot participate in constituting classification criteria. For example, where deviant persons relative to the norms of some cultural milieu are ostracized, shunned, or banished, they are no longer salient. This lack of salience prohibits their inclusion in the category “person” so that the “best fit” for “person” is invariably skewed toward positive representation. Subsequent evaluations under conditions of uncertainty thus skew inferences away from “worst cases”.

This model of cognition allows Cerulo the necessary structure to integrate cultural practice, habitus, relationships of power, and social norms into the process of drawing inferences. Cerulo’s description of positive asymmetries at work in scientific measurement serves as a concise starting point for STS scholars interested in exploring the relationship of cognition and laboratory practice. She addresses the structure by which quality standards embody the positive asymmetry in all variety of forms familiar to social scientists such as power or ideology, but throughout the book she provides a deluge of examples, and it is here that the reader sees most starkly the compromise in specificity for the effect of breadth. Cerulo’s examples are numerous and presented in dizzying modalities. Statistical samples, historical narratives, pedagogical anecdotes, mythology, and case studies are but a few of the means by which positive asymmetry is presented. The technique is effective and nearly makes the reader forget exactly what the ontological status of a positive asymmetry actually is. It is of course a social phenomenon, but of what sort? And what does that mean? It is no doubt an interactive feedback effect of particular social forms and cognitive architecture, but the dynamics are fuzzy and one gets confused trying to track the deliberate modulations between “best” or “worst” being used as (1) normative evaluations relative to human welfare and (2) descriptive accounts of classification membership. Consider an admittedly glib counter example to Cerulo’s example taken from competitive diving. Cerulo discusses quality metrics with regard to competitive diving, but what is a “worst case dive” given (1) the diver performs the dive exceptionally well but suffers a heart attack upon such exertion or (2) a diver decides to withdraw from the competition because he feels he needs rest. Cerulo’s account cannot distinguish because the unit of analysis is never clearly defined.

So one question inevitably emerges, how do you know when you are observing an asymmetry? Thinking back to the Evelyn Waugh quote above, there is no clear objective synchronic measure by which one might determine the relative position of some response. Worst cases can always be worse, and best cases better.

The four case studies Cerulo provides don’t seem to help. For example, in chapter six Cerulo discusses Exceptions to the Rule, one such being the Phoenix document that warned of the 9/11 attack. Cerulo attributes the failure of adequate response to the institutionally structural positive asymmetry, though she notes that the administration was distracted by establishing strategic National Missile Defense (NMD), an action undertaken, if mistakenly, to prevent a clearly worse scenario. The problem, then, was not one of asymmetry, but of improper risk assessment. Unfortunately, an asymmetry analyses can only be performed ex post facto, which invites the question, “How is this theory falsifiable?” An example of a failure mode despite negative asymmetry would go a long way to outlining the extent to which her argument operates, lest it be regarded as an inverse tautology where positive outcomes must equal negative asymmetry.

The book closes with both an account of the structural attributes inhibiting or cultivating negative asymmetry and a tentative plan for achieving balanced perspectives in organizations. If one accepts the premises that (1) positive and negative asymmetry describe actual phenomena and (2) these phenomena are causally decisive, then one will find her propositions interesting to ponder, though interest alone may not suffice to traverse the inferential distance between her data and her proposals. In all, this book tackles an important topic of interest to those in the cognitive, political, and social sciences though ultimately readers may find themselves less than satisfied. A less ambitious project, or more narrowly constrained subject matter, may have permitted a more precise understanding of the relationship between cognition and culture relative to quality evaluation.

Aw richts is pitten by

Every year for the past several years, I’ve had my students in my undergraduate linguistic anthropology course do an exercise.  I give them the following text, without any explanation, and ask them to get into small groups and to translate it into English (without searching for it online):

Aw richts is pitten by. Nae pairt o this darg shuid be doobelt, hained in ony kin o seestem, or furthset in ony shape or by ony gate whitsomeiver, ‘ithoot haein leave frae the writer afore-haund. A hae nae pleens whan the abuin is duin for tae fordle the Scots leed in eddication, sae lang’s naebody is makkin siller oot o’t. Ony speirins write us.

The student response usually starts with bafflement, followed by a tentative effort to take on a few obvious words like ‘eddication’, followed by some speculation that it is perhaps Old or Middle English.   I then give them a perplexing hint: ‘This text was written within your lifetimes’, and then give them two more minutes to work on it before we discuss it.

The text above is in Scots, and is taken from the Wir Ain Leed site promoting the Scots language.  As you’ll see (if you haven’t already worked it out), it’s a perfectly ordinary copyright notice.   Once the students realize that this is a genre of text with which they are familiar, there’s a sort of a-ha moment.  Once somebody identifies it as Scots (which really, shouldn’t be so hard since the word ‘Scots’ appears in the text), I read it out loud in its entirety in my not-too-bad but certainly-not-perfect Groundskeeper-Willie-esque Scots.  Once the language and the genre have been established, the rest of the translation, which we do collaboratively as a whole class, moves along well.

The point of the exercise is first of all, to get the students to reflect on what constitutes English (or any language) by prodding at its boundaries.  With Scots, there are still some scholars who would insist that this is ‘Scots English’ – i.e., a dialect of English, albeit a fairly divergent one. Others (I think most, these days) define it as one of two languages descended from Middle English, the other being English, of course, and separate out Scots proper (the language) from various Scottish English registers.

It’s a handy little exercise.   It lets me talk about ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy‘, and then to compare and contrast the Scots case with Yiddish. It lets me introduce (and complicate) the question of mutual intelligibility (with reference to cases like Serbian/Croatian); most students are (sensibly) reluctant to define what they just read as English on the grounds that they couldn’t understand it.  It lets me introduce the distinction between ‘a Scottish accent’ and the broader range of features that constitute  dialects or languages, and to link this to our text (McWhorter’s The Power of Babel).

Like I wrote earlier, I do this every year.  Just by chance, ‘Aw richts is pitten by’ was on the schedule for yesterday’s class, just as the Scottish independence referendum looms large in the minds of many.  Even American college students, who are stereotypically characterized as having no awareness of anything else in the world, may have heard John Oliver’s hilarious rant on the subject.  To talk about this issue, just at this decisive political moment, brought an additional level of analysis into play.

I don’t have a horse in this race, which actually surprises me a bit, since I lived for a decade in Quebec as an ethnolinguistic minority amidst an environment of secession fever.  But then, of course, most Scots don’t speak Scots regularly, if at all, and the debate there isn’t about linguistic nationalism to any significant degree.  Regardless of how it all turns out, it cast a poignant light on a favoured classroom moment, at a critical juncture in the history of two nations.